by Justin Madore“Beware of Crimson Peak,” says the ghost haunting young Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska). This mysterious warning recedes into her memory, but she never quite forgets. As an aspiring writer, she pens a novel featuring ghosts to submit to a journal. Her father — as well as several publishers — warns her against it. They see it only as a ghost story, rather than a story with ghosts in it (an important difference). When Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) visits America to find an investor for an unfinished invention, his ideas are shot down, too. Both dreamers, Edith and Thomas, have an immediate affection for one another. They marry and move back to London with his sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain), and into his decrepit mansion where Edith’s ghastly visions frighteningly resurface. Called Allerdale Hall, it’s a macabre, crumbling mansion, which sits atop an abandoned clay mine. Their arrival at this visually exquisite locale sets the stage for a twisted mystery of love and betrayal.
Guillermo del Toro’s latest big budget film is a marvel to look at, and the design of the main set piece is nothing short of extraordinary. Every bit of the mansion comes alive with personality, from the moths bathing in sunlight and the robust, yet broken gothic architecture, to the blood red clay that drips down its tired walls. The damaged ceiling lets the cold snow waft through the house’s center and no one is ever warm at Allerdale Hall — a premonition of what’s to come. The environment feels tangibly creepy in a way that I haven’t seen in a film besides del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. He’s proven yet again that he has an incredible knack for creating interesting and visually distinct environments for characters to play around in.
The rest of the aesthetic is similarly interesting. Set in the late 1800s, the characters’ wardrobes match accordingly. Edith’s colorful, puffy dresses and warm personality provide a contrast between her and the darkness of the mansion, while Thomas and Lucille slip into the shadows with their sleek and somber attire, reflecting their more shifty behavior. The ghosts, dripping in blood and covered with marks of violence are visually arresting. Meanwhile, the score is equal parts menacing and romantic, using screeching organs and a melodic piano to match the tone of each scene.The beginning of the film offers both this compelling narrative and a high bar of tension. The scares are frequent and potent, and Mia seems to be in actual danger. Unfortunately, as the movie continues, the narrative gets more and more mundane. Around the halfway mark, when a revelation occurs to Mia, all the mystery that’s been built up suddenly evaporates. It becomes an almost boring romance film with minor horror elements. Certain characters’ previously ambiguous behaviors are underwhelmingly revealed, and the narrative devolves into a muddled mess of dangling plot threads and clichéd motivations. Certain facets of the story never receive a proper resolution, and others simply don’t make sense.
The most crucial mistake made is that the horror elements are tossed away, a mere afterthought to the central struggle. Once they’re gone, there’s nothing fresh and new left to show. The film becomes more interested in embodying a blood-soaked romance than anything else; however, the visual feast of Allerdale Hall doesn’t make the characters interesting; in fact it makes them less interesting by comparison. Romances need their characters to at least be engaging, if not likable, and in Crimson Peak — with their overblown and tawdry dialogue — they are neither. It’s as if all the creative juices were used to make the world come to life, and at the last second, the filmmakers realized that they needed characters to have a story.
It’s fine for a film have elements of multiple genres (del Toro has stated that Crimson Peak is not horror, but a gothic romance), but the importance of going into films with the right expectations cannot be overstated. A film’s marketing sets the tone for audience expectation, and as such, it can ruin the enjoyment of the film if it turns out not to be what was established by said marketing. Crimson Peak’s appeal will suffer tremendously with viewers if they go into it expecting a horror film, which it was clearly marketed as. It’s extremely important for marketing materials to match the intent of the product being sold. Unfortunately, Crimson Peak falls victim to this very preventable problem.
Unfortunately for Guillermo del Toro, the talented cast and distinct aesthetic seem to have gone to waste in Crimson Peak. It’s a film of incredible highs and surprising lows for such an acclaimed director. Blame can be placed on the apparent self-sabotage the marketing team inflicted, but the back half of script leaves a lot to be desired. Sadly, the house seems to have more personality than the characters who come off as clichéd. Once their motivations get revealed, the film becomes very dull. As Edith states, it is not a ghost story, but a story with ghosts in it. And while the horror works, it only sticks around for a little bit, making Crimson Peak a failure as both a horror film and a gothic romance.
2 out of 5 stars