Editor’s Notes: Crimson Peak is currently out in wide theatrical release. For more on the film read Crimson Peak: Bad News for Anyone Looking for Thrills and Chills.
The return of a filmmaker to his or roots is almost always welcome, especially when that filmmaker is writer-director Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone, Cronos) and he’s returning to the horror roots where he initially found critical and commercial success with a period Gothic romance, Crimson Peak. Unfortunately, Crimson Peak falls short, not catastrophically short, but still disappointingly short, of the heights he achieved earlier in his career. Filled with all-too-predictable plot turns and twists, an overreliance on CG (ghosts are rarely, if ever, scary where CG gets thrown into the horror mix), and slow-build, slow-burn, short-on-scares storytelling. Crimson Peak’s deficiencies, however, are partially offset by del Toro’s undeniable command of mood, atmosphere, and visuals, not to mention an A-list cast that treats the material with all (or most) of the seriousness it deserves. If only del Toro and his screenwriting partner, Matthew Robbins, had taken as much care with the script as del Toro took to the visuals and performances.
Del Toro also gives himself too much credit and moviegoers not enough, doling out over-explicit clues early on to the big plot reveal that’s far less shocking or disturbing than del Toro obviously intended.
Those visuals find their richest expression in Allerdale Hall, the ruined, centuries-old legacy of a British baronet, Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), and his sister, Lady Lucille (Jessica Chastain). More a Gothic cathedral (where horror films are the object of worship, not deities) than a mansion, Allerdale Hall contains the obligatory winding staircase, a labyrinth of rooms, an attic and basement (both enormous), and a rickety, dangerous-looking elevator connecting the two. It’s so dilapidated and the Sharpes’ finances so meager that a leaky roof remains unfixed, allowing leaves and later, when winter inevitably arrives, snow to fall into the center of the mansion. Allerdale Hall also sits on a red clay mine. Once the source of the Sharpe fortune, the red clay mine is all but exhausted, but Sir Thomas, an inventor at heart, hopes to reopen the mine via a steam-powered excavation machine (assuming he can make it work, that is).
Del Toro smartly leaves one of his grandest creations unseen for the better part of an hour, however, initially introducing Crimson Peak’s heroine, Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), the sheltered, privileged daughter of a wealthy, self-made industrialist, Carter (Jim Beaver). A novelist-in-training, Edith sees her first effort, a ghost story, rejected by a potential publisher due to a lack of romance. Edith may be inexperienced when it comes to romance, but she knows ghosts and they know her. She can see ghosts, albeit only a one-off experience after the premature death of her mother. Her mother’s death-shrouded ghost appears to her with a warning, “Beware Crimson Peak,” before disappearing permanently. Edith unsurprisingly pays the warning no heed, all but forgetting about it until she marries Sir Thomas, relocates to England with Sir Thomas and his possessive, disapproving sister, and hears the words “Crimson Peak” used to describe Allerdale Hall when the red clay seeps through newly fallen snow.
A filmmaker with del Toro’s deep, abiding interest in the genre should also know that the less CG, the better, something he seems to have forgotten since he directed Pan’s Labyrinth . . .
With a suggestive, provocative title like Crimson Peak, it’s all the more disappointing (no mountain covered in blood), but del Toro almost makes up for it by slipping in one homage after another, from The Innocents, Jack Clayton’s superior adaptation of Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw,” to The House of Usher, The Haunting, and on through The Shining and even V.C. Andrews’ Flowers in the Attic. Del Toro doesn’t stop, of course, interweaving Gothic romance (e.g., Jane Eyre, Rebecca) into the haunted house tropes and devices he knows intimately. Crimson Peak also adds a semi-obligatory romantic rival for Edith’s affections in Dr. Allan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam), Edith’s childhood friend and Sherlock Holmes aficionado. Del Toro subverts McMichael’s narrative role, however, initially setting him up (and us) as Edith’s potential savior, thus placing Edith in the unwelcome damsel-in-distress role, before thankfully undercutting genre and audience expectations in the third act. Edith may look and sound like a damsel in distress, an innocent victim of forces, human and supernatural, beyond her control, but ultimately she becomes – out of necessity – her own savior.
As positive as Edith’s narrative trajectory from a contemporary standpoint might be, del Toro and Robbins stumble on more than one occasion, relying on supposedly smart characters making foolish, dumb choices to advance the horror elements embedded in the plot. Two characters at different points in time actively confront two other, potentially dangerous characters without back-up of any kind or even a regard for their personal safety. A writer-director of del Toro’s caliber should know better and do better. A filmmaker with del Toro’s deep, abiding interest in the genre should also know that the less CG, the better, something he seems to have forgotten since he directed Pan’s Labyrinth almost a decade ago (the Hellboys and Pacific Rim are excluded given the genres involved). Del Toro also gives himself too much credit and moviegoers not enough, doling out over-explicit clues early on to the big plot reveal that’s far less shocking or disturbing than del Toro obviously intended.
Unfortunately, Crimson Peak falls short, not catastrophically short, but still disappointingly short, of the heights del Toro achieved earlier in his career.