Edith Cushing lays it bare early on in Crimson Peak: “It’s not a ghost story—it’s more a story with ghosts in it. The ghosts are a metaphor for the past.”
Does that mean all that red oozing from the walls is a metaphor for the herring that the ghosts ultimately play in the film?
We’re a few months removed from Guillermo del Toro’s gothic mash-up hitting theaters with more of a soggy splat than a bang, and the ensuing bouts of backlash and backlash backlash now seem to be much ado about nothing, what with the general apathy the movie has managed to produce. This inability to capture an audience feels appropriate, given as how Universal and Legendary failed spectacularly in marketing the film, presenting it as del Toro’s big-budget haunted house Halloween spooktacular. The reality left audiences flummoxed and on the verge of revolt when they ended up sitting through two hours of extremely pale people speaking to each other in hushed tones while the occasional ghost wandered into frame and pointed at something offscreen.
The film’s supporters seem to argue that this misconception leaves it open to unfair criticism—of course you won’t like a movie that spends its first 40 minutes as a period romance in turn-of-the-century Buffalo, New York if you’re expecting the balls-to-the-wall terror that the bombastic, clueless trailer promises. And, were Crimson Peak some misunderstood masterpiece, such defense might come off as impassioned and noble, a small but noisy contingent fighting to right the grievous fallacy put forth by greedy, timid studio heads afraid of marketing the movie on its own merits. But Crimson Peak is no misunderstood masterpiece. Not by a long shot.
I honestly don’t know what to make of del Toro at this point. Granted, my familiarity with him exists entirely within his Hollywood offerings, so his greatness all comes to me secondhand. I’ve never seen him as the consummate auteur; I’ve only witnessed Hellboy and Mimic and Pacific Rim del Toro, and none of these attempts at introducing his skills to mainstream audiences ever gel as convincing or enjoyable genre films. Various elements work, sure, but he can’t seem to get these pieces to mesh as a fully realized, coherent tale. It’s like he’s been given the recipe for a really good stromboli, and he comes back with peanut butter and tuna sandwiched between two communion wafers.
And so it goes with Crimson Peak, a jumbled mass of atmospheric production design and über-obvious genre tropes, a movie surprising only in how few surprises it actually contains. The film feels reverse-engineered, like del Toro started with the striking image of a decrepit Victorian mansion sitting atop a mountain of blood red snow, then worked backwards to fill in the gaps as quickly and painlessly as possible. And, in a visual sense, this strategy totally works, since Crimson Peak looks amazing, as if every iota of effort was put into the gorgeously foreboding sets and lavish costumes, into the supremely creepy CGI ghouls and the wet, funereal gloom of creaky Allerdale Hall. If only a little extra had been put aside for the story….
Put it this way: take a sheet of paper and write down five plot points you’re sure will occur during Crimson Peak. Don’t do it after watching the trailer; wait until you’re six or seven minutes into the film. And don’t get all weird and clever with the plot points, either. Just jot down five quick no-brainers as to how this film’s story will unfold. By the end, if you’ve scored anything less than 80%, there’s a good chance you’re a duck that’s wandered into the theater on a quest for errant popcorn. (Sure, you’d have to be a highly intelligent duck with remarkable dexterity, what with the handwritten list of Crimson Peak plot points and all, but a duck nonetheless.)
The story follows plucky young Edith (Mia Wasikowska), heiress to an early 20th century business magnate who receives a request to fund the clay-mining venture of the dashing but destitute Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston). Traveling with Sharpe is his gothiest-of-the-goths sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain), a character so dour and blatantly evil she might as well constantly sneer and belch out a “MWAH-hah-hah-ah-ah” cackle every seventeen seconds or so. Sharpe woos Edith by reading eight words from her ghost story manuscript and declaring it a masterpiece, and, following some Victorian intrigue and piss-poor investigative practices, Sharpe, Edith, and Lucille return to Allerdale Hall, the crumbling Sharpe family home in jolly olde England. More intrigue ensues, spooky happenins a-happen, yadda yadda yadda, check the items off your list. It all boils down to a chase in the snow capped off by the most out-of-place, cringeworthy one-liner in many a year, followed by an appearance by a ghost that seems to have gotten lost on his way to Disney’s Haunted Mansion.
Look, I’ve come to terms with not being a big Guillermo del Toro fan. And now I’m realizing I could give or take Mia Wasikowska and Tom Hiddleston as well. (Charlie Hunnam’s already a lost cause.) But not even a wonderfully creepy performance by Jessica Chastain and a solid turn by the always-welcome Jim Beaver can give much of a pulse to del Toro’s beautiful yet ultimately hollow gothic romance. Was the movie sold to audiences incorrectly? No doubt. But I saw it long after learning of this marketing gaffe, knowing full well what I was getting into, and still it seemed underwhelming and stale, more trite than terrifying. I can deal with the lack of terror—hell, I can even put up with del Toro chiding us within the movie itself for expecting horror—but I can’t handle dull. And that’s the ultimate response to Crimson Peak: a yawn, not a shiver.