Crimson Peak works as an homage to 19th century gothic literature. Beyond that mission statement, however, it has trouble gaining traction. Although the film may hold a certain appeal for those who have spent long hours thumbing through the pages of The Picture of Dorian Gray, Northanger Abbey, Jane Eyre, and Wuthering Heights, its deficiencies make it at best an atmospheric triumph with a weak narrative. Director Guillermo del Toro's unique visual style is on display but the story is predictable, the characters are flat, and the supernatural elements are red herrings. To paraphrase a character, this isn't so much a ghost story as it is a "story with ghosts." And they serve little purpose beyond making this appropriate for Halloween viewing.
Crimson Peak boasts a strong cast with Mia Wasikowska as the virginal innocent, Edith Cushing; Thor's Loki, Tom Hiddleston as Thomas Sharpe, Edith's Rochester; and Jessica Chastain as the somewhat unhinged Lucille Sharpe. The cracks in the narrative foundation have little to do with the actors or their performances but with the characters they portray. There's not much psychological complexity to these people; their actions feel scripted and they never attain three dimensionality. We're never fully invested in the story because we know where it's going. Del Toro throws in a couple of minor twists and turns but little that happens during the course of Crimson Peak is going to surprise anyone with even a cursory familiarity with the gothic genre.
Crimson Peak opens in 19th century Buffalo, where Edith lives in an old house with her protective widowed father, Carter (Jim Beaver). Edith is a writer of gothic stories with little affinity for romance or sentimentality. She believes in ghosts, having encountered the haggard spirit of her mother. (This scene, presented in flashback, offers one of the film's most unsettling images.) Edith's world-view changes with the arrival of Thomas, an English baronet with whom she falls madly in love. Thomas, an affable gentleman seeking financing for an invention, can rarely be found without his emotionally frosty sister, Lucille.
Carter is immediately suspicious of Thomas and, once he learns of a secret in the man's past, he issues an ultimatum that the baronet leave Buffalo immediately. Carter's murder, however, puts an end to his efforts to stem the romance between Edith and Thomas; they are married and move to his sprawling, crumbling mansion in the north of England, where spirits haunt the darkened hallways and the presence of a red mineral in the soil turns the snow scarlet.
Visually, Crimson Peak is a special film with an aesthetic matched by few (if any) modern horror movies. Perhaps only Tim Burton could lay claim as distinctive a style. From the vast foyer of the mansion with its wrecked ceiling and arching staircase to the way the ghosts scuttle through the halls before merging with the shadows, Crimson Peak is a treat for the eyes. The title hue suffuses the screen, occasionally making it seem as if the proceedings are drowning in blood. There's an element of creepiness in Del Toro's approach but little that's truly frightening. To his credit, the director doesn't rely on jump scares, preferring instead to allow dread to build.
Alas, the ghosts have little tangible purpose. They are an unnecessary appendage to a story that could unfold unaltered without them. The narrative is regurgitated gothic melodrama. Crimson Peak captures and holds the attention because of how it looks not because it's telling a compelling tale. The overall arc is so familiar that it's almost tempting to view this as a parody, although the tone would argue against that interpretation. Admittedly, part of the production's charm is that it hews closely to the conventions of the gothic genre, but opportunities to be more creative are bypassed in favor of crafting a straightforward homage. There are things to like about Crimson Peak but, although the level of technical accomplishment matches that of Del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth, this is neither as imaginative nor as satisfying a journey into the realms of the strange and supernatural as some of the director's more memorable outings.
© 2015 James Berardinelli