Crimson Peak is a missed opportunity, a frustrating blend of some wonderfully unique visuals and story-telling with a center of recycled tropes and wooden writing. A ton of small things had to align correctly for this film to work, and often, Del Toro is able to balance the line of fantasy and horror to create a vision that is all his own, Crimson Peak is not an exception to that. It just doesn’t flow or feel entirely right.
When young Edith’s (Mia Wasikowska) mother perishes from disease in her youth, she is frequently visited by her black, skeleton ghost stating the same thing over and over, “Beware of Crimson Peak.”
These visions give her inspiration to write a horror novel, and Edith gains respect as an intellectual around the New York town (the film takes place in the late 1800s), and it helps that her father (Jim Beaver) is an investor who has plenty of capital. Her father’s business ventures lead her to Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and his sister Lady Lucille (Jessica Chastain) who are in New York from England to find an investor on Sharpe’s new machine. When a turn of events leaves her father dead, a local friend suspicious (Charlie Hunnam), and Edith whisked away to England now married to Sharpe; Edith’s life takes a downward turn.
The old mansion the Sharpe’s live in, Allerdale Hall, is decrepit and rotting, leaving holes in the ceiling, walls of butterflies and other bugs, and Lady Lucille carrying a very strange grudge against Edith. The floors ooze crimson clay, the nutrient-rich soil from the mountain the live on and we begin seeing ghosts around the house with horrible disfigurements, leading Edith to believe something treacherous is going on: Spoiler, she’s right.
One thing to applaud is Del Toro’s vision. He never wavers on the way he wants his film to look or feel, but the tone is often a bit lacking in urgency or suspense. He’s able to create a universe where the house they stay in becomes a real character, inhabited by the ghosts the Edith becomes very familiar with, and in an odd way, this whole atmosphere is very beautiful.
The trailers depict a harsh fantasy world that Edith becomes a part of, but it never quite feels like there’s enough of these scenes. When the film decides to become a true horror picture, it’s excellent. When it tries to be an old-world drama, the writing feels too flat to be real. Outside of a great scene where Edith meets her mother’s ghost, the first act of this film is really poorly done without any charm. It drags.
Once the real atmosphere is set up, inside the manor, Dan Lausten’s cinematography, under the direction of Del Toro, an amazing fantasy director, looks absolutely brilliant. The way the visuals give away parts of the story is incredible, but there’s a few hang-ups that the script doesn’t quite even out for us. Charlie Hunnam’s character is a but confusing in his motivations and why he’s so important, and some of the mansion’s secrets, although explained, don’t really fit with what the remainder of the film had been teaching. There’s a bit of disconnect here between style and substance. That isn’t to say that it isn’t good, because it is, but there’s just not enough of the sinister elements to get us to buy certain character’s motivations.
That being said, only Del Toro could create a film that looks like this. It’s very much made in his style and his vision, transporting us into a sickly, ghostly land of blood-red clay and unrelenting ghosts. Jessica Chastain is the winner here, playing up the campy nastiness of her character, but Hiddleston and Wasikowska come off a bit too tame. For a director who rarely uses restraint, it’s confusing why he wouldn’t blow us away with how unsettling this movie could’ve been. It never quite gets to be as beautiful (and also as scary) as advertised, which is a bit disappointing. Objectively, however, if I hadn’t been so stoked to see this, it’s still a passing movie with good production, serviceable acting, but flaws in writing and tone.