"Beware of Crimson Peak!"
Edith Cushing has been told this by ghastly spirits her entire life. Floating ghosts comprised of red, rotting flesh- sometimes taking on the form of her own deceased mother- haunt her from childhood to adulthood, appearing in the most eerie of settings solely to warn her of the titular Crimson Peak. You'd think that after suffering this over the course of many years, Edith would avoid anything crimson and all of the world's peaks, just to be safe.
But when unfortunate circumstances lead her to a literal house of horrors standing alone on a peak that's awash in crimson clay, she doesn't think twice about it. Good thing the house is so immaculately designed that you can safely focus on it rather than on the lack of an intelligent decision.
Such is Crimson Peak; a movie that works hard to have style and substance- but only achieves the former. Its exquisitely melancholic visual style serves the theme; its half-realized story and characters do not. Guillermo del Toro has always been a master of the visual macabre, and Crimson Peak oozes this to its core. It's just a shame that this core is so shallow.
It's telling that del Toro co-wrote the screenplay with Matthew Robbins, his collaborator on the director's two weakest movies: 1997's Mimic (a horror thriller about killer cockroaches) and 2010's Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (a horror thriller about killer tooth fairies). Crimson Peak is not a horror thriller though: del Toro was visibly upset that it is being marketed as one, so he's been vigilant to declare it a gothic romance at every available social media juncture. The final product's style-over-substance nature is heavy on the gothic, but disappointingly light on the romance.
When it comes to Crimson Peak's gothic sensibilities, the movie is undoubtedly a beauty to behold. The set design, costume design, cinematography, lighting, and color scheme are all hauntingly gorgeous. The movie doesn't settle for "crimson" as a descriptor: it's a visual mission statement. Shades of red and all its complementary colors sweep the impeccably detailed house at the center of the narrative; the costumes and sets look like they were directly pulled from a bygone but distinctly fictional era; the cinematography is nothing short of inspired- camera movements deliciously savor the masterfully contrasted lights and shadows as much as unusual angles highlight del Toro's signature taste for the unsettling and unorthodox. Only the CGI ghosts are lacking: the more we see of them, the less creepy and more distractingly clunky they appear.
It's hard not to consider the welcome visual flavor a façade when the characters and story that it decorates are so bland by contrast. Many of Crimson Peak's flaws can be directly traced back to its screenplay: the dialogue ranges from laughably self-serious to seriously hard to believe, as it lacks any sort of nuance. A horror/romance film needs nuance to make its subject matter, well, matter. Love and horror are intricate themes for film to tackle- especially when intertwined. But when every character speaks like every other character, blatantly announcing their intentions and explaining their feelings without any subtlety, listening to them grows tedious and we turn our eyes to the performances for something to care about.
If your eyes turn to Tom Hiddleston's Thomas Sharpe, you'll be rewarded for a time. Out of the four central performances, his is the only to carry an involving amount of weight. He adds a level of self-conflict that may not have even been present in the screenplay and does a lot of solid work with his eyes and physical performance. Jessica Chastain is fine, but she unfortunately ends up mirroring how her character was written with an overdone performance, ridding her Lucille Sharpe of any mystery. Charlie Hunnam just feels like he was plucked from Pacific Rim and thrown into Crimson Peak without realizing he was supposed to play a different character.
Mia Wasikowska's main performance is the most problematic though. I'm hesitant to place the blame on her- she's done dark compellingly in Stoker and Only Lovers Left Alive- but this movie's self-serious tone does not wear well on her at all. She's rarely convincing as she wanders through the halls of Crimson Peak, apparently unable to add nuance to a character that was written without any. As the movie goes on and her character receives less and less attention in the realm of development, she concedes to the screenplay's mediocrity and eventually is lost in it.
So we turn our eyes to the twists and turns of the narrative, hoping to be captured at least there. Crimson Peak doesn't really treat its mysteries like mysteries. Not enough information is given to the audience to keep us guessing- until all the information becomes so obvious before the inevitable reveals that they're not at all surprising. The final reveal is especially unsatisfying: the story is intriguing enough to stay entertained up until then, but post-plot twist there's not much worth pondering.
At this point, where else do we turn our eyes?
Crimson Peak looks really beautiful, remember?