Late into Crimson Peak, Guillermo Del Toro’s elaborate haunted house thriller, it occurred to me that the ghosts don’t have enough to do. In fact, they barely register and seem like the eighth or ninth most important thing in the story. This is both a compliment and everything wrong with the movie, which Del Toro and co-screenwriter Matthew Robbins have overwritten. At two hours, with a dozen main characters, two major mysteries unraveling over the course of the running time and even a cute, scene-stealing dog, there’s too much here. Yet, because of how good the movie looks and the rich quality of Del Toro’s world, I plan on seeing this one again.
Mia Wasikowska stars as Edith Cushing (yes, the last name is a horror movie nod) a young woman who, since childhood, has been haunted by the ghost of her mother. When Edith falls in love with the mysterious Mr. Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), who is always accompanied by his equally questionable sister (Jessica Chastain), she finds her mother’s ghostly warnings from the grave having real resonance, as the first great romance of her life is fraught with danger.
The sumptuous art direction carries the movie. It’s an odd thing to write, though I don’t mean that as a back-handed compliment. The sets, costumes, lighting and props are meticulous and beautiful. If only the casting was as spot-on as the visuals.
Wasikowska is, as always, a bland lead. I’m not trying to be mean, but why do great directors keep casting her? Likewise, Charlie Hunnam is woefully out of place playing a stiff, suit and tie, Jonathan Harker-type. Jessica Chastain is an extraordinary actress but her role doesn’t allow for subtleties or nuance. Bette Davis was sorely needed for the part but at least Chastain doesn’t make her role total camp. Hiddleston is excellent, coming across the most as period-correct, and nails his role.
While gory at times, this is one of the few horror films of recent years that deserves to be deemed “classy.” It’s more long winded and exposition-heavy than necessary, creating the feeling that Del Toro had more than he needed and didn’t know how to give his tale a proper conclusion. His masterpieces remain Pan’s Labyrinth, Cronos and Mimic, though this isn’t the gargantuan step backward that was Pacific Rim. Here, Del Toro is attempting to fashion something as personal, elaborate and rich in film history as Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but comes up short. At least he got first two acts and the look absolutely right.
Del Toro’s affection for movie monsters is also uneven here- whereas his take-it-or-leave-it Hellboy larks are full of memorably grotesque and strangely beautiful creatures, the true monsters of “Crimson Peak” are the ones still very much alive. As much as I hate CGI ghosts (one of the many problems with Jan de Bont’s unfortunate remake of The Haunting), at least Del Toro gives them a liquid dreaminess.
Still, for a filmmaker seemingly so perfect for a full-blown haunted house tale, it seems he got distracted in the atmosphere and forgot to fully flesh out the things that go bump in the night. This isn’t all that scary but perhaps that isn’t the point. Del Toro’s film is a warning that that deception can poison the soul and that buried secrets need to come out in the open. Fortunate for us, he crafts this tale in a world so intoxicating, vivid and sumptuous, we can overlook the fact that his house isn’t quite haunted enough.