Is Crimson Peak a horror film? Is it a romantic tryst? Can I be the one who asks why we’re obsessed with the pre-classification of Guillermo del Toro’s latest Gothic…whatever it is? We’re supposed to live a film as we digest every inch of reel that passes through the projector (or digital doohickey), so it shouldn’t matter what you think about a movie BEFORE you see it. Yes, Crimson Peak had a featured maze at Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights, and yes, del Toro might have previously alluded to a hard-R rated haunted mansion tale (years back), but at the end of the day, unmet expectations shouldn’t ruin a film-watching experience.
Yet, if it’s instead ruined by strange editing techniques, a hammily played-out romance, and del Toro’s blood-soaked style vs. substance dilemma, well, that’s a different story.
Mia Wasikowska stars as Edith Cushing, an aspiring author who finds herself caught in the gaze of a mysterious outsider, revealed to be Mr. Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston). New to town, Mr. Sharpe attempts to find financing for machinery that will revive his family mines, which produce a blood-red clay material unmatched by natural design. He turns to Edith’s father, Carter Cushing (Jim Beaver), but the businessman doesn’t take to Sharpe’s opportunity, unlike his daughter. Edith grows close to Thomas, and after a tragic turn of events, moves with the dashing inventor to his dilapidated family mansion, where his sister Lucille Sharpe (Jessica Chastain) also resides. But the home has a history, and a few skeletons in its closet – which Edith uncovers. The love of her husband isn’t enough to prevent her from going mad, and she begins to wonder if Crimson Peak will truly be the end of her.
Just to squash this whole debacle, Crimson Peak is many things, but “horrifying” is not one of them. Not in the least bit. From VFX ghosts to overtly telegraphed “haunting” sequences, there’s not a single chill to be found – but that’s not necessarily a BAD thing. Del Toro’s more interested in mushy romantics and goopy red sludge than going for scares, in what can only be described as a dark, whimsical fairytale with a dash of Vincent Price’s essence mixed in. If you were expecting something sinister, filled with an army of hellish apparitions, know that del Toro has a different endgame here, and it’s more about the monsters we become in the name of love.
Even if my warnings are falling on deaf, horror-loving ears, or if del Toro’s own Tweeting hasn’t convinced you that love conquers Crimson Peak, have no fear! Co-writer Matthew Robbins helps Guillermo shape a script that literally SCREAMS “This isn’t horror!” at you in multiple opening scenes. I’m not even kidding. Edith Cushing’s hopeful novel is a romantic ghost story, which gives characters the opportunity to exclaim “No! I love the romance!” in the most self-referential of ways. Yet these scenes almost seem as if they’re after-sights, where del Toro thought he should cover ALL his bases in post-production. This prevents his love story from playing out organically, as the script feels like it’s forcing itself into witless Shakespearian tragedy.
For all its lonely-heart dramatics, Crimson Peak is most certainly a love letter to proper romanticism – yet the letter only addresses style, not substance. Far less care is put into the characterization of Edith and Thomas than del Toro invests in the Sharpe estate (Allerdale Hall), which was commendably built in full. The manor becomes a character of its own, bleeding a red, viscous fluid like you or I would, and the most meticulous details ensure a proper Gothic feel consisting of thorned archways, lavish staircases, and dimly-lit rooms where only a fireplace flickers. Del Toro is an artist, and Allerdale Hall is his canvas – a moth-infested relic that lives and breathes the Sharpe’s twisted family history.
After we get past del Toro’s love-affair with crimson snow and haunting architecture, we’re left with lackluster animation that’s not reflective of the director’s previous work, strong performances hindered by suffocating characters, and an offsetting tone that tries to mimic a literary delivery on-screen. There’s no doubt that Hiddleston, Chastain and Wasikowska are strong players, from Edith’s vocal bouts of pro-feminism, to Chastain’s never-convincing hospitality, but it’s a dull story from a bygone era. Each metaphor is as tired as the last (butterflies vs. moths/color schemes like white representing pure, black representing evil, ect.), and while Allerdale Hall is a monumental spectacle, its proverbial foundation is weak and crumbly, much like the building deterioration depicted.
Some of you will, and are, going gaga over Crimson Peak, and I wholly understand why. Guillermo del Toro is a gifted craftsman, manipulating both sight and words with his fantastical creativity, but what we have here is a passion project about a house – and only a house. His characters offer very little to invest in, playing out a narrative that’s decipherable from a mere twenty minutes worth of storytelling, but, if you’re watching Crimson Peak for structural pornography with a Gothic twist, then you’ll be salivating over del Toro’s master construction. It’s easy to get swept-up by Hiddleston’s gentlemanly charms, or the few spurts of blood that come rushing out at random, but the director has done better, can do better, and dammit, from someone so vastly talented, I demand better.
You’re harshest on the ones you love, only because you know what they’re capable of – isn’t that a saying?
Crimson Peak is gorgeous, there's no denying that fact, but del Toro's Gothic facade hides a hollow, unbalanced foundation that begins to crumble under such immense visual weight.