Crimson Peak and all the images you see in this review are owned by Universal Pictures
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Well at least SOMEONE decided to release a horror movie in October! Seriously, why don’t we get horror movies during Spooky Month anymore? Is it too obvious or something? Well NOTHING’S too obvious for good old Guillermo Del Toro who’s bringing us a good old late Victorian era Haunted House feature that might as well come straight from Hammer Studios! Can his Spook House thriller bring some life back to the genre which has been surviving off of found footage scraps for years now, or is he going to indulge way too much in what he loves to see to the point that he ends up only appealing to a niche audience with his big budget feature? Let’s find out!!
The movie is about Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), an aspiring writer of ghost stories who’s having trouble getting her magnum opus published. Despite being the daughter of a rather wealthy contractor in New York city with plenty of connections, no one seems interested in selling a ghost story written by a female and would rather have her write some tween love story. I guess ghosts are next on the list for Twilight-ification (if they haven’t been already) but Edith is not willing to compromise on her vision, especially because it comes from a very personal place. Edith’s mother died when she was fairly young and a couple of days later she was visited by her ghosts. Now it doesn’t seem like Edith has seen a ghost since then, but that night has stuck with her since then, especially considering that her Ghost Mom could see the future and warned her to be wary of CRIMSON PEAK!! While struggling with this, her father is visited by a British Baronet named Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) who’s trying to get her father to invest in his clay extraction machine while also getting moon eyes for the lovely Edith. He’s not alone on his journey however and has come to America with his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) but all she seems interested in is standing off to the side and giving off bad vibes. This doesn’t deter the budding romance between Edith and Thomas however and after some horrifying event befalls the young Edith, she leaves the United States and is whisked away by her knight in shining armor to be his bride. Once at the family home though, it’s clear that there’s MUCH more going on than Thomas led on during their courtship which I think was about a month. What secrets does the rickety manor have that Thomas and Lucille are trying to hide? Will Edith’s power to see ghosts come in handy or be a curse that slowly drives her mad? If we can’t have Silent Hills, is this at least a decent replacement!?
Do people actually find ghost movies scary? I mean, what does a ghost do? Does it rip you limb from limb? When it phases through you, can I shutdown your internal organs? If you actually let one get close to you, will it bite or something? If some non-corporeal being starts screaming at the end of the hallway and you run up to it to tell it to shut the fuck up, what is its recourse? The biggest problem with this movie is that the aspect Guillermo Del Toro was SO intent on getting perfect (the attention to detail and old school Spook House iconography) falls flat because this movie is not scary in the least. This isn’t just because ghost movies usually aren’t very scary to me; it’s also because this story is so predictable that it’s very easy to tell early on that these ghosts actually mean no harm to anyone so therefore any sense of danger is lost. the whole middle of this movie is lavishly showing off the amazing sets, costumes, and ghost effects yet it’s all for not because it just can’t elicit any frights. I love the way the house looks, even though it’s a bit ridiculous what with a GIANT HOLE in the ceiling which serves no purpose other than to have leaves and snow falling in many of the indoor shots. It’s really dumb that they expect us to believe someone is willing to live here, but it also means we get some astoundingly beautiful moments.
Now that’s not to say that this movie is JUST dumb stuff (and cliché stuff) in service of making it look pretty. That’s mostly a problem in the middle of the film because the focus is placed more on the special effects than the characters they built up in the opening. The beginning of the film has some great character moments that get you invested in these people’s fates and the ending manages to pull itself out of the malaise to be something that is quite thrilling. For the first forty five minutes of the film, we get to watch as good old Tom Hiddleston seduces Edith while his sister is waiting in the wings. It’s clear RIGHT away that they have ill intent and it doesn’t take much longer to guess what their ultimate plan is, but all three actors here have damn good chemistry overall and the courtship is entertaining to watch. Despite the lack of spookiness, it never lost its foreboding atmosphere and (as expected from a movie directed by Del Toro) everything looks great even when it’s just portraying everyday life in this time period. I’d honestly rather see where THIS story could have gone if they didn’t eventually have to get to the haunted house. There’s a murder in the first act that has absolutely nothing to do with supernatural elements, yet it’s quite effective and has that right amount of gory crunch to it that makes your skin crawl. If he’d have stuck to a real world murder mystery with gore anachronistic to what you usually see from films set in this period, then he might have had something unique here.
All of that stuff is great and it comprises a solid chunk of this movie, but there’s a damn near audible shift into the second act which is where things go wrong. Once a traumatizing event happens, it cuts to several weeks later during which Edith married Thomas and they have just arrived at the Sharpe Manor which may as well have been called The House of Escher for how subtle its introduction is, and it also MIGHT JUST have a nickname that Edith wouldn’t find very comforting. The floor is oozing with red clay (good thing it’s not white clay or it would just look silly!) and the hole in the ceiling doesn’t seem to have an explanation other than it being an old house. Oh, and the way the wind blows through the house makes it sound like an ominous moan. Oh, and did you know that Thomas likes to build creepy contraptions that are supposed to be toys? I could go on and on with all the little details that they are shoving into this one place, but the point is that having so many elements working towards their one goal of making things scary ends up diluting each of the elements and it never comes together into a cohesive whole. It’s a lot like Pan in that way because of how many ideas it tries to present to the audience, but even with this being overburdened and unfocused, it still manages to be visually interesting and OCCASIONALLY fascinating if not scary (and also a million times better than that travesty). I actually like the relationships being built as the three of them (Edith, Lucille, and Thomas) now have to share this space together. Despite Tom Hiddleston playing a very obvious bad guy, he’s given a lot of dimensionality and genuine character moments to make him more than just that. He has a device he’s working on to automatically extract red clay from the earth (the house is sitting on a mount of the stuff) and the scenes with him desperately working on the device gives you something to connect with for the character. He’s aloof and reserved for most of the movie, but that’s the one area where he gets to show some of himself and the genuine passion he has to get this device up and running. Well okay, there’s ONE other place he shows passion but that comes off as silly more than anything else.
Mia Wasikowska as Edith has probably the least to do here here as an audience avatar and a scare receiver, but she does have her moments every now and then, especially with Lucille. Edith isn’t an idiot and while she doesn’t know the extent of the danger she’s in, she can clearly tell what Lucille is capable of and isn’t about to be victimized by her if she can help it (spoiler alert: she can’t). Speaking of Lucille, Jessica Chastain is definitely having the most fun here as the less than altogether there sister of Tom Hiddleston’s character who’s always staring off into the distance and scheming behind the scenes. She is by far the creepiest aspect of this movie (she’s an actual threat compared to the ghosts) and she completely carries the third act of this film which kicks everything up a notch and gets some genuine tension going. I won’t get too much into it, but the third act is definitely her show as the supernatural stuff takes a back seat which is for the best. All the actions these characters have taken have finally reached the tipping point and everything just goes nuts. Del Toro’s direction continues to impress in this extended chase sequences, only now he’s actually filming something interesting instead of boring, do nothing, ghosts.
As much as it would break Del Toro’s heart to hear this, he could have cut out almost all the ghost scenes and had a better film with a less flabby running time. Despite having a story that exists to service his vision, it’s ultimately the actors involved who keep this from going off the rails entirely and keep this movie afloat. I love the look of this, from the set designs, to the costumes, to even the way the ghosts look. It just never really coalesces into a satisfying whole and ends up having a very saggy second act which SHOULD have been the highlight of the movie. I would recommend this overall because of how beautiful it is and how much I like the characters, but it can’t be overstated how much things just sag once they get to the big scary house. As much as I love Guillermo Del Toro’s work (HELLBOY 2 IS AWESOME DAMN IT), he’s one of many filmmakers out there who need to be reined in every once in a while. Pacific Rim was a lot of fun, but it also had an excessive run time that slowed things down considerable among a few other issues. With some judicious editing, this would be a solid and brisk thriller with fantastic production value and some fun gore. As it stands… well it’s just another ghost movie for me. Maybe I’m not the target audience for this because ghost stories don’t work for me (The Shining being the only exception I can think of) but even for ghost fans it doesn’t seem to want to do much with its premise. It’s worth seeing on the big screen just for how gorgeous it is and it may be one of the better horror movies of the year simply because of how much care and effort went into the production and how effective that final act is at ratcheting up the tension. It should have been better, but I’m guessing it’s also exactly what Guillermo wanted it to be.
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