Set at the turn of the 20th Century, Crimson Peak centers on Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), a writer who can see ghosts. Well, she’s really only seen one ghost, when she was a little girl. It was her mother, who gives Edith a warning about a place called Crimson Peak, but whenever Mom shows up, she sends a really mixed message, “Beware Crimson Peak my child….Now I’m going to potentially eat your face!” So, Edith grows up knowing she can see ghosts and decides to become an author in the vein of Mary Shelley. Her father, Carter Cushing (Jim Beaver), is a prominent businessman, who draws the attention of Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), a man trying to sell the blood red clay under his family’s estate in England as building materials. All Thomas needs is the capital to make his hauling machine work, but Mr. Cushing isn’t so sure—there’s something about Thomas he doesn’t like. That something could be Thomas’ older sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain), who looks like she went to the Wednesday Addams Image School. The brother and sister are strange indeed, but Edith falls in love with Thomas, who asks her to marry him. She accepts and accompanies him to his family estate where he and Lucille live in a dilapidated mansion that looks like it fell right out of a haunted house story. That’s good, because there are ghosts there too for Edith to interact with. She begins to find out that her husband and his sister have many secrets, some of which could spell her doom.
Crimson Peak is not a terrible film by any stretch of the imagination, but I was constantly reminded of del Toro’s last feature, Pacific Rim, which had paper-thin characters, but style coming out of its ass and a fun premise. The problem with Crimson Peak is that it lacks the fun premise. I’m not a horror fan—just never took to the genre—but I am a Guillermo del Toro fan and I knew that a gothic horror story would probably be more creepy than terrifying. The creepiness is definitely there on the screen, but the problem is, the atmosphere goes a little too over the top to completely buy into it. The mansion is suitably rundown, but then the red clay that the building sits on makes it look like the walls are bleeding. Everything is very winking right down to the ultimately pedestrian story. I won’t spoil the secrets, but I was horribly disappointed by the truth behind Thomas and Lucille. I was expecting something on the level of The Shining and I got something that could have been easily done on an episode of Law & Order: SVU. This also leads to the film being laughably bad in places. There is a lot of humor throughout and when the film got ridiculous at the end, I almost wished del Toro had given us a broad comedy like Young Frankenstein. Unfortunately, what I was left with was feeling like the victim of a bait and switch based on what I saw in the trailers and what I got in the final film.
Hiddleston and Chastain are very good in their roles, though Chastain does go over the top as the film progresses. Wasikowska is fine, but I didn’t get enough terror from her when she meets up with the ghosts—as rare as those meetings are. Also, as a writer who aspires to be Mary Shelley, one would think that she would be a little more self-aware about her surroundings at the—clearly—haunted mansion. I know Edith is supposed to be much younger than Thomas, but she questions nothing, including Lucille’s odd behavior. Charlie Hunnam shows up to have del Toro cast him as another bland and boring hero. This time he plays a doctor and old friend of Edith who fancies himself an amateur detective. Burn Gorman puts in a nice little appearance as an actual detective who digs up dirt on the Sharpes.
Overall, Crimson Peak has to be chalked up as a disappointment. Del Toro nails the aesthetic and atmosphere, but the story that holds it all together is very weak. If you’re in the mood for a gothic romance with some gore, it might be for you, but if you’re expecting a terrifying haunted house story, look elsewhere.