There’s no doubt Guillermo del Toro has a wonderful imagination. It’s on display constantly in his films, either via their fantastic settings or the creature designs or some bit of cleverly constructed bric-a-brac. And while some of that stuff is no doubt molded into its final form by other members of the production team, it’s always clear that del Toro’s brain is the direct source of his films’ sumptuous images.
If only he were as strong a storyteller as he is a dreamer. It’s the limp stories he tells that have always kept me off the del Toro bandwagon. The only time I’ve felt he’s been able to concoct a narrative worthy of its own visuals was with Pan’s Labyrinth, his breath-taking 2006 Spanish-language dark fantasy. Past that, his movies have ranged from solid yet forgettable (Pacific Rim, Blade II) to barely watchable (Hellboy, Cronos), with the geek community at large constantly giving them a pass because of the genre-friendly subject matter.* Unfortunately, Crimson Peak finds itself in that latter category. Maybe I’ll be the outlier once again, as others fall under the spell of the pretty pictures on display. Or maybe no one will like it, and everyone will come around to my way of thinking — that del Toro really might have been better suited for design work.
At its core, Crimson Peak is a big ol’ haunted house movie, although in this case the haunted house doesn’t show up until 45 minutes in. (Yeah, it’s a problem.) To be fair, del Toro is able to sneakily state his film’s mission statement early on. Mia Wasikowska plays Edith, an aspiring 19th-century American writer who is adamant that while her stories may include ghosts, they’re not ghost stories. Yes, she’s talking about her fiction, but she’s also talking about the film her character lives in. Crimson Peak treats its ghosts as jump scare-producing window dressing, designed to help establish and carry along the movie’s foreboding tone without ever really affecting its plotting.
Instead, del Toro is more interested in telling a story about the living. Edith falls in love with a dashing English nobleman named Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), who has come to America with his disquieting sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) to seek out funding for a mining operation he wants to conduct on his clay-rich property back home. Edith’s father Carter (Jim Beaver, guest star of too many great TV shows to count) knows something is amiss and sets out to make sure Edith is not swept under Thomas’ spell. Alas, Carter is brutally murdered, and before Edith knows it, she’s married and being whisked away to the Sharpe estate, where the siblings begin acting more and more unhinged.
At this point the film is mostly straight-forward Masterpiece Theater with one added component: Edith can see the dead. We know this thanks to two scenes early in the movie (which are oddly and needlessly almost identical) where the skull-faced ghost of her mother shows up to warn her about “Crimson Peak.” She doesn’t know what that means, even though it’s easy enough for the audience to guess that it’s a nickname for the Sharpes’ crumbling mansion and its surrounding grounds. In fact, a lack of surprise is one of the movie’s biggest problems. Del Toro, who co-wrote with Matthew Robbins, throws some mild twists at you over the course of the movie, but they’re all lazy and predictable. If you find yourself wondering whether the movie is building to a particular reveal, rest assured it almost certainly is.
The mansion itself is a patented del Toro invention, full of both whimsy and menace. The rotting ceiling allows leaves and snow to fall peacefully into the building’s foyer, giving it a dreamlike quality. Adjacent rooms aren’t as exposed to the weather but are filled with fluttering moths and criss-crossing shafts of light and ornate decoration. The whole thing screams “fantasy gothic,” and while you’re always aware that it’s an elaborate set, it’s still a good one. The mansion has a sordid, murderous past, so, before long, Edith starts seeing other grotesque apparitions that are skulking around the place. Something bad has happened here, and her marriage seems more and more like a sham all the time. Will she figure out what the audience is already guessing at and get out alive?
Maybe you’ll be more interested in the answer to that than I was. Part of the problem is del Toro has more fun with the house than he does his actors. This type of old-fashioned horror throwback screams for campy, over-the-top performances, especially when you consider some of the places the story ends up going, but del Toro keeps his actors as tight and buttoned up as the clothes they wear. Hiddleston’s inner conflict grows stale over the course of the movie, and Chastain never really gets to unleash the way you want her to. Charlie Hunnam is around too, playing Heath Ledger playing a doctor playing Sherlock Holmes.
I also have two big issues with the climax. One, nobody is killed by Thomas’ giant, gear-filled mining machine. How can you have this huge, elaborate, rusty piece of industrial terror in your horror movie and not have someone get crunched up in it? And, two, though Crimson Peak doesn’t have much of a mythology, there’s one rule the film plays by the whole way through — it’s Edith and Edith alone who can see the ghosts — until the very end when that rule is broken to up the emotional stakes and provide some punch to the finish. You could argue that it does just that. I’d argue that it’s cheating.
Maybe someday del Toro will make another movie as good as Pan’s Labyrinth and prove to me he’s got more working for him than a great designer’s eye. Crimson Peak, however, is not that movie.
*For the record, I’ve never seen The Devil’s Backbone, usually regarded as one of del Toro’s better efforts.