Writer / Director Guillermo del Toro alternates his films between intimate, set-driven suspense/horror (‘The Devil’s Backbone’, ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’) and quirky big-budget spectacle (‘Hellboy’, ‘Pacific Rim’). His new film, ‘Crimson Peak,’ basically falls into the former category, although in viewing it, from an aesthetic perspective, it is an assuredly grand spectacle loaded with acting talent. Unfortunately, despite stunning visually, this gothic story fails to fully engage due to a lackluster, predictable plot.
The film stars Mia Wasikowska as Edith, an aspiring writer in a fraternal turn-of-the-century society with an inherent sensitivity to the paranormal (her mother dies young and subsequently visits the young Edith to ‘beware of Crimson Peak’). Wasikowska plays her with a drive and spunk that belies the timeframe, so it is disappointing when she falls victim later in the film, swooning and fainting like an old-fashioned damsel. Edith takes to a visiting aristocrat/businessman from Great Britain, Thomas Sharpe, played with a dashing and mysterious air by Tom Hiddleston. He and his sister Lucille (a dark and sullen Jessica Chastain) are in America looking for investors for his machine that mines the distinctive red clay of their family land. Inevitably, Thomas weds Edith and takes her to the family estate to join his sister, where the meat of the story takes place.
The Sharpe family home, now in disrepair and sinking into the red clay that gives it the titular nickname, is the object for which del Toro bases his story. A known obsessive for Disney’s Haunted Mansion theme park attraction, this visionary director creates an elaborate setting for his film, a haunted house that he clearly establishes in specific detail, from the gaping hole in the roof that allows light, leaves, and snow into the center of the home, to the sub-basement holding vats of molten red clay that appears like viscous, otherworldly plasma. Once Edith is living, or more like squatting, in this creepy mansion, it becomes very apparent that she has made a fatal mistake, as she is visited by the other denizens of the house, the meticulously and grotesquely designed apparitions that inhabit the walls, floors, and closets.
All of this set-up would seem to be a ripe environment for fans of gothic horror and paranormal mystery, but ‘Crimson Peak’ chooses to treat its’ ghosts and the house they haunt as side characters rather than the driving force of the film. Instead it devolves into an obvious doomed, deceitful romance / murder mystery / damsel-in-distress film that only brushes the edge of the nether world. While not a total waste of time due to the inspired performances of the capable leads, in the end the movie’s beautifully grisly visuals are wasted . . .
Directed By: Guillermo del Toro
Written By: Guillermo del Toro & Matthew Robbins
Running Time: 119 min.
* * 1/2 (out of 4 stars) -OR- B-