A haunted house is a magical thing. Unknown terrors swirling about in a place you call home, hiding in dark corners and crevices awaiting the opportunity to frighten with gentle unease or a bloody, balls-out scare – some of the best run the gamut from the atmospheric and terrifying The Orphanage to the nightmarish fun house from the final segment of V/H/S. The one constant behind the most effective haunted house films is the atmosphere of these ghostly dwellings. After all, there’s a reason so few films in the sub-genre are set in shiny apartment buildings or condos.
Whatever else its faults – and there are many – Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak offers up one of the most gorgeously detailed and elaborately designed haunted houses to ever grace the big screen. Every element, from the wall decorations filled with history to the ornately pieced-together staircase, from the tangible heft of a door to the very grain of a floorboard, feels deliberate in its intended effect. Shadows do battle with Bava-esque hues as a menacing silence welcomes unearthly whispers, and deaths long-forgotten come face to face with those yet to come.
It’s only the intrusion of CG creations and their less charismatic flesh-and-blood counterparts that shatter del Toro’s carefully constructed illusion.
Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) is a young woman with dreams of becoming a published writer, but turn of the 20th century society sees that as highly unlikely. She finds validation and a whole lot more when she meets Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), a man visiting from Europe with his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) in search of investors. The two fall in love, but it’s not until Edith’s father falls victim to a vicious murder that she’s free to marry Thomas and retreat to his estate in rural England. Soon after her arrival at Crimson Peak manor though she begins to suspect that something is amiss.
The isolated home is set upon a moor that spews and seeps blood-red clay to the surface in starkly bold contrast to the white fog permanently in place across the landscape. She’s told to avoid certain parts of the house for her own safety. The already cold Lucille grows more slyly disagreeable by the second as she anxiously awaits Edith’s inheritance to arrive.
Oh, and then there’s the ghostly figure that’s been haunting Edith since childhood with warnings to “beware Crimson Peak!”
There isn’t a dull frame to be found in de Toro’s film – no small feat seeing as Charlie Hunnam stars as Edith’s American suitor – as he builds a tale of gothic terror infused with an atypical color palette and grisly acts of graphic violence. As giddily grand as the visuals are though they can only disguise the narrative and character shortcomings for so long.
The story being told is wrapped in an eye-catching display of gloriously nightmarish architecture and atmosphere, but the script (by del Toro and Matthew Robbins) never exceeds genre simplicity. We see where things are headed with great precision well before our flat heroine does, and while the film treats expected revelations with implied reverence we’re left disappointed by the pedestrian turns of events. The finale in turn becomes less of a horrific blow-out than a brawl that continues to deflate the spectacle of what’s come before.
Edith is a dull bird carried lazily on the Eastern winds through little in the way of her own energy, and Wasikowska can’t overcome her protagonist’s passivity. She’s captured beautifully against the action, but it’s the work of cinematographer Dan Laustsen and the wardrobe department that deserve credit over the script. Chastain, by contrast, is powered by a dark current that electrifies her every glance with a threatening charge. It’s Hiddleston who accomplishes the most though with a performance that reveals the pain in Thomas’ heart through his looks and expressions. His efforts find no home in Wasikowska’s Edith though and instead simply fall whimpering into the sanguinary earth at his feet. Their supposed romance is as weighty as the one from Twilight – meaning utterly weightless.
The horrific elements in the film are at times creative and fun, but they’re unable to muster anything resembling fear or dread. The CG ghosts are terrifically-crafted, but they’re more suited to frightening families at Disney’s Haunted Mansion attraction than trying to scare movie-goers. They’re animated intruders in the “real” world of the house and never feel like a tangible threat, and that distinction is made clear when a human character’s malevolence proves far more menacing.
Crimson Peak wants to be a grandly gothic romance – between Edith and Thomas, viewers and the experience – but ultimately it’s less of a love connection and more of a missed connection. Still though, see it in theaters as while it leaves your heart and mind empty it fills your eyes with del Toro’s ambitious affection for all the colors of the dark.
The Upside: Stunningly beautiful production design; strong visual atmosphere; gory violence; Tom Hiddleston teases emotion, Jessica Chastain embraces villainy; candle dance
The Downside: Emotionally flat (aside from Hiddleston); expected story reveals; never scary or unsettling