Film Review: ‘Crimson Peak’

Crimson Peak
Courtesy of Universal

Radically shifting gears from 'Pacific Rim' into Gothic romance territory, Guillermo del Toro creates a visionary haunted house movie with vacancies where the scares should be.

Even the pristine white snow bleeds bright scarlet in “Crimson Peak,” the malformed love child between a richly atmospheric gothic romance and an overripe Italian giallo — delivered into this world by the mad doctor himself, horror maestro Guillermo del Toro, operating at his most stylistically unhinged. Aflame with color and awash in symbolism, this undeniably ravishing yet ultimately disappointing haunted-house meller is all surface and no substance, sinking under the weight of its own self-importance into the sanguine muck below. Named after the estate to which Mia Wasikowska’s newly orphaned and even newlier-wed heroine unwisely relocates with a plainly duplicitous brother-sister pair, “Crimson Peak” proves too frou-frou for genre fans, too gory for the Harlequin crowd and all-around too obvious for anyone pressed to guess what the siblings’ dark secret could possibly be, and will likely wind up an in-the-red setback to Universal’s most profitable year.

It’s a testament to del Toro’s stature in Hollywood that the studio greenlit this costly R-rated indulgence, far closer in tone to such Spanish-language chillers as “The Devil’s Backbone” and “Cronos” than any of the comicbook and action spectaculars that have since made him a household name in the States. After butting heads with Warners over “Pacific Rim’s” PG-13 rating (which may explain the delays to that pic’s sequel), he dramatically switches gears on a twisted costume opera designed to let his bloodier tendencies loose. Bursting with references both literary and cinematic, this is del Toro’s “The Age of Innocence” by way of Jack Clayton’s “The Innocents,” as brazenly over-the-top as those films were subtle, manifesting a ghost story in which Wasikowska’s Edith Cushing has far more to fear from the living than from the dead, and the female of the species is deadlier than the male.

An anomaly among the husband-hunting bachelorettes of turn-of-the-century Buffalo, N.Y., Edith would rather write fiction — specifically, tales of the supernatural — than attend fancy high-society balls. Though a skeptic toward romance, she believes in ghosts, having received a mortifying visit from her late mother (played by “Pan’s Labyrinth” creep Doug Jones) while still a young girl. At the time, she doesn’t put much stock in the wraith’s warning — “Beware of Crimson Peak,” hisses the incongruously computer-generated apparition — and she remains far more open-minded toward the undead than any of her altar-bound peers would be. That’ll come in handy more than an hour later, when she finally gets to Crimson Peak, a crumbling British mansion perched atop a heap of blood-red clay.

But first, she has to fall in love, which poses a unique challenge for del Toro. As with the heroine that he and co-writer Matthew Robbins have created, his literary role model is more Mary Shelley than Jane Austen. The helmer seems far more comfortable noodling around in the audience’s collective subconscious, where fears lurk and desire festers, than dealing with something as straightforward as pure romantic attraction, and though he’s attempted to create a triangle between Edith and two differently alluring men, hardy local doc Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam) and obsequious British baronet Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), it seems pretty clear that she’d be better off sticking to her principles and avoiding such entanglements altogether.

And yet, del Toro takes his time with Sharpe’s seduction, as if the director who can make people faint from fright were trying to prove to himself that he can get them to swoon as well. Just wait’ll you get to the sex scenes. Neither love nor lust comes easily to del Toro, despite a charming enough ballroom setpiece in which Edith and Sharpe test whether they can waltz in circles without extinguishing a lit candle, while the baronet’s raven-haired sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain, alarmingly miscast), smolders in sync from behind the piano.

Something’s not quite right between these two siblings, and cinemas should comp the tickets of all who divine what the trouble is before Sharpe marries Edith against the objections of her aristocracy-phobic father (“Deadwood’s” Jim Beaver) and whisks his new bride off to the very place her dead mother so directly warned her not to visit. (Following his revoltingly brutal murder, ghost-dad should probably pay Edith a visit as well, if only to tell her who it was that smashed his skull in.) Sharpe may or may not love Edith, but he definitely likes her money, which he needs to finance a noisy contraption that digs that gross clay out from Crimson Peak.

While America, land of Thomas Edison, was lit all in gold and bronze tones, back home in Sharpe’s native Britain, things look infinitely more somber, the gloom pierced by almost fluorescent stabs of light — a look d.p. Dan Lausten clearly borrowed from the Dario Argento playbook (one the film itself dubs “gothic a la Italiana”). Ornate in the extreme, with entire rooms dedicated just to moths and a forbidden basement full of burbling blood-red clay vats, the Sharpes’ mausoleum-like home appears to be an LSD-spiked, Technicolor-nightmare version of Manderley, as featured in Hitchcock’s “Rebecca.” Cued by Fernando Velazquez’s wonderfully eerie score, one can practically feel the specter of past wives hanging about the place — they’re plainly visible to Edith, as they lurk behind closed doors and waft up through floorboards like projections from Disney’s Haunted Mansion ride.

Love may have hobbled her intellect, but Edith remains a reasonably smart young woman: All it takes is a reminder visit from her dead mom and a nasty fit of coughing up blood to realize that something is amiss. And her intuition is better than del Toro’s, who never should have chosen Chastain: While the actress expanded her strong, wholesome image by crossing over to the dark side in last year’s “A Most Violent Year,” the role of Lucille requires a streak of vicious insecurity and black-widow ruthlessness that Chastain flounders to convey. “Crimson Peak” demands a witchier — or at least bitchier — actress to go all Mrs. Danvers on Edith. (Parker Posey comes to mind, though Hiddleston’s “Only Lovers Left Alive” co-star, Tilda Swinton, would have made a delicious alternative.) Deprived of her own crimson locks, Chastain can’t even manage the British accent, and the character’s psychotic break ultimately ruptures the pic’s last shred of credibility.

By contrast, with her pale, porcelain-doll face and long blonde tresses, the appropriately cast Wasikowska practically glows in the dark as she takes candelabra in hand and goes looking for the haunted house’s secrets. Still, less setup and a lot more exploring would have done wonders, as the mansion is by far the film’s main attraction — the brainchild of del Toro and production designer Tom Sanders, whose work on “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” was an ideal warm-up for the gig.

As it happens, del Toro (together with co-writer Robbins) already has a far more effective haunted-house picture under his belt, the Troy Nixey-directed “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” (a movie that, while scripted for a PG-13, landed an R from the MPAA for sheer intensity). Though the director takes clear delight in being free to operate in adults-only mode here, the tonal mismatch between visual beauty and Grand Guignol gore — an oculus rift, if ever there was — yields revulsion rather than fright. He errs by opening the film with a flash-forward that assures us Edith will survive, and delivers the film’s only real scare in the very next scene, when her mom first visits. It hardly matters that “Crimson Peak” blossoms into del Toro’s most sumptuous film, as there’s no recovering from the fact the suspense crimson-peaks too early.

Film Review: 'Crimson Peak'

Reviewed at UGC Cine City Bercy, Paris, Sept. 28, 2015. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 119 MIN.

Production

A Universal Pictures release, presented with Legendary Pictures, of a Legendary Pictures/DDY production. Produced by Thomas Tull, Jon Jashni, Guillermo del Toro, Callum Greene. Executive producer, Jillian Share.

Crew

Directed by Guillermo del Toro. Screenplay, del Toro, Matthew Robbins. Camera (color), Dan Lausten; music, Fernando Velazquez; production designer, Tom Sanders; supervising art director, Brandt Gordon; set decorators, Shane Vieau, Jeffrey A. Melvin; costume designer, Kate Hawley; sound (Dolby Digital), Glen Gauthier; sound designer, Randy Thom; supervising sound editors, Dennis Leonard, Thom; re-recording mixers, Lora Hirschberg, Michael Semanick, Joe Dzuban; visual effects supervisor, Dennis Berardi; visual effects, Mr. X; special effects coordinators, Laird McMurray, Rocco Larizza; assistant director, J.J. Authors; casting, Robin D. Cook.

With

Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston, Charlie Hunnam, Jim Beaver, Burn Gorman, Leslie Hope, Doug Jones.

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  1. I loved this movie. Better than most of the dreck Hollywood is spewing these days.

  2. Anthony M. says:

    A gorgeous and brilliant movie that kept me transfixed the entire two hours. Del Toro is a true original. Great cast, cinematography, sets, costumes, and story – kind of the ultimate gothic romance on steroids (and mushrooms). The glory of classic cinema lives on.

  3. j says:

    It was visually beautiful, the ghosts,were cool. The only one that came close to scaring me was early on the crawling one. After that, the movie went dokwn hilll, like all the plot went out the window. Bad script writing killed the actors, not the knives.

    Silly producer gore is disgusting but it’s the unkowen that’s scary. Two 1/2 stars all the good effects, props and costumes in world won’t make up for bad scripting and a lazy ending.

  4. Trent says:

    “Crimson Peak” has haunted my imagination – it’s a truly gorgeous, almost operatic film. Loved the performances from Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddelston and Jessica Chastain. The story and characters are archetypal, think dream-logic – ala fairy tales, Symbolist movement, etc. – or don’t think at all, just luxuriate in the images, music and emotion, allow yourself to be swept along. This reviewer was on some other wavelength completely, but that’s not surprising (I’ve read some of his other reviews). You really should see the film for yourself – it’s very special. For those who appreciate gothic romance and visual storytelling, this is perhaps the ultimate statement.

  5. Chinyere says:

    I LOVED every minute of Crimson Peak. In the past I used to device a formula (big mistake) by which I would read critics reviews before viewing a film – a method to shield me and my time from a lot of mediocrity and blatant nonsense being fed viewers these days. Then The Chronicles of Riddick happened. The critics were cruel and had a field day with that effort, but I viewed it anyway and would have greatly regretted it if I hadn’t. The Chronicles of Riddick continues to pull a cult gathering even as I write this piece. I guess one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Some critics have also trashed Crimson Peak – a treasure of a film. The Director’s brilliance shines through this gorgeous piece of artistry. Its a great film.

  6. Wayne says:

    Good God… Couldn’t you have just said that you didn’t like it instead of putting us through the endless minutes of your own self-absorption?

  7. Mr.Doc says:

    As a review this is more a synopsis. An extremely unfair thing to do to movie lovers who want to but as yet have not seen the movie.

  8. Liv Toride says:

    Crimson Peak was an excellent movie and I just pre-ordered the DVD already! People please don’t listen to negativity…..
    just go see it and form your own opinion.

  9. sian says:

    I think the problem with Crimson Peak is a lot of people expected a visceral horror film, but despite some gory moments it’s far more subtle than that It’s beautifully shot, gorgeous to look at and the performances are faultless, especially Hiddleston who manages to say a lot without uttering a word. The real scares are psychological, and I suspect too many people overlooked that and instead wanted simply a lurid gore trip. And of course, in order to attract audiences at the weekend everything must be ‘family’ friendly.
    I personally loved it, it’s a shame that an undoubtedly enjoyable but probably empty kid flick like Goosebumps will be the bigger hit.

  10. Kathy Kudzma says:

    Did the reviewer and I watch the same movie? I loved how creepy it was and the Gothic romance. The actors and actresses have great performances. I loved the sister — wanted her gone halfway through the movie. Loved Hiddleston — his sad smile implying that even though he has a plan with his sister, that he might not want to go through with it… At the end even though Thomas was a villain, I was still hoping he would be with Edith… Really good, engaging, fantastic sets and costumes. Good movie — for what it is. Would watch again.

  11. Linda says:

    I had been waiting to see this now I wish I had waited a bit longer to read the reviews. I started to get worried because usually when they announce it a lot on tv it is never a good thing. I went to see it and was so disappointed, people were actually laughing and the story line was so obvious that I knew what was going to happen and as for scary, ha not in the least.!!

  12. Daniela says:

    “Following his revoltingly brutal murder…” spoilers much? Will not read a Variety review again.

  13. This review 100% NAILS everything wrong with this movie, especially noting the one crippling plot flaw that demolishes its internal logic: everybody’s ghosting all over the place, and yet for some reason Edith’s father never appears to her to tell her who his killer was. And Edith, who is introduced as an intelligent, independent, self-assured proto-feminist woman with no patience for society’s norms, immediately turns off her brain and becomes a swooning helpless damsel the instant Hiddles walks into the room, totally oblivious to his obvious scheming and eager to sign away the family fortune.

    This movie was a big, beautiful package with nothing inside. Crimson’s Weak.

  14. Chris says:

    You’re completely off your rocker about Jessica Chastain. She was an excellent choice. Hated her damn character, but that was the point.

    I’m so glad I only pay mind to idiotic reviews after I’ve gone and seen the movie myself. One person’s crappy opinion shouldn’t stop others from forming their own.

  15. Joey says:

    I feel like people give movies a bad review JUST so they can label their article with the cockiest smart ass title they can possibly think up.

    That and it’s very obvious outta all the reviews I’ve read who actually understands what a Gothic romance is supposed to be like.

  16. Sean Brodrick says:

    I feel like we didn’t see the same film. Crimson Peak is wonderful. I hope people ignore your awful review and go see the movie, then decide for themselves.

  17. kiki says:

    are you sure that mortifying is the right word? Unless there was something really embarrassing about her mom’s ghost visiting…

  18. James says:

    Odd. After ragging on Jessica Chastain (who other reviewers have said was fantastic in the role), you mention nothing about the other performances. Was Hiddleston believable? Hunnam? Mia W.? You say she glows and glides but nothing about the acting of anyone.

    Way to much complaining about the sets/atmosphere and not enough substance about the other elements that make up the film. It’s a gothic romance with supernatural overtones, not a horror movie. You sound like you made up your mind before you even saw the film. If you’ve been doing this job for too long, take a vacation or give someone else a chance. This kind of review isn’t helpful.

  19. The Colonel says:

    Jesus Peter. That review is nearly incomprehensible. Seriously, I had to look to see who wrote it because I could not believe that one of the Hollywood reporter regulars turned this out. Did anybody look at this before you posted it? It’s seriously below par.

  20. Persephone says:

    I feel like the writer of this review has watched far too many terrible mid 2000s jump scare horror films and has now declared that as ‘horror’. I’d politely suggest watching some actual horror films and to stop using a thesaurus to write your reviews as it doesn’t come across as the reviewer knowing what he’s discussing in the slightest despite apparently being the chief film critic for Variety.

    If all you’re looking for is a lack of suspense and cheap thrills like in an action film, an actual film with thought will disappoint you. You should be watching the sort of explosion laden, gun toting violence flick that seems to permeate modern movie theatres. Many other reviewers are calling this film ‘Hitchcockian’, and a beautifully dark horror — and a masterpiece of modern cinema. Instead of making terrible ending attempts at puns in an article, I’d maybe consider gaining a deeper scope of horror and suspense before simply discussing Edith as a character throughout the piece and dismissing the rest of the film entirely because he just doesn’t understand the difference between horror and actual horror.

  21. bit strange to complain that a Guillermo del Toro picture is a… Guillermo del Toro picture.

  22. laarviso says:

    The only thing wallowing in self importance is this verbal diarrhoea thats passing itself as a review.
    It’s just a bitchy rant.

  23. Bobbi says:

    I read your review twice and have absolutely NO IDEA what you said. Would you mind explaining this to us again in 10 words or less and disregard the thesaurus? Thanks abunch….

  24. jhj says:

    “And her intuition is better than del Toro’s, who never should have chosen Chastain: While the actress expanded her strong, wholesome image by crossing over to the dark side in last year’s “A Most Violent Year,” the role of Lucille requires a streak of vicious insecurity and black-widow ruthlessness that Chastain flounders to convey. “Crimson Peak” demands a witchier — or at least bitchier — actress to go all Mrs. Danvers on Edith. (Parker Posey comes to mind, though Hiddleston’s “Only Lovers Left Alive” co-star, Tilda Swinton, would have made a delicious alternative.) Deprived of her own crimson locks, Chastain can’t even manage the British accent, and the character’s psychotic break ultimately ruptures the pic’s last shred of credibility. ”

    I like Jessica Chastain, but people keep comparing her to Meryl Streep. Chastain is only good in certain roles. I happy someone is finally being honest about her range.

  25. Amy Zhang says:

    This review gave too many spoilers away :(

    • Adam says:

      Chastain has more than demonstrated her range. Clearly, she’s getting to the point where fans of other actresses are getting jealous of her. There’s something weird going on with the criticism here.

    • wiles11 says:

      So? Don’t read it. It’s a review in an industry trade magazine, for gawd’s sake. That’s what they do.

  26. sage says:

    The commentators all read like they went to the same screening, LOL!

  27. Isabel Carre says:

    This is a film about gothic romance. Anyway I am going to watch this film this weekend. Looks beautiful. I am tired of paranormal activity kind of bullshit. As a critic you should inform yourself better. Guillermo del Toro said this is not a horror story. Sorry but you suck as a critic.

  28. Fantastic film, and couldn’t disagree more. I think the expectation from this reviewer was very of the mark. The film does what it sets out to do quite beautifully. It’s not shit-your-pants scary because it never sets out to be. It is definitely gorgeous and very haunting though.

  29. Thetoxicavenger says:

    The trailer made it look like it was not scary at all. That “oh you’re brainwashed to only like jump scares” argument is getting old. There were jump scares in the shining. Didn’t make it any less atmospheric.

  30. Ravendark says:

    Every time a truly gothic movie comes along its always the same bullshit from critics. Some people don’t want jump scares in their horror movies. Rich atmospheric stories that are more haunting than scary are in short supply- it’s exactly why I have been waiting for this film for over a year now. The fact that it’s closer to Devils Backbone is the highest endorsement anyone could make. While I adore Pans Labyrinth as an exception, Del Toro has really lost his way in recent projects.

  31. Ken says:

    This review seems to confirm what I’d been feeling after watching all the not-especially-gripping trailers: all pricey surface gloss with hoary old (and minimal) scares. I’ll wait for this on VOD. In the meantime, think I’ll run THE INNOCENTS again.

  32. LOL says:

    May as well have remade Jan de Bont’s The Haunting, because it looks to be mining the same territory.

  33. Dan says:

    Ya know, Crimson Peak isn’t actually a horror movie, it’s a gothic romance, and there is a difference.

  34. Lara says:

    From the clips I`ve seen and as a Brit, I can tell you that Chastain`s English accent was pretty much spot on.

  35. Fish Walls says:

    A little bit racist, isn’t it Debruge?

  36. I agree Cece! <3 Another bad review… hopefully people will ignore it and go have the amazing time this movie is.

  37. Cece Ovvarc says:

    Annoying review on account we having already seen it. Very disappointed because the movie was one of those you want to see a few times over and the buzz from others who have seen it is very good.

  38. Brian Lewis says:

    Already got my tickets… I can’t wait to see it.

  39. This was an amazing film, I’ll be seeing it a few times more. If you enjoyed Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s backbone definitely go see it.

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