1. Crimson Peak is a movie that’s all windup and no pitch. It requires a patience of you that I’m not sure it necessarily earns, and a level of patience it doesn’t feel obliged to reward. It’s not a slog; the movie always looks fantastic, and it has enough earthly delights to string you along its grand gothic groove. But it’s old-fashioned in a way that is ultimately more exhausting than anything else. It’s earnest and a little dopey and entirely trusting that you are automatically invested in everything that’s going on—or, moreso, the cinematic influences clearly driving the filmmaker—that you’ll ignore all the shortcuts and cliches taken along the way. Crimson Peak is a movie you want to reward and congratulate for the fullness of its vision and how luscious its execution. It doesn’t mean you’ll much care about it.
2. A bit of passion project from Guillermo del Toro, Crimson Peak is split up into halves. The first half features Edith (Mia Wasikowska), a Mary Shelley-wannabe who lost her mother years before and lives with her caring, gruff Buffalo businessman father (a very winning Jim Beaver). She didn’t really lose her mother, because Ma shows up to Edith as a ghost, warning her to “beware of Crimson Peak.” (Mom doesn’t have the best bedside in passing this message to Edith; she’s bloody and spectral and horrifying, maybe not the best guise in which to make your first visit to your mourning 10-year-old daughter.) She is visited by Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), a British aristocrat attempting to pitch her father on a red clay mining project (don’t ask), but circumstances conspire to where Edith falls in love with him and moves to Sharpe’s decaying castle in England, where he lives with his mysterious, seemingly disturbed sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain). This is the second half of the movie, which stops being an elegant dance macabre and turns into a haunted house flick.
3. But what a house it is! The movie is dramatically inert once it gets to England, but you don’t really mind half the time because that house is so amazing to look at. Sinking into the ground because of years of neglect, with creepy atrophying passages and an lovely old-time crankshaft elevator, it’s a dream for a filmmaker like del Toro, who’s less concerned with terrifying us than he is intoxicating us with this little chamber set he has built for himself. The reasons for the “crimson peak” of the title are more than a little contrived—the red clay oozes to the earth’s surface and mixes with the white snow to give it the appearance of blood burbling up from hell’s mouth itself—but, like the rest of it, it’s all just an excuse for del Toro to entrance us with these images of dark, doomed beauty. I would have been perfectly happy if the whole second half of the film had been silent, and we’d just hung out in that house, with blood clay coming up from the floor and crazy flesh ghosts pointing bony fingers at the camera.
4. Unfortunately, people do talk. I understand this:
And I get it. Del Toro is clearly attempting to recreate some of those terrifying old silent films he surely watched and absorbed into his own aesthetic. The problem is the story he is telling is so dull and rote that it would have felt moldy and tired even in 1927. The Edith character is so “plucky” in the early going that she almost comes with thought bubbles of “I’m not like everyone else! I want to live!” a hackneyed construction that still doesn’t stop del Toro from turning into a weak, screaming, shriveled mess in the second half. But the real problem is with the Sharpes, who are so thinly drawn yet so bluntly constructed that you’ll have guessed their “dark secret” roughly within five seconds of meeting them. That would be fine if the movie didn’t spent so much of its first hour tantalizing the mystery, showing a little bare leg from around the corner when we know good and well it’s naked behind that thing. Del Toro is achingly earnest in his influences and story construction, which can be a plus, but it also can leave you out there looking foolish, like the last movie you watched was in fact in 1927 and the rest of us are a bit ahead of you on everything.
5. Also, the movie proves it is in fact possible for Jessica Chastain—who might be my favorite working actress—to give a bad performance. She surely provides del Toro with exactly what he asked for (something broad, Grand Guignol, mask-of-horror over-the-top) but the director does her no favors; she mostly just looks to be searching for a character who isn’t there. It’s also Hiddleston’s emptiest performance; he’s all surface charm but can’t quite convince us of the desperation underneath. And it leads to a conclusion that’s as perfunctory as it is unsatisfying. It also might feature the worst, laziest good-guy-finally-beats-the-bad-guy kiss-off line I have ever heard. There is so much to look at here; there’s a closeup of ants eating a butterfly that’s more powerful than anything any human does in the film. Crimson Peak has plenty to show us. But it has nothing to say, and nowhere to go. It seems destined to be played in the background of overly precious Halloween parties for years to come. Make sure they keep the sound off.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.