The most terrible of all frights turns out to be predictable storytelling.
You know those DIY, Pinterest-obsessed people who fashion their own gorgeous wrapping paper around the holidays? The type that has every ornament in place on the tree, each a hand-made masterpiece of hot-glue, lace, and envy? You’re beside yourself at the annual Christmas Party when Pinterest Sally chooses you in Secret Santa; with a package like that, you know the gift inside will be glorious. You tear open the carefully placed bows and mother-of-pearl inlay to reveal: socks. And not the Macy’s soft, comfy, expensive socks. The everyday, scratchy wool variety.
This little analogy basically sums up how I feel about Crimson Peak and Guillermo del Toro right now. To be fair, I’m not the easiest to please when it comes to horror films. I prefer the thrill of what is not shown to the in-your-face torture porn made famous most recently by directors like Eli Roth. I never thought I’d have to put Guillermo del Toro in that category; he has had successes in the genre like The Devil’s Backbone (as director) and The Orphanage (as producer); unfortunately, Peak will not go down as one of those. All surface and no substance, the film relies too heavily on del Toro’s old tricks as if it would scare you away from digging deeper.
Aspiring writer Edith (Mia Wasikowska) – the only child and apple of her well-to-do father’s (Jim Beaver, woefully miscast) eye – cares little for thoughts of love, even though childhood friend Alan (Charlie Hunnam – hubba, hubba) makes his intentions to settle down quite clear. When aristocrat Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) arrives from London seeking funding to restore his family’s company, Edith suddenly has all kinds notions of love (and who wouldn’t really…it’s Loki). A series of tragic events finds Edith whisked away with Thomas and his sister Lady Lucille Sharpe (Jessica Chastain) to their failing estate Allerdale Hall – a creepy mansion that sits on a pile of red clay. Soon, Edith begins to literally encounter the house’s past, as spirits bleed from the walls with a message that just might save her life.
Guillermo del Toro is a master of the beautifully grotesque. A student of Exorcist makeup and effects artist Dick Smith, del Toro has created some of the most iconic modern images of the macabre. His creepy visions invite you in with their magnificence and scare the pants off of you with their disturbing motifs. When coupled with a stylish and original script like Pan’s Labyrinth, del Toro’s images shine. Consequently, at this point in his career, he should know better. You cannot sell a film on style and aesthetics alone. Ask the Wachowski siblings.
That being said, Peak’s imagery, flowing lines, and effervescent colors paint a portrait of a classic Victorian ghost story in the best possible way. Del Toro’s creatures have their own movement that heightens the scare factor without ever seeming cartoony or over-the-top. The classic makeup and wardrobe of the human parts of the film juxtapose nicely with the beings from beyond, adding to the terror separating the two. Cinematographer Dan Lausten’s constant camera movement presents a dreamy quality to the Gothic fairytale, never abruptly stopping or lingering on an image too long. Frankly, Crimson Peak is a profoundly eye-pleasing film, albeit an empty one.
Edith warns us early on in the movie that this is not a ghost story, but a tale that happens to have ghosts in it; they are a “metaphor for the past.” This intriguing idea, however, gives way to derivative storytelling and a predictable plot that plods along exactly as one expects. The del Toro-Matthew Robbins script is so on the nose, so by-the-numbers that it almost feels intentional, as if the visuals were the point of the movie to the extent the filmmakers wanted you to concentrate on nothing else. The horror aspect relies heavily on cheap jump scares and overtly violent murders. When a character dies on screen, it is never as simple as a fall down the stairs or the slice of a knife off-screen. What’s worse than a horror film that is simply not scary? This problem would have easily been remedied by allowing the creatures more movement instead of jumping out at you whenever a violin squeals in the distance. Hey, filmmakers: we’ve been watching horror films for a century now. We get it. When it gets quiet, you’re going to jump out at us like Donald Trump at an immigration rally. Try a new bag of tricks.
The villains are carbon-copy rip-offs from previous scripts; I have this vision of del Toro doing a wiki-search for “bad guy” and “evildoers” before settling on his antagonists. Each person is a mere caricature — depth seems to be a word lost on the filmmakers. The only character with a smidgen of a personality is Hiddleston’s Thomas, but even that we see coming ten thousand miles away. I am not suggesting every beat needs to be a surprise, but I could have told you the whole plot to Peak after the first fifteen minutes. I’m sure del Toro and Robbins patted themselves on the back for their twists and turns toward the dénouement, but – and I do not take this sentence lightly – even Shyamalan has seen better twists. Zing!
This will not go down as one of Mia Wasikowska’s finer performances; her doe-eyed Edith shines best when in peril, which, to be fair, is most of the film, but when she is tasked with carrying scenes where the character must seem competent, Wasikowska has trouble. A lot of trouble. Not much more could be said of Hunnam and Beaver’s respective turns. Hunnam is so concentrated on hiding his accent that he forgets to emote, at all; and Jim Beaver has this whole turn-of-the-century industrialist act that fails to allow him to connect with other characters. Del Toro must have felt he was playing with paper dolls; I guess this was a choice, but I just do not see the reasoning for it. If the idea was to make the Sharpes seem extraordinary, he need not have bothered. Casting Tom Hiddleson and Jessica Chastain was task enough. Hiddleston steams up the screen effortlessly, willing to carry any scene he is in.
Further, we should take a moment to bow at the feet of the incomparable Jessica Chastain. Her performance as Lucille is a marvel; she rises above the material and shines so brightly that it is impossible to look away. I found myself vehemently enraged at del Toro that he did not do better by her. Unfortunately, the stylized look and Chastain’s performance cannot save this unoriginal failure.