Crimson Peak (2015)
Rated R for bloody violence, some sexual content and brief strong language
Score: 3 out of 5
Crimson Peak is director and co-writer Guillermo del Toro at his best... and at his worst. It's very much a style-over-substance affair, its stunning gothic visuals working mainly to cover for a fairly rote mystery whose big twists I was able to figure out around the halfway mark. In the end, the writing wasn't terrible, and the way those twists played out was well-handled, but it definitely wasn't among this film's strengths. No, what makes this film succeed and elevates it above what it honestly should be is del Toro's strength behind the camera, painting an amazing portrait of creepy, decrepit mansions, gorgeous period outfits, and scary spirits that's brought to life by an excellent cast.
The film is set sometime around the turn of the 20th century, and follows Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), a young ingenue, aspiring writer, and daughter of a self-made businessman/financier from Buffalo. One day, an English baronet named Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) shows up seeking financing for his invention, a machine for mining clay. He and his sister Lady Lucille (Jessica Chastain) are "old money", and they're not what they used to be -- all they have left to their name is their noble title and their crumbling estate, Allerdale Hall in northern England, the clay deposits on their land that they once made their living on having mostly been tapped out. (The "Crimson Peak" of the title refers to the fact that the red clay often seeps up from the ground, staining the snow blood-red in winter.) During his visit, Thomas takes a liking to Edith, who, being fairly naive and Pollyanna-ish, falls for him, and once her father, the only obstacle to their marriage, dies under "mysterious circumstances", he takes her back to England. Unfortunately for Thomas and Lucille, Edith can see ghosts -- and Allerdale Hall is not only haunted as hell, but they're trying to warn her that her new husband and sister-in-law are up to no good. Meanwhile, back in Buffalo, Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam), a family friend of the Cushings, also suspects that the Sharpes are rotten, especially after learning about their family history, and he heads out to England in order to rescue Edith.
There are a lot of twists and turns here, but save for one (mainly because I didn't think they'd dare to go that far), I pretty much had the plot figured out about an hour into this film's two-hour runtime. For all its dressing in period horror tropes, Crimson Peak is, at its core, a murder mystery, and not a particularly outstanding one, either. It's virtually spelled out right from the start just why Thomas and Lucille are interested in young Edith, and as such, every "twist" merely confirmed what I already suspected about the two of them. As such, the dramatic tension of the ghosts telling Edith to "beware of Crimson Peak!" didn't entirely work, as I already knew why she should beware. The early parts of this film definitely should have played with more subtlety concerning the villains, not only making them less obvious, but also giving more time for Tom Hiddleston to lay the mack on Edith and make him seem more like a genuinely romantic character at first. That, or the film should've been open about Thomas and Lucille's intentions right from the start, allowing the tension to develop not from the increasingly soapy twists, but from watching Edith falling deeper into the trap that's been laid for her, and slowly realizing the predicament she's in. Instead, the film accomplishes neither, resulting in a mystery that really isn't that mysterious.
Lending support to that idea that they should've just spelled out the villains' plan right from the start, once I figured out the mystery I was better able to appreciate this film's real strengths. Most notable of them is the fact that, even for all the missteps he makes here as a writer, Guillermo del Toro is still a master behind the camera. Every actor gives an outstanding performance; Mia Wasikowska nails Edith's transition for a period romance novel heroine to a woman who's slowly been beaten down by the oppressive environment around her, Tom Hiddleston brings the same charm he brought to Loki as a man who, upon getting to know Edith, starts having second thoughts about the plan he's concocted with his sister, and Jessica Chastain makes for an astoundingly creepy villain as the sadistic Lucille. Virtually every frame of this movie is immaculate, lending it the dark aura that it promised in all those creepy trailers even if the story doesn't quite live up to it. This film combines the older meaning of "gothic", in the sense of dark, messed-up shit happening, with the modern one, which means creepy mansions and ghosts, and it finds that they go remarkably well together. The dark atmosphere immediately screams that dark things are happening, even before you factor in what are probably the most grotesque-looking ghosts I've ever seen in a movie (props to this film's great combination of practical makeup work and CGI in bringing them to "life").
Finally, I come to something that has to be addressed if one is to enjoy this film on the basis of the goals it set out for itself. I went in knowing that this wasn't the supernatural horror film it had been marketed as -- it was a throwback to the gothic romance genre, a sort of thriller prevalent in the 1940s in which women fall for handsome older men who turn out to have terrible things in mind for them. Marked by films like Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca and Suspicion (the latter of which del Toro explicitly cited as an influence) and George Cukor's Gaslight, it was a proto-feminist genre in a sense, depicting a male-dominated power structure trying to kill women and drive them mad. Even if the word "patriarchy" didn't exist at the time, the idea was still something that reflected the frustration of many women in the 1940s, especially as the needs of the war effort gave them factory jobs and the first taste of freedom that many of them had ever had, and indeed, many of these films were written by women like Joan Harrison and Marguerite Roberts. The female leads not having any agency in their situation (a theme that Rosemary's Baby also explored to great effect) was played for horror, and while Edith proves herself to be made of tougher stuff than most such heroines, the fact remains that the true evil in this film comes not from the ghosts (who are actually fairly benevolent) so much as the purely human villains.
The Bottom Line:
Even if this film's story didn't really work, I was still able to enjoy its visual delights and craftsmanship. It's inarguably one of Guillermo del Toro's lesser efforts, but given his track record, that still means a dark, flashy thrill ride.