When I learned Guillermo del Toro was making a large scale, R-rated haunted house movie that would pay homage to the grand dames of the genre (films like “The Shining” and “The Haunting”), the needle on my internal scary movie geek meter jumped. Del Toro is not only an intelligent and skilled storyteller with a talent for subtext and theme (a viewing of “Pan’s Labyrinth” would end all debate to the contrary), he also has a knack for crafting unforgettable imagery. From the moment I learned about “Crimson Peak,” I knew I would love it.
Well, I didn’t. In fact, I barely liked it.
Del Toro did deliver the visuals I was hoping for. “Crimson Peak” is set mostly in an isolated English mansion at the turn of the century, and the sets used to represent the massive manor are impressive. The cavernous main hall sets the tone with intricate woodwork, lavish furniture, and detailed frames that house stern portraits. At the far end is a stone fireplace that could swallow a human whole.
The main corridor upstairs could do the same. At first glance, it looks harmless enough, with carved spikes jutting out of artfully fashioned arches that span the walls and ceiling every few feet. But when you see the heroine walking down its length, you’ll realize it looks like a mouth that has opened to reveal a throat filled with nightmarish teeth.
Every room is different, and has a character all its own. From the way moonlight brings out the cobalt hues of the master bedroom, to the stark reds and greens of the basement, which portend the horrible things buried there, the house is a living, breathing character, and Del Toro frames his cast in ways that suggest its hold them within its grip.
The house is also a living, breathing, bleeding character. Crimson Peak, as the mansion and its grounds are called, is set on acres of red clay and oil. As one walks across the floor of the main hall, red mud seeps through the floorboards, and snow drifts down from a large hole in the ceiling. Decay is everywhere, from decomposing wood, to mold that blankets entire rooms, to dripping moisture that has made its way to the lower levels. Even worse, the house can barely contain the elements. When wind passes through its bones, it sounds like the breath of the dying. To say Crimson Peak is a metaphor for the characters that live (and lived) there would be an understatement. Yet in Del Toro’s hands, even the rot is beautiful.
Those moldering walls needed to contain a story, though, and that is where Del Toro stumbled. Instead of composing a tale as captivating as his sets, he produced a narrative that’s only marginally interesting, wholly conventional, and, for a haunted mouse movie, oddly unsupernatural.
“Crimson Peak” follows Edith Cushing, the American daughter of a wealthy builder, as she meets Thomas Sharpe, an English aristocrat seeking an investor for his clay mining invention. Father disapproves as Edith marries Sir Thomas and then moves to England, but that’s beside the point. Soon, Edith is seeing gruesome ghosts that seem to be warning her about something but succeed only in scaring the bejesus out of her. When family secrets start oozing out of the walls along with the oily clay, Edith realizes she’s in danger of losing her life.
While the narrative for “Crimson Peak” is lucid, it’s also disappointingly predictable. I saw every story beat well in advance, and I felt as though I spent most of the movie letting Del Toro go through the motions. The camera work, editing, and special effects are indeed extraordinary, but the story is just OK, making “Crimson Peak” an unsatisfying experience.
When the movie started, I thought I was going to ding the dialog and acting, too. The former sounded theatrical, like it would have been better suited for a play, and the latter is stagey and awkward at times. However, after a few scenes, I barely noticed these things.
Is “Crimson Peak” worth seeing for its artistic and technical merits? After years of watching cheap, herky jerky horror movies made on someone’s smart phone, I certainly luxuriated in the expensive sets and costumes, and in watching a movie that both honors the craft of filmmaking and had genuine talent behind the camera. I just wish there had been a meatier story to bite into.
Two and a half stars out of four. Rated R for bloody violence, some sexual content, and brief strong language.
David Laprad is the assistant editor of the Hamilton County Herald and an award-winning columnist and photographer. Contact him at email@example.com.