‘Crimson Peak’ Review: Guillermo Del Toro’s Gloomy Gothic Romance
Alfred Hitchcock had a saying: “Logic is dull.”
On the basis of Crimson Peak, it’s pretty clear Guillermo del Toro feels the same way.
Most of this chilly and atmospheric horror film is set in a phantasmic English manor named Allerdale Hall. The building — the ancestral home of a wealthy family fallen on hard times — is gorgeously decrepit and completely absurd. A massive hole in the roof allows snow to fall constantly into the foyer; the grounds around the house are so caked with red clay that the water pours out of the faucet an ominous blood red. Oh and don’t forget the ghosts that roam the halls. This place could only exist in a movie, or perhaps in the dreams of a visually inclined (and logically disinclined) filmmaker.
No one would ever want to spend more than 30 minutes in Allerdale, much less live there, so naturally the characters in Crimson Peak go to obsessive lengths to keep it (because, again, logic is dull). Its primary residents are a pair of siblings, Sir Thomas (Tom Hiddleston) and Lady Lucille Sharpe (Jessica Chastain), who are desperate to secure financing for their struggling mining concern devoted to turning the clay under Allerdale into dyes and ores. Crimson Peak finds the Sharpes after they arrive in Buffalo, New York looking for new investors. They target wealthy businessman Carter Cushing (Jim Beaver), who’s immediately skeptical of the siblings and their true motives. But while Carter rejects Sir Thomas’ pitch, Carter’s daughter Edith (Mia Wasikowska), an aspiring horror novelist, finds him and his Hiddlestonian nature utterly irresistible. It isn’t long before Sir Thomas and Edith are married, and they relocate to Allendale Hall with Lady Lucille, where the real horror begins.
Preposterous or not, Allendale Hall and its inhabitants are marvels of production and costume design. Every nook and cranny has been meticulously created for maximum graphic impact. Del Toro considered every detail of this world, from the design of the wallpaper, to the colors of Chastain and Wasikowska’s wardrobes, to the precise layout of the mansion and its geography.
Unfortunately, this marvelous house seems more alive than the characters in it — and not just the ghosts. Del Toro describes Crimson Peak as a “gothic romance,” but the end product is heavy on the “gothic” and awfully light on the “romance.” Wasikowska has absolutely no chemistry with Hiddleston — or with Charlie Hunnam, who plays an old friend of Edith’s who suspects Sir Thomas’ interests in his bride lie beyond her natural beauty or charm. (Hunnam, meanwhile, has even worse chemistry with his atrocious Buffalo accent.)
After establishing Edith as a feisty woman with a passion for writing who’s determined to carve out her own space in a male-dominated world, the screenplay (co-written by del Toro and Matthew Robbins) completely abandons her career and feminist leanings as soon as she arrives at Allendale. In the film’s second and third acts, Edith becomes a doormat for the Sharpes’ schemes, which are all rendered cringingly obvious by Chastain and Hiddleston’s broad acting choices. Alfred Hitchcock may have enjoyed Crimson Peak’s flagrant disregard for logic, but its total lack of suspense would have left him cold.
Hitchcock was also fond of saying “Self-plagiarism is style.” Lately, Guillermo del Toro’s been plagiarizing all the wrong parts of himself, He’s made brilliant films, but between Crimson Peak and 2013’s Pacific Rim, he seems to have moved into a phase of his career focused on design at the expense of character. The people in Crimson Peak feel like they’re onscreen purely out of necessity; del Toro needs somebody to creep around his spooky hallways and wear his sumptuous period clothes. If any of the people in Crimson Peak were even half as fleshed out as their incredibly ornate world, the film would be a masterpiece. Edith and the Sharpes’ actions don’t necessarily require more logic. But a little bit more attention to detail wouldn’t hurt.