“Ghosts are real” is the first line in Guillermo del Toro’s pseudo-Gothic-but-not-horror romance (as in romanticization, not a love story) soap opera Crimson Peak. And then the movie begins in media-res before introducing our perky heroine Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), a young writer with a widowed father. “It’s not a ghost story,” she assures us, “more a story with ghosts in it. Ghosts are a metaphor for the past.” And that’s the mission statement for del Toro with his bodice-ripper/Hammer Horror mashup. And therein lies the biggest weaknesses and strengths of the movie: it features lots of ghosts, some horror imagery and symbols, but isn’t really a scary ghost story. It speaks a lot about romance, love and romanticizes (fetishizes) the gothic vibes of the Victorian era aesthetics and lifestyle, but it’s cold and clinical (cynical too). Worst of all it gives us the structure of a mystery, yet it doesn’t merely “play fair” it practically spells out the answers to you in the first 10 minutes (to say nothing of the opening scene). In fact none of the lofty ideas about how past cycles haunt us ever come into play in any meaningful way. This is a movie that knows what it wants to be but seems content to be the least version of itself and yet does notalways mind because it’s still full of marvels.
When we first meet her, Edith is an outspoken, “independent young woman” living in Buffalo, New York, frustrated by the dated Victorian-era standards/expectations of gender before she falls head over heels for the mysterious Baron Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston in his best perpetual smolder). He’s an inventor and, according to Edith, he’s supposedly dreamy and sensitive and haunted. He also has a mean sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain in her worst performance ever). When Edith and Thomas get married she’s whisked away to Allerdale Hall (nicknamed “Crimson Peak”), a rambling, decaying Cumberland mansion beside which the Sharpes mine for the deep red clay that seeps through their foundations like an insistent heartbeat. And things go downhill from there.
In narrative terms, Crimson Peak somehow feels both bloated and soulless — which must be some sort of accomplishment, since stories tend to bloat from being overstuffed with too much incident or too many loose ends, not their own emptiness. For what it’s worth it seems del Toro is not at all interested in telling an actual story with this movie. That’s a perfectly valid way to make a movie but del Toro also doesn’t complicate his setup or give us anything beyond neat design elements to keep us interested in anything actually happening. It goes beyond the story being predictable, it’s that the story does not even pretend to be unpredictable. Del Toro may be harkening back to Gothic romances, Hammer horror, and Roger Corman’s Edgar Allen Poe films, but those films found ways to engage us even as they indulged in genre conventions and predictable stories. Here everything all feels woefully predetermined from frame one, with the neat visuals and effects only bringing to attention the lack of meaning.
The characters don’t fare much better either. Wasikowska gives Edith a plucky, forthright charm at first, but her character becomes more and more a vessel for us to explore the world of the Sharpes and Allerdale Hall, she regresses into one of the most empty-headed movie protagonists outside of bad comedies. The almost alien-like beautiful, soulful Hiddleston does what he can with the wan Thomas, but the fact that del Toro seems much more interested in the man as an archetype rather than an individual gets in the way in who would otherwise have been the perfect mascot on people’s Tumblrs and trapper-keepers. Charlie Hunnam is here too and I assume he just kind of showed up on set one day. Chastain, on the other hand, delivers what is surely one of worst lead performance in a studio movie in decades. And I mean that as a compliment. Chastain is tons of fun and completely aware of what she’s doing (you can almost see that tongue in her cheek). There is not a line that comes out of her mouth that ever sounds natural; Chastain speaks as if she has no understanding of humanity and the best part of that is seeing her play off of characters that interact with her like she’s a real human being, never seeming to notice her stilted, bizarre line deliveries or the static, glowering look that passes for emotions. The disruptive nature of watching normal actors doing their best engaging with a recognizably great actress purposefully delivering an extraordinarily poor performance is nothing short of thrilling. It’s like she’s pulling the ultimate prank.
Crimson Peak presented me with a conundrum. I was close to dismissing it as I walked out of the theater, but images and moments from it did stay with me. The ghosts are inconsequential and del Toro doesn’t shoot these actor/makeup/cg hybrids correctly but they are very distinct and certainly of a piece with the surreal gothic mansion itself. I keep thinking about the designs and the characters’ billowing robes as they sprint through the crumbling mansion’s halls with knives and candles. I keep thinking about that gushing, gory, blood-soaked finale just in terms of sumptuous visual splendor. So no, del Toro doesn’t give us any depth. However, he does give us atmosphere, color, texture, and whirlwind camera moves. You can’t lose yourself in the “romance” but you can lose yourself in the film’s spaces, in the characters’ costumes; hell, you can lose yourself in their hair. The film is so rich visually that you kind of forget about its revoltingly undercooked story after a while. A better way to describe Crimson Peak is not so much Gothic as it is Baroque; the real artistry lies in the excessive ornamentation. That won’t be enough for some and for others, it will be everything. As is the case with the relationship between Edith and Thomas, the illusion is far more compelling than the reality. I just wish the illusion was more convincing.