Here’s where angels sit down to weep next to devils — the often-brilliant Guillermo del Toro’s big Gothic romance / gory ghost epic looks mighty fancy but is a mess in too many ways to count. Say it Ain’t So, Guillermo!
Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD
Universal / Legendary
2015 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 119 min. / Street Date February 9, 2016 / 34.98
Starring Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston, Charlie Hunnam, Jim Beaver.
Cinematography Dan Laustsen
Film Editor Bernat Vilaplana
Original Music Fernando Velásquez
Written by Guillermo del Toro, Matthew Robbins
Produced by Guillermo del Toro, Callum Greene, Jon Jashni, Thomas Tull
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Quite the wonder child of fantasy and horror, Guillermo del Toro has made near masterpieces in the Spanish language but not fared as well breaking through the Hollywood blockbuster barrier. His top-grossing American film might be Blade II. His equally talented compatriot Alfonso Cuarón has done better in the last ten years or so. Bad luck played a role in projects like the Hobbit; Del Toro surely would have made a distinctive contribution to that series. Based on his fairly amazing trilogy of Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth — scary, original movies of substance — I looked forward to Pacific Rim: If anybody could reboot the rock ’em sock ’em colossal monster genre, he’d be the man. It didn’t do a thing for me, not even in 3-D. 2015’s Crimson Peak sees the Mexican Master of Fear tackling an ideal subject, a super-gothic ghost story. It’s one of the most elaborate period-dress spook shows I’ve seen, but even with a dream cast, it just doesn’t come together. Did Tim Burton spoil the genre?
The screenplay by Del Toro and veteran Matthew Robbins combines straight-up gothic ghost thrills with supermarket pulp romance. Around the turn of the 20th century, wealthy American builder Carter Cushing (Jim Beaver) receives an English inventor, Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston, ‘Loki’ in the Marvel media bulldozer) who wants an investment for a mining machine for his ‘red clay mine’ back in England. Cushing senses that all is not right with Sharpe or his quiet, gracious sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) even as the locals wine and dine them. Thomas is strongly attracted to Carter’s daughter Edith (Mia Wasikowska of Burton’s Alice in Wonderland), but the cautious father has the foreigner investigated, and doesn’t like what he finds out. One mysterious tragedy later, Edith is married to Thomas and moving into his dilapidated giant house on the English moor, directly atop Sharpe’s ‘red clay’ mine. The crumbling building is missing part of its roof. An elevator descends into a forbidden cellar, but the icky red stuff oozes right out of the ground. Meanwhile, the dark and moody Lucille Sharpe withholds the household keys from the new mistress of the house. Thomas and Lucille seem anxious to have Edith’s wealth transferred from back in the states, where the man Edith left behind, ophthalmologist Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam of Pacific Rim) wonders if his former sweetheart needs his help.
Crimson Peak is quite a visual treat. I haven’t seen a horror film this visually ornate since, well, Guillermo’s own Pan’s Labyrinth. The physical recreations of high-toned life among the Yankee rich are a pleasure to see, with representations of an architect’s office, a couple of fine Victorian houses and a ballroom scene all decked out for maximum appeal. Even as we realize that much of what we see are digital creations — the city streets in America, the fanciful ghost mansion in England — the visual settings are fun in and of themselves.
That’s about where the fun ends, however. The actors would seem well cast, especially Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain, who have the interesting characters to play. But the story, the way it’s told, and even the way the supernatural elements are handled lack the finesse and insight of Del Toro’s previous Spanish-language horror movies. The movie is always interesting, but it never grabs us.
We’re first hit with a few feminist anachronisms that kill off the appeal of Edith Cushing, a budding writer. For a reel or so the show resembles a gothic take on the Disney Princess franchise, with perky Edith becoming a surprise guest at the ball, and showing up a pair of wicked stepsisters competitors eager to snag a marriage proposal from the darkly handsome Thomas Sharpe. After the loss of the film’s most interesting character, Crimson Peak becomes less a gothic drama than a parody of one. Everything that happens is too familiar, with echoes from Jane Eyre, Rebecca and a thousand other gothic traps in which a woman in love finds herself the patsy in a diabolical plot.
At times Crimson Peak reminds this viewer of another horror movie that is also partly a parody of the gothic formula. Riccardo Freda’s The Horrible Dr. Hichcock somehow stays on track, even as it restages situations from Alfred Hitchcock melodramas. Peak plays the same game, focusing on things like a key ring lifted from a menacing ‘Mrs. Danvers’ type, and a lady’s drink laced with slow-acting poison. But del Toro runs wild with spook-show content that doesn’t work well no matter how handsomely it is integrated into the film’s design. This is painful for this reviewer to report, because I’m on record as being most impressed by older horror pictures with artful visuals. Crimson Peak looks great but its mechanical effects just don’t come to life. Del Toro ends many scenes with ominous iris-outs, which ought to point out meaningful details, but usually do not. The careful, rich color lighting schemes sometimes remind us of Mario Bava, but without his sense of focused design. As much as director Tim Burton has run his gothic vibe into the ground, we can at least depend on him for a truly jolting visual every minute or so. Del Toro’s earlier horror fantasies achieved an intensely believable feeling of being in some very real past.
Crimson Peak’s big set-piece location is a less exciting version of the Disney Haunted Mansion. Looking at the leaves and snow falling through its open roof, our mind wanders to questions like, ‘wouldn’t every square inch of that wooden interior be ruined in a matter of weeks?’ Edith asks Thomas how many rooms it has, and he says he’s not sure. By the condition of the place, it’s safe to say that it has lost a few rooms since he was last there. The three leading characters seem fairly cozy in a house with no roof, beset by moths and surely half-buried in pigeon poop. Why do the women bother to fix up their hair so beautifully in this wreck? Why aren’t they wearing two coats and a blanket to hold off the creeping cold? With snow falling in the entranceway, we’ve got a critical insulation problem. Sharpe’s shack up atop Red Goop Hill reminds me of a Sigma Nu fraternity house I spent the summer in at UCLA. It was cold and miserable even in a hot July, with inoperable windows letting in the elements.
Crimson Peak’s storyline carries few surprises, starting from the introduction of its ghosts in the very first scene. This robs the movie of any hope of building mood or suspense. Edith’s relationship with the ghosts never develops beyond the vague warning stage. The visual depiction of the phantoms is interesting enough — their vague shapes seem to be dissolving in the air, like drops of blood in water. But why is the ghost of Lucille’s freshly-deceased mother a hideous Del Toro monster, while the others look human?
The dialogue is frequently too on-the money, explaining things rather than letting us discover them. I caught a couple of inane added wild lines, totally unnecessary gems like, “I have to get out of here,” heard when Edith is already running for the door. Edith rushes to give a definition for the title Baronet, as if del Toro feared a mass audience walkout if the term wasn’t immediately understood by all. Anybody that hasn’t seen On Her Majesty’s Secret Service doesn’t deserve to know what a Baronet is.
Mia Wasikowska is appropriately timid-assertive (?) but she can’t keep Edith from looking foolish, wearing sheer nightgowns as she strolls about in that crazy house, knowing that horrid ghost phantoms are likely to erupt from the floorboards at any minute. This is the first film I’ve seen that doesn’t use Jessica Chastain well. She telegraphs Lucille’s menace at such volume — big facial twitches — that poor Edith looks like a dolt for not countering with a kung-fu move or two. Hiddleston’s Thomas’ Sharpe is just a hunk of handsome mush. “I dearly love you and I’m in a murder plot to take your money… but I really love you so I’ll protect you… but I’m really into my hot, hot sister… but I love you, honest.”
Here’s one horror story where a raunchy three-way could have saved everyone a lot of grief. We at least might have been spared the ending’s silly violence. A brutal murder up front seems over the top, but the conclusion is a round robin of fairly ridiculous knifings. My experience is that any cut larger than a small scratch will usually cause some kind of painful distraction, even if the wound is on a toe or a finger. In this show, a person stabbed through (not ‘in’) the face is still able to talk normally. Others gored in various parts of the torso can still run, fight, and apparently even walk a great distance in the snow. The stab-happy characters even get technical about it, as if stabbing somebody intending not to hurt them was an everyday, consentual act: “You’re a doctor. Show me where.” It’s a return to the happy old days of ‘harmless flesh wounds.’ One surprise is that nobody gets chewed up in Sharpe’s clay-digging contraption. It breaks the old screenwriting rule: ‘Introduce a mechanical gizmo capable of mangling people in reel one, and somebody has to get mangled in reel nine.’
The most original idea in Crimson Peak is its biggest head-scratcher. Sharpe’s ‘Red Clay Mine’ is basically a massive pit of Oobleck that looks like thick red paint. The landscape is one big bleeding open sore. It’s so preposterous that we wait excitedly to see what the marvelous payoff will be. But there isn’t any; we’re just supposed to accept the red goop at face value. When Thomas steps on the floor and some of the red oozes up between the floorboards, the Sharpe manse becomes a joke. The goop has satuated everything and is rising through the first floor foundation, yet an elevator descends thirty feet to a sub-basement, that isn’t already filled with the stuff? The crimson gunk is too bright to be spaghetti sauce. It has none of the hazardous properties of The Blob or X- the Unknown. Maybe it is meant to be sentient slime, like that found on the mysterious planetoids Tau Ceti and Solaris. Does the icky red stuff have some special relationship with the ghosts? They seem to be made of the same stuff. Del Toro takes the red goop idea too far, or maybe not far enough. I don’t know… was I not paying attention in school when we were taught all the industrial uses for Red Clay? Even in the enlightened Edwardian era, I think rural English folk would take one look at the Sharpe property, conclude that The Devil had created an Unholy Spring of the Damned, and come a-running with the pitchforks and torches. We need to rewrite the “Green Acres” jingle lyrics to fit: “Crimson Acres that’s the place for me / scarlet slime as far as I can see! / ooze spreadin’ out so far and wide / forget the incest but gimme that homicide.” Apologies.
I think Guillermo del Toro is still the most exciting thing to happen to horror in the last twenty years, a classy antidote for the genre’s lazy zombies and inhumane torture porn. His Spanish language thrillers have a deep connection to cultural and political history lacking in this ‘Dark Shadows’ story. Since Crimson Peak has all the right ingredients, I’m surprised that it wasn’t a hit anyway — many less rewarding horror films find a big audience. This one does look as if it came with a forbidding price tag. Issues with budget and rating have stalled del Toro’s “At the Mountains of Madness,” even with Jim Cameron producing and Tom Cruise starring. Like a couple of other excellent fantasy-horror-sci fi directors cruising just short of fully-fulfilled careers, I want del Toro to find his groove and grow as an artist. The movies need him.
Gary Teetzel contributed to this review.
Univeral/Legendary’s Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD of Crimson Peak delivers a terrific HD image, that allows us to appreciate the ornate designs of the sets, costumes and special effects — great looking stuff. The fancy soundtrack makes good use of atmospheres and eerie singing mixed in with the underscore.
Universal stacks the Blu-ray with a record number of trailers up front. For extras we’re given at least seven making-of featurettes produced in commercial EPK style. The best of them show off the sets and designs. Guillermo del Toro contributes to these as well as to a good commentary; his perfect English flatters the language. Some deleted scenes are present as well.
A DVD disc is included and also codes and instructions for both a Digital HD download, and Ultraviolet.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Crimson Peak Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD rates:
Movie: between Fair and Good
Sound: Excellent English + Spanish
Supplements: Deleted Scenes, featurettes I Remember Crimson Peak, A Primer on Gothic Romance, The Light and Dark of Crimson Peak, Hand Tailored Gothic, A Living Thing, Beware of Crimson Peak and Crimson Phantoms; feature Commentary with Guillermo del Toro.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English, Spanish, French
Packaging: One Blu-ray and One DVD in keep case in card sleeve
Reviewed: January 31, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson