A loving throwback to Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe movies and Hammer’s gothic chillers from the ‘60s, Crimson Peak is a cobwebs-and-candelabras chamber piece that’s so preoccupied with being visually stunning it forgets to be scary. Directed by Guillermo del Toro, the Mexican maestro of moody mayhem, the film runs on atmosphere and suggestion rather than terror. Which is a not-insignificant problem for a ghost story.
Mia Wasikowska, who seems to have a monopoly lately on Victorian-era heroines, stars as a porcelain-skinned young woman named Edith Cushing (a nod to Hammer horror legend Peter Cushing and just one of del Toro’s many references to his influences). Set at the dawn of the 20th century (1901 Buffalo to be exact), the movie opens as Edith is struggling to be taken seriously as a writer. She wants to be Mary Shelley. Living with her self-made engineer father in an old dark house that’s haunted by her dead mother, Edith receives spectral nightly visits from a wraith warning her to “Beware of Crimson Peak.”
More serious and bookish than interested in the fripperies and frivolities of high society, Edith is torn between two suitors – Charlie Hunnam’s Dr. Alan McMichael and a dashingly mysterious new arrival from England, Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston). The doc, who Edith has known since childhood, is solid, dependable, and earnest. He doesn’t stand a chance next to Hiddleston’s seductive rake even though he tends to dress like a natty undertaker and is constantly accompanied by his clingy sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain dialing the fiendish knob to 11).
After her disapproving father is brutally murdered, Edith wastes no time falling into Hiddleston’s consoling arms, and he whisks her off to his family’s desolate, run-down estate across the Atlantic. The house, with its moaning drafts, creaking doors, haunted history, and dilapidated roof, is the best character in the movie. Built on top (on the peak of, you might say) subterranean deposits of red clay (a shade not unlike crimson), the mansion is slowly sinking into the earth, as if Satan himself was trying to repossess it. There, Edith’s apparitions from beyond return with a new urgency, and there are other undisclosed forces of evil at work, too.
Del Toro and cinematographer Dan Laustsen (who worked together on 1997’s Mimic) are clearly having a blast painting every corner of their creepy crimson canvas. But as sumptuous as Crimson Peak looks and as sinister as Hiddleston and Chastain are, you never get transported to the bone-chilling places that a great ghost story should take you. What it’s missing is the suggestively Freudian menace of Vincent Price or a Christopher Lee. Which begs the question, why would you settle for a less-than-frightening facsimile when you could always go back and watch the better versions from the ‘60s? B-