Director: Guillermo del Toro
Stars: Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston
3 (out of 5) Globes
“Crimson Peak” is the rare ghost movie where the ghosts aren’t…well, they’re not nice, but they aren’t evil. Of course it comes from Guillermo del Toro. He’s an unusual director: a wildly imaginative inventor of strange, gorgeous and usually menacing creatures, which are, whether psycho or benign, imbued with bottomless empathy, even a kind of humanity. And perhaps inevitably it sometimes, not always, feels like he should farm his ideas out to someone else. He can conjure up real, kinetic beauty, even in an ass-kicker like “Blade II,” and he’s one of the few who can make CGI look rapturous. But his multitasking often gets the better of him, resulting in films that live for their eye-popping sights but neglect to give them a foundation that will support them. They’re often times just stuff, and lots of it.
Del Toro needs balance, but he can only do extremes. Indeed, his films toggle between two speeds: incredibly busy (usually his Hollywood turns, like “Hellboy II” and “Pacific Rim”) and glacial and moody (typically those not in English, such as “The Devil’s Backbone” and “Pan’s Labyrinth”). “Crimson Peak” is a Hollywood extravaganza, with awe-inspiring sets and first-rate ghosts, but it’s definitely one of the latter. A callback to Gothic spooksters like “The Innocents” and “The Haunting,” it tells of young Edith (Mia Wasikowska), an aspiring, Mary Shelley-esque writer who has the misfortune of living in patriarchal 18th century. She’s reluctant to be tied down by a man, but along comes Sir Thomas Shape, a struggling inventor who would have trouble locking her down if he wasn’t played by Tom Hiddleston in full dashing Hiddles glory.
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Edith should know better, especially once she meets Thomas’ cold and almost certainly murderous sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain), and especially when she’s installed in their cavernous family manse, which is not only clearly haunted but also sits atop a red clay mine, whose blood red color spreads forth from the estate like a disease. The house is an eyesore, and Del Toro loves prowling about it while his story stews on simmer. (The lovingly derivative tale calls back to Hitchcock’s “Rebecca,” with Lucille as his own Mrs. Danvers, but also another Hitch whose name-checking would be a spoiler.) It’s a triumph of set design and mood, filled with not only tension but burning sadness. The house is an extension of Thomas and Lucille’s damaged psyches, as though they sprang from the ornate and decaying walls, or from the bubbling red ooze that fills the forbidden basement lair.
But, as usually with Del Toro, the content is the last of his worries. Like “The Devil’s Backbone” and “Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Peak” is less simple than simplistic. It wants to be an old-school Gothic horror-romance, albeit with more blood and Del Toro’s usual yen for face woundings, but its story often only has the basic elements, as though he was a student doing only the minimum requirements on a project. It’s OK that “Crimson Peak” isn’t scary, as the melancholy is always overpowering. Hiddleston’s Thomas can barely mask his guilt over the grim family secret, while Chastain, as is her wont, lets slip notes of self-hatred into the implacably stern Lucille. Encased in confining clothes and even a concealed body cast, she’s another of Del Toro’s sad monsters. But Wasikowska’s Edith is perhaps too much of a blank. Del Toro and co-writer Matthew Robbins subvert the usual Gothic and horror tropes by giving her a sex life that doesn’t lead to punishment. But she’s soon turned into just another token damsel in distress. She becomes another of Del Toro’s ideas that never got past half-baked. It’s a beaut to look at and to feel, and unlike “The Devil’s Backbone” and “Pan’s Labyrinth” — and “Hellboy II,” and “Pacific Rim” — maybe that’s enough.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge