Trailers would have you believe that Crimson Peak, the newest film from Guillermo Del Toro, is a ghost-filled non-stop chilling thrill ride, the sort of film rightly positioned for release in the latter half of October as the Western world’s minds turn to Halloween. With a history including films like Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone, Del Toro certainly knows his way around the macabre, and after years of circling a new adaptation of Disney’s The Haunted Mansion, it seems he’s gone and made his haunted mansion movie on his own.
Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) is a precocious young American aspiring author, seemingly destined to wed one of the town’s doctors, Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam). She, however, is more taken by a mysterious British inventor named Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), who has come to America with his aloof sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) looking for funding for a clay mining machine. Edith’s father, Carter (Jim Beaver) disapproves, but his untimely death leads to her marrying Sharpe and traveling with him to his family estate in England, a decrepit old mansion in serious disrepair slowly sinking into the bed of blood-red liquid clay that lies beneath. But more secrets lie in the house than Edith would care to endure, and a red, skeletal ghost seems to have dire warnings for her.
Del Toro has always had an eye for visuals, and that certainly remains the case with Crimson Peak. A period piece resplendent with ruffled shoulders and corsets aplenty, the film seems to purposefully make the city of Buffalo somewhat drab to make a stark comparison with Allerdale Hall, the home of the Sharpes. A color palette of light amber and earthy browns gives way to the deep blues and sanguine reds of the manor, fully earning its eponymous nickname as Crimson Peak. Del Toro’s ghosts are skeletal monsters, moving jerkily across the screen, stretching out their bony fingers with tendrils of ectoplasm trailing off from them (the motion capture was handled by Doug Jones, a Del Toro favorite). The mansion is full of Burton-esque flair, with long corridors and windows casting all sorts of wild shadows, and a missing roof allowing snow to lazily fall through its center. It is the perfect setting for a story like this.
It is a shame, then, that the visual design ends up being one of the few saving graces of the film. Del Toro feels like he’s aiming for a new Dracula, taking plenty of time to establish his characters away from the main setting, but the script (from Del Toro and Matthew Robbins) never feels settled. It wades in and out of classic Hollywood melodrama while trying to retain a sense of modern irony, but when melded together, moments that should seem serious end up feeling jokey and without the requisite punch needed to keep the momentum of the plot moving. Too much of the film feels inert, listlessly playing out before disinterested eyes, often setting up new intriguing premises to never pay them off, that when it reaches its predictable twist and explodes into a climax of madcap action and suspense, nothing resonates. The quality of the visuals and the set design is one thing, but a good film needs more than that to be a well-rounded piece of entertainment.
The acting is generally fine, with Wasikowska playing another waif (one whose fiery independence is disappointingly dulled over the course of the film’s second half) and Hiddleston doing his best Rochester. Chastain plays aloof well and brings a sinister energy to her role that might foreshadow things a tad too much. Hunnam is here working for Del Toro again after Pacific Rim, and while he is not nearly as wretched as he was in that film, he still cannot seem to nail down an accent with any consistency and lacks any sort of genuine feeling on the screen. But try as they might, the cast cannot overcome the script’s inability to connect with its audience. It is possible that the marketing has let Del Toro down, as the ghosts are thoroughly tangential to the story, but in the end a film must rise or fall purely on its own merits. And much like the once stately manor at its core, Crimson Peak can do nothing but sink into the ground slowly and inexorably.