Guillermo del Toro’s latest, Crimson Peak, attempts to revive the genre, but it relies too much on over the top gore and the sort of stalk and slash finale that would be more at home in the Scream franchise. The movie’s title refers to an old English mansion, its crumbling majesty sinking into the precarious red clay it’s built upon, and that’s ironically an all too apt metaphor for del Toro’s film, which is sumptuous in its visuals but housed on a paper thin foundation.
As a child, New Yorker Edith Cushing (groan) is visited by the spooky spirit of her recently deceased mother, who delivers the cryptic message, “Beware of Crimson Peak!” Later, as a young woman, Edith (Mia Wasikowska) falls for a visiting charming Englishman, Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), and despite her father’s best efforts to prevent their coupling, moves to Sharpe’s ancestral home in rural England, ‘Crimson Peak.’ We quickly learn that Sharpe and his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) have ulterior motives in luring Edith to their home.
Another problem with modern attempts at gothic is how few actors can appear convincingly Victorian, but in Wasikowska, Hiddleston and Chastain, del Toro has a assembled a trio of stars who look a lot more comfortable in Victorian garb than contemporary clobber. It’s these central performances, along with the magnificent costumes and production design, that keep Crimson Peak from collapsing. Wasikowska has a brittle Joan Fontaine quality, and Hiddleston was born to play this sort of old world cad, but it’s Chastain who steals the show with a performance that’s not so much scenery chewing as scenery absorbing.
As gothic melodramas go, Crimson Peak is fine, but what mars the movie is its ghost story element, an unnecessary subplot that adds nothing and feels a bit too close to M Night Shyamalan at his most mediocre. Del Toro has chosen to structure his plot in a way that gives us enough details to create a veneer of suspense, but he oddly holds back on the sort of minor details that are too obvious to make his final plot twists land with any degree of impact.
There are enough creaky doors and candle-lit hallways to keep devotees of this genre mildly sated, but Crimson Peak is ultimately a gothic melodrama that’s heavy on gothic but all too low on drama.