Horror of horrors, this fails to chill the spine
Crimson Peak (M) ★ 1/2 National release
Mexican director Guillermo del Toro likes his ghost stories and fairytales. Perhaps his bestknown films remain the Spanish language Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) and The Devil’s Backbone (2001), dark fantasy-horror stories informed by the terrors of the Spanish Civil War. It will come as no surprise then to learn he wrote the first script for his new film, the gothic horror Crim
son Peak, soon after Pan’s Labyrinth. It’s taken him a while to bring it to the screen, with other projects intervening, including the quite passable sci-fi monsters versus robots blockbuster Pacific Rim (2013).
Del Toro has said of Crimson Peak that he wanted to make an old-fashioned hauntedhouse film such as the ones he watched in his youth, citing The Omen, The Amityville Horror and “the Everest of haunted-house movies”, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Unfortunately, Crimson Peak is not even in the foothills. It’s main problem is it just isn’t scary, even with some neat tributes to those three seat-jumpers the director loved as a boy. M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit is a much scarier option for the Halloween target audience.
The Visit is also much funnier, and that’s another missed opportunity with del Toro’s film: the cast seems to take it far too seriously. The set-up — a dilapidated mansion in freezing northern England, moths in the kitchen and grim portraits on the walls, the creepy brother and sister who live in it, the American heiress who moves in after falling for the brother — lends itself to a bit of melodramatic humour, but there is almost none. It’s all so earnest and, as a result, preposterous.
Another problem is one of split personality, which would be fine if this was Sybil, but it’s not. It’s as though del Toro was torn between making a lush Victorian drama and a modern horror tale and decided to kill two ravens with one stone by joining the two together. As with Victor Frankenstein’s creation, the stitches show.
This schizophrenia starts with the name of our American heroine: Edith Cushing (Australian actress Mia Wasikowska). The first and best half of the film is set in upstate New York amid the prosperous entrepreneurial classes of the early 20th century. In its faithful recreation of period detail it is at times reminiscent of Martin Scorsese’s masterful 1993 adaptation of Edith Wharton’s novel The Age of Innocence. Del Toro, Danish cinematographer Dan Laustsen and the costume and set-design people do a marvellous job in this respect — indeed I wish the film had been contained to this arch and glamorous world.
But we are set to leave it behind when minor English aristocrat Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston, who bears a resemblance to the young Peter Cushing) turns up, seeking American backing for his failing business back home. He woos Edith, a beautiful and serious young woman who wants to be a novelist, Mary Shelley being her role model. Thomas’s forbidding sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) looks on icily. Edith’s powerful, wealthy father Carter (Jim Beaver) objects but, for reasons best left to the audience to discover, he for once doesn’t have his own way. Handsome doctor Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam, no Son of Anarchy here), in love with Edith, looks on haplessly.
The second half of the film, the ghost story part, unfolds in Thomas’s creaking mansion. The title refers to the blood-red clay of the hilly terrain on which the property lies, the natural resource Thomas mines to make bricks and tiles. It is only on seeing this landscape that Edith makes some sense of a warning issued from beyond the grave by her mother: Beware Crimson Peak. Yet further proof that one should always listen to one’s mater.
And so things go bump in the night, apparitions appear, the house seems to take on malevolent life and so on. But the real evil here is human, as so often is the case. Anyone half-awake will see all the twists coming, especially the real nature of Thomas and Lucille’s relationship, the way Viv Richards used to see a cricket ball: very early. That leaves you with only the potential thrill of the good versus evil life-and-death action, but despite a preponderance of knives, cleavers and other sharp objects, it just doesn’t cut it.
Mia Wasikowska encounters a spot of unpleasantness in Crimson Peak