When “Crimson Peak” introduces Edith (Mia Wasikowska), she’s an independent young woman, intent on becoming a successful author, bucking the system in which women of the late 19th century are meant to become nothing more than a man’s wife.
Then, she meets Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and her entire world view gets a rewrite. Her heart goes a-flutter for this mysterious Englishman, who may as well have a sign around his neck that reads “Villain.”
That is an example of the nonsensical writing on display in “Crimson Peak.” Director/writer Guillermo del Toro wants to create a world starring a strong, tough heroine but then, since he hasn’t a clue how to do it, ditches that plan after twenty minutes and creates a boring, predictable, and not frightening ghost story.
That story begins in northern New York as Thomas Sharpe approaches Edith’s father (Jim Beaver) in hopes that he will invest in some whacky steampunk-like device that mines the land his family owns in England for red clay. Edith’s family, now without her mother who died of cholera when she was a small child, is quite well off and it’s blatantly obvious what Thomas’ true intentions are regarding his interest in Edith.
Speaking of family, Thomas has a whopper of one. His older sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain), oozes creepiness from the second she appears on screen. She whispers into Thomas’ ear and is very, very too chummy with her little brother. The oddest thing about Lucille is her English accent, which is to say she does not have one.
Events that do not favor Edith occur and the next thing you know, she is whisked off to the Sharpe castle in northern England as Thomas’ new wife. This is all to the chagrin of Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam), who “favors” Edith and suspects something fishy with the Sharpe siblings. That doesn’t exactly make Alan a super sleuth, as anyone with a partially functioning brain can see these two English folks are clearly up to no good.
When “Crimson Peak” moves to the decrepit Sharpe estate and various clues to the Sharpe’s past surface, it almost picks up some steam. Ghosts show up in a very grisly manner and begin to haunt Edith, either hoping to chase her away or perhaps warn her. The movie seems to be more interested in giving you the heebie jeebies as opposed to scares, which is maybe the only positive to take away from it.
Every single plot point falls in line just as you’d expect. Lucille goes from odd to seemingly dangerous to unhinged while Thomas helplessly stands by. Edith, who we were dishonestly led to believe is a fierce fighter, becomes little more than a damsel in distress. She screams out “Thomas!” every time there’s a bump in the night, which doesn’t seem like something her hero, Mary Shelley, would do.
If the story of “Crimson Peak” isn’t bad enough, it’s downright shocking to see a quality actress like Jessica Chastain embarrass herself at such a high level. There are moments meant to be frightening that come off as laughable, all due to her non-blinking, overtly crazed performance. She is an overacting bulldozer, ignoring the subtlety that “Crimson Peak” is trying to achieve.
There is a moment in which Chastain’s Lucille runs a spoon along the edge of a tea cup creating sounds similar to nails down a chalkboard. This elicited laughter in the theater as it is the equivalent of a Bond villain twirling his mustache while processing his dastardly plan.
The style greatly outweighs the substance for every second of “Crimson Peak.” The scope of the set design, costuming, and cinematography cannot possibly be measured, as they are some of the finest put on a big screen. It is actually a marvel to look at, even when the story bores you to tears.
There is a moment in “Crimson Peak” that seems like del Toro made the entire movie with a wink and a nudge, his tongue firmly planted in his cheek. It quickly becomes apparent that isn’t the case and this movie is fully serious without a hint of satire.
This movie, while stylishly amazing, is nothing more than an excuse for del Toro to fit in as many horror tropes that he possibly could. If it felt more like an original, inventive homage to classic horror instead of a script written in 1940 but with modernized effects, “Crimson Peak” may have been worth seeing.
In stores on Tuesday, February 9.