Review: "Crimson Peak"

Fun fact: I don't do scary moves. Like, at all. Call me a wimp or a wuss if you wish, but I've just never been that eager to fill my head with images that I won't soon forget. So naturally, one of the more unnerving portions of my movie-going evening consisted of sitting through the final two trailers before the film began: "Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension" and "Krampus," respectively, and coming to the realization that uh, I may have made a poor decision.

Thankfully, I made it out with nary an emotional scar to confidently say that the decision was not poor, nor was it originally made in hasty fashion either. I desperately wanted to see "Crimson Peak" because I desperately needed to confirm that Guillermo Del Toro could do better than "Pacific Rim." Not that his career was in danger of being defined by the exceedingly underwhelming 2013 giant monster/robot flick, but because I think, deep down, even fans of that movie know it wasn't his finest work. (Studios meddling with a director's vision is nothing new, but the Warner Bros. 3D snafu still stands out in my mind as one of the things that derailed that project in a huge way)

With that being said, I was eager to consider "Crimson Peak" a fresh slate. Give one of the most inspired, nuanced, and creative directors around an A-list cast and stunning visuals wrapped up together in the form of a ghost story (aka the guy's wheelhouse) and you're bound to have something that even horror novices like myself find enjoyable.

So imagine my surprise to see that it's hardly a ghost story at all.

It's also slightly flawed, but there's no mistaking that its darn good too. "Crimson Peak" tells the story of Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), an intelligent and rather independent young daughter of a wealthy businessman in Buffalo, New York. She's the slightest bit scarred from the death of her mother at an early age that has prompted a few unexpected and terrifying visits from Mama Cushing's ghost. Despite those experiences, she's intrigued by their existence and can't help but spend her time writing underappreciated ghost stories. To her, they're much more real than the "love stories" her publishers wish she would write instead.

Finally, someone does take a liking to the stories, and it's none other than Loki Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), who has arrived in the country with his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) as he attempts to seek investors for his science project back home. The pair are nice enough—he's a dashing gentleman, she's an understated, kind pianist, but it's evident from the very beginning that they're hiding a dark secret. That secret isn't fully revealed until the last 20 minutes or so, but the siblings make no hesitations in speaking under their breaths about a certain plan that needs sticking to.

One thing leads to another and Edith is so swept up by the idea of an English romance that she and Thomas marry, and soon after the couple is headed off to live in the Sharpe's sprawling and spooky family mansion. It doesn't take long for things to further seem much different than they appear, thanks in no small part to a couple haunting visuals and a barren, snow-filled landscape that truly makes you feel like these three characters couldn't possibly be further away from civilization. It would be a scary place to call home, and we haven't even discussed the red clay that seeps through the floorboards.

However, I wonder if del Toro fell too much in love with the film's aesthetics. The most striking image the story presents is the presence of the aforementioned clay and its ability to drown every other color it mixes with in a very dark red. A fresh blanket of snow in almost every setting is something that's rather magical, in addition to inherently peaceful. I've always loved the way a snowstorm just casts a silence over the surrounding area. Here's it's just the opposite. We're left what looks very much like a blood-stained carpet covering every inch of ground on the house's property. If that wasn't evidence enough that something sinister was afoot, I'm not sure what else could be.

But it felt so much like that image was being used to cover up the film's uneven third act, almost as if the setting itself could serve as a fine substitute for a final reveal that unfortunately falls the slightest bit flatter than I all think we would have liked. It's a great accompaniment to a story that's perfectly serviceable on its own, but the backdrop seemed unfortunately incapable of keeping up with what the film's actors were able to do on their own.

One thing del Toro absolutely nails is the decision to rest his story on the shoulders of Wasikowska and Chastain, allowing a pair of immensely talented women to simultaneously let loose while doing all the heavy lifting that the script requires. Hiddleston is great as well and probably far more capable of pulling off the this delightfully devious, yet earnest performance than many of his peers. The one actor who is completely serviceable and/or average is Charlie Hunnam, a holdover from "Pacific Rim" in yet another yawn-inducing turn. What's the opposite of actor stealing scenes? That's what Hunnam is here, playing everything so annoyingly close to the vest that it's often difficult to remember he's even there. Some of that may just be the character, because there's very, very little items of interest pertaining to the handsome doctor who's just sort of there when it's convenient for the story.

There are many nods to where the film is going early in the runtime, with lines that seem throwaway at the time actually doubling as some really fascinating foreshadowing. It's those moments, in addition to some scenes which seem straight-up borrowed from a slew of other period pieces but don't actually feel a touch out of place, that tie the whole thing together for me. It's a classic, impeccably paced tale that manages to accomplish much more than the film's marketing would ever have you believe. I don’t know, maybe "Pacific Rim" should have just swapped out their own indistinguishable monsters for ghosts in the first place.

FINAL VERDICT: 7.5 smashed porcelain sinks out of 10