Review: Crimson Peak Hammers it Home

In Crimson Peak, Mia Wasikowska plays Edith Cushing. Given director Guillermo del Toro‘s professed love of Hammer Films and Sherlock Holmes, it’s obvious she’s named for Peter Cushing, who starred in such Hammer classics as The Curse of Frankenstein, Dracula and The Hound of the Baskervilles, although Cushing is best remembered as Grand Moff Tarkin, the Duke of Medina Sidonia of the Star Wars universe. Of course, Crimson Peak primarily exists as an homage to Hammer Horror with a nod toward Holmes (Charlie Hunnam‘s character, who “solves” the film’s central mystery is an ophthalmologist, just like Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle).

Edith fancies herself the next Mary Shelley, author of gothic classic Frankenstein: or, the Modern Prometheus, a childhood favourite of del Toro’s which he’s been yearning to adapt for years. Edith makes it quite clear that she writes “stories with ghosts,” but most certainly not “ghost stories,” which is an apt description of Crimson Peak itself: the ghosts in del Toro’s tale are entirely incidental to the plot, too ethereal and without substance, literally and figuratively. Extinguish them and the story still holds together. But without the ghosts—and their CG Skeletor faces and talon-like fingers and wisping digital trails of red and inky blackness—there’s little else to hold your attention once you’ve finished admiring the lavish red velvet cupcake of a set design. At least not until the satisfyingly bloody ending.

The story is slight and feels familiar. Despite an explicit warning from the (exceptionally prescient) ghost of her dead mother to stay away from “crimson peak,” Edith Cushing finds herself marrying an effete British aristocrat (Tom Hiddleston) and moving to his crumbling English estate, nicknamed—surprise, surprise—Crimson Peak for the way the red clay stains the snow. There are drafts and cracks and holes in the roof through which snow flutters down into the foyer, turning the house into a literal snow globe within which the characters are routinely shaken. Naturally, the house is also haunted—both by ghosts and the aristocrat’s brittle big sister (Jessica Chastain), who’s most certainly hiding something behind her severe veneer.

There’s so much to enjoy about Crimson Peak, a lavishly produced bauble with sumptuous sets and costumes (most notably, Wasikowska’s bright yellow dress with poofy shoulders like swirls of fondant that make her look like one of the butterflies her new sister-in-law allows to be killed by a colony of ants). I just wish del Toro had lavished as much attention on developing the story and characters as he did the set dressing. The devil is in the details, certainly, and there are oh so many details on display, but the musty old story could have benefitted from having a few of the cobwebs shaken away. At times it feels confined, like a stage play, which isn’t helped by the starched dialogue (that occasionally sounds like mopey teen girl poetry) and stilted delivery. Only Hiddleston seems at all comfortable in del Toro’s meticulously crafted confection. In fact, so comfortably does he inhabit his role it’s as though he was to the manner born.

A few CG embellishments aside, Crimson Peak could have been made by Hammer Films 50 years ago, or been written as a Brontë-like gothic romance 150 years ago.  And if that was del Toro’s intention then he was immensely successful. But like so many of those beloved Hammer movies, strip away the craft and colour and what we’re left with is a rather conventional melodrama wrapped up as a haunted house yarn, a bit dull, a bit plodding—until the knives and ghouls come out to play. I may not love Crimson Peak now, but I suspect it’ll be one of those movies I revisit from time to time, if only to sink into the rich cupcakey goodness of it all.