Crimson Peak

2 out of 5

Directed by: Guillermo del Toro

I did have an idea of what to expect.

I jumped on the del Toro train with a mix of Blade II and Hellboy, and dutifully went back to study Cronos and Devil’s Backbone.  I was ready, opening day, to sing the praises of Pan’s Labyrinth, and I seemed to be one of five people who sincerely dug Pacific Rim.  But, for as much as we celebrate Guillermo’s visual sweep, and his poetic and violent application of that in Pan, I am aware of his shortcomings: his ‘vaporware’ list of intended film projects suggests a busy brain, and then along comes a haunted house tale that didn’t seem to be on that list at all.  This was clearly going to harken back to those early ghost films, which meant that we’d be dealing, probably, with something slow, moody, and – as is true for most of GdT’s movies – something that’s not going to rock the house with new story ideas.  Guillermo is a composer; he’s not out to twist our heads or make us think, exactly, but rather paint every detail of a picture so that it’s something to be proud of.

And Crimson Peak is impeccably composed.  But to a fault.  As an indulgent tribute to Gothic and classic horror, GdT allows Peak to bloat into a full-on period piece, determined to put us into the mindset necessary for the tone and frights of a different era of film.  And this would work if the cast was either more outlandish or more compelling, but everyone – save the clearly evil Lady Lucille (Jessica Chastain) – is told to play it human.  This provides for some good performances, but not so much for building the tension necessary to ratchet up the spook factor, and so it almost immediately feels out of place when the film tosses some blood or hauntings our way; it especially and grossly feels out of place when these moments are accompanied by dumb music stings and fast edits, as though, in a moment of indecision, Guillermo was worried that modern audiences might need those genre-y reminders that it’s a horror movie.

The other problem with this approach is the bare bones plot.  While the title of the film suggests we’re going to be spending much time at said Peak, or the house featured prominently in the posters and trailers, because our relocation there effectively requires plot reveals to begin, Guillermo pushes it back to about the midpoint, but even then there’s not a lot to sustain us once there.  The pacing isn’t as sluggish as Cronos, but it does share that film’s sense of scope, which requires a viewer to hang in there for the slimmest and most basic explanation of events, the film servicing mood first.  Peak’s obvious plotting is closer to Devil’s Backbone, but whereas that film made sure to continually use its setting to at least enhance the experience, it’s almost shocking how little of the house is used – a bedroom, a kitchen, a basement.  We linger on each and every “clue,” pretty much knowing where it points, and certainly impressed by the production design but maybe waiting to see if anything else is actually going to happen.  (It doesn’t, really.)

But I think what pushed me out of accepting this as a “good” film… was that I was bored.  I’m speaking to the slowness above while making sure to compliment the environment, but there is an overall lack of involvement with the picture.  Different aspects – the main character’s (Mia Wasikowska) writerly pursuits, a ring gifted to her by her husband, Burn Gorman popping up as an investigator, the hero character (Charlie Hunnam) and his doctor practice – simply don’t bear fruit.  Yes, they tie into the plot at different points, but it never gels together as a mystery; it feels like dressing lain over an idea.  And to top it off, the film opens with a proclamation about ghosts being real; our lead’s ability to see these ghosts accounts for most of the scares – which do look good when that aforementioned editing nonsense wasn’t applied – but it doesn’t really matter at all within the context of the movie.  Her “power” exists as an extra, again, as though we just needed something to nudge this into fantasy.

Crimson Peak looks and feels like something that should be much more effective than it is.  Guillermo chose one of his many ideas and absolutely went to town with it, full-on Gothic horror.  But the disconnect between genre and tone, characters and audience investment, is too wide to keep our attentions – or at least mine – for the two hour runtime, and if some of the snores I heard from the audience were any indication, then I wasn’t alone.