From the first trailer straight to its release, Crimson Peak promised to be an electrifying, visuals-driven horror movie with rich colors and music and set pieces, a horror movie interested in looking good, not just good enough to jump out from around a corner for a scare and then scurry back behind it, a rejection of the cheapness that has dominated the genre for nearly a decade now. And it is. It delivers on that promise completely. But while watching it, you realize that’s not all you want.
The film’s plot is a big source of the unsatisfying feeling, despite being a great, old-fashioned haunted house setup. Burgeoning author Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), who lives in America in the 1800s with her oil tycoon father, Carter (Jim Beaver), falls swiftly in love with a charming English lord, Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) as he visits to ask Carter Cushing for a loan. Edith Cushing marries Sharpe and is whisked away with him to his mansion in Cumbria, where he lives with his sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain), only to find the house is decayed to the point that it can barely be called a house anymore and is also severely haunted. Through the haunting, Cushing begins to discover the truth about her new husband and sister-in-law.
The simplest explanation of why Crimson Peak is disappointing is all the scares are spoiled in the trailer, and while that is true, it’s more complicated than that. The scares aren’t just fewer than expected, they’re too loosely packed, and the movie turns its focus away from the ghosts and to the natural aspects. This should be a good thing — the best horror movies, after all, are the ones that focus on things that can happen in real life — but it all falls flat.
The biggest reason is the fantastic and mundane elements of Cushing’s plight aren’t as connected as they need to be. It should be a matter of the haunting being connected to her isolation and dependence on her new husband, but really she’s just like that kid from The Sixth Sense and the ghosts are giving her a creepy hand. It’s got nothing to do with her character or her situation, she just happens to be able to see ghosts and she just happens to marry into a house with a lot of them. Ghosts typically symbolize attachment to the past, and they do here as well, but it should be a matter of Sharpe’s past coming back to overwhelm his present in both a figurative and literal way, not a matter of him coincidentally marrying someone who can see it all.
Moreover, Cushing’s ability to see ghosts should be attached to Cushing herself, and a function of her own insecurities about marriage and leaving her father’s house, but Crimson Peak is well wide of that kind of storyline.
In spite of the stunning visuals, the atmosphere of this movie leaves a lot to be desired. The trailer’s gorgeous, hair-raising soundtrack is almost completely absent, paving the way for long stretches of silence to service the sparse jump scares. Despite an R rating, the movie isn’t graphic at all. Neither blood nor jump scares should be confused with real horror, but they’d be a step up here, simply to have something happen inside this amazing set.
This is about what you’d expect from co-writer/director/producer Guillermo del Toro by now. Over a career that is now 30 years old, he’s earned a reputation for sharp attention to stunning visuals and not to much else. It’s hard to say about a filmmaker who is so respected, but if he’d taken a step back here and let someone else make sure the script and characters popped as much as the colors, they wouldn’t detract so much from them.
Crimson Peak is just not scary. It’s vibrant and colorful and I really wish more movies looked like this one does, but there’s no electricity here. Cushing is never really in any danger. The central mystery is too easy to unravel. There’s a fantastic cast and an elegant gothic set for them to play around in, but the story just doesn’t live up to the rest of the production.
Crimson Peak will go into wide release Oct. 16.
Leopold Knopp is a formerly professional film critic, licensed massage therapist and journalism student at the University of North Texas. Use algebra every day. I’ve had a change of heart about reader input. It is now welcomed and encouraged. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter @reelentropy, and shoot questions to reelentropy@.