‘Crimson Peak’: Beautiful imagery, but it’s hard to care about the scares
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So many movie ghosts seem to be operating from the same Haunting Humans in the Afterlife playbook.
They wait until the dead of night to visit.
They have a thing for JUMPING out at you just when you’re convinced it was just the wind you heard — usually accompanied by a jarring music sting.
And they love to speak in that taunting, slightly singsong whisper voice, whether they’re speaking your name over and over, or warning you to get out of the house.
So it goes with the ghosts in Guillermo del Toro’s visually lush and well-acted but disappointing and predictable haunted house movie “Crimson Peak.”
This is one of the most beautiful and striking old-fashioned Gothic horror movies in recent memory — but all the carefully orchestrated color schemes and all the dark corridors and secret chambers and all the flowing red metaphors in the world can’t accelerate the slow patches, or make us care about lead characters who are either slow-witted or boring or both.
“Crimson Peak” is set in 1901 Buffalo, a muddy but bustling turn-of-the-century city in which most of the people already look and act as if they resent being from Buffalo.
Mia Wasikowska (Tim Burton’s “Alice,” the HBO series “In Treatment”), admittedly not one of my favorite actresses, delivers a capable but somewhat bland performance as Edith Cushing, who dreams of being a writer but blames her setbacks on her handwriting because it gives her away as being a female. (The world DID know a few successful female writers prior to 1901.) Solution: She’ll type! That’ll show ’em.
Edith’s father Carter Cushing (Jim Beaver) is a pompous, vain businessman who immediately distrusts the dashing Brit Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston, a.k.a. Loki in the Marvel Universe), who comes to Buffalo with a business proposal and then quickly falls for Edith. (The Cushing character’s name is a nod to Peter Cushing, star of the Hammer Films of the 1950s and 1960s to which del Toro is paying homage.)
After Mr. Cushing hatches a preposterous plan to force Thomas and his creepy piano-playing sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) back to their home in England, things take a gruesome turn. “Crimson Peak” is peppered with some moments of black humor, the first of which occurs when a body has to be identified in a morgue, and I’ll leave it at that.
Depending on your viewpoint, the virginal Edith is a hopelessly naïve romantic — or an annoying, reckless fool. Perhaps she’s all that and less.
In any case, Edith winds up married to Thomas and accompanying him to the enormous, decaying mansion in Northern England that Thomas shares with Lucille, who skulks about the property, making tea for her new sister-in-law and whispering in conspiratorial tones to Thomas.
“Crimson Peak” refers to the oozing red clay beneath the property, which Thomas has been trying to cultivate for years. When the clay bubbles to the surface, the snow looks like it’s drenched in blood, hmmmmm.
Del Toro built a complete mansion on a soundstage in Toronto, and it’s one of the most impressive sets you’ll ever see. Every color scheme, every painting, every disturbing piece of decaying furniture tucked in a corner — it’s enough to make the house a character unto itself.
The same goes for the detailed costumes, especially those worn by the women. Chastain’s outfits seem to reflect her changing moods, while Wasikowska is dressed like Cinderella navigating her way through a particularly twisted version of a midnight ball. A Third Act scene set in the swirling snow is hauntingly beautiful.
All well and fine, but there’s the matter of the story of “Crimson Peak,” and it’s not a particularly original or chilling tale. By time Charlie Hunnam’s dashing Dr. Alan from Buffalo resurfaces in England in an attempt to save Edith, the plot itself is beyond saving.
Wasikowska and Hiddleston have minimal erotic chemistry. Hunnam (“Sons of Anarchy”) looks uncomfortable playing a gentleman caller. Chastain is one of the finest actors around, but she sinks her teeth into the role of Lucille with such gusto the character becomes more comic relief than merchant of menace.
“Crimson Peak” is a gorgeous mediocrity.
Universal Pictures presents a film directed by Guillermo del Toro and written by del Toro and Matthew Robbins. Running time: 119 minutes. Rated R (for bloody violence, some sexual content and brief strong language). Opens Friday at local theaters.