Crimson Peak may look like a horror movie. It has horror movie things: Director Guillermo del Toro reportedly took a pay cut to maintain a strong vision of the film and keep an R-rating, and there's a fairly significant amount of gore and blood, along with ghosts and a decrepit, haunted mansion.
But that's not really what Crimson Peak is. The problem, then, is that it never really decides what it wants to be.
Crimson Peak opens with New York City socialite Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) explaining that she's always seen ghosts. The film flashes back to her mother's funeral, which leads to what is suggested to be the first manifestation of her unwelcome gift. A couple of decades later, Edith is a young would-be novelist, bored by the trappings of wealth and privilege her father has raised her in at the turn of the twentieth century.
Enter Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain), English aristocrats in search of a loan from Edith's father in order to return their family to prosperity. "Mysterious" tragedy soon strikes, and Edith finds herself newly married to Thomas and whisked away to his and Lucille's ancestral home of Allerdale Hall, which lies decrepit under the weight of the family's secrets.
It's rare that a trio of leads as talented as Crimson Peak's are given so little to work with. Wasikowska mostly looks pained, and confused. Hiddleston has had more believable lines to deliver as a Norse god in comic book movies, and never seems to muster the appropriate oomph to make the script's tone-deaf, wooden dialogue function. Jessica Chastain is a brooding linchpin nearly holding things together, but she's not given many chances to shine; the scenery chewing she is given is a highlight in a film largely absent of them.
Right off, I'll admit that Crimson Peak is a beautiful film — del Toro's eye is as sharp and discerning as ever, evoking memories of Pan's Labyrinth, and the film reunites the director with cinematographer Dan Lausten, whom del Toro worked with on Mimic almost 20 years ago (and who also shot Silent Hill).
It's a fun movie to look at, but it's deceptive. Despite the ghosts, the gore and the blood, Crimson Peak has no scares, because there's no tension. The subtlety, the hinting and teasing that effective horror films use to create terror, is nowhere to be found. Ghosts don't sneak around. It's not suggested that they may or may not be there. They shriek and wail and get right in Edith's face, practically beating her over the head with whatever particular message they have for her.
That subtlety is also missing elsewhere. Allerdale Hall is known as "Crimson Peak" because snowfall causes the red clay in the soil to bleed deep crimson upward, making the manor grounds appear to be covered in blood. It's a house falling apart because of moral decay, where the ground literally bleeds.
Every metaphor hits with the delicacy of a sledgehammer. Events don't feel organic, and characters are never established well enough for their reactions to feel natural or believable. Stuff just, sorta, happens.
As it progresses, Crimson Peak rather explicitly tries to build a tangled triangle of relationships and desires between Edith, Thomas and Lucille. Shy of coming out and saying, more or less, that it's complicated, the film fails to do any real work explaining why anyone feels anything until a massive exposition dump toward the end of the film.
But the film's biggest failure lies with its romance. The relationship between Edith and Thomas, the whole reason for Crimson Peak's existence, is completely unbelievable. Wasikowska isn't just clueless as Edith; she never expresses any actual desire for anything in particular, really, save to leave wherever she happens to be at any given moment. The script explains how effective Hiddleston's Thomas is at seduction, but the character is unsteady, his dialogue stilted and impotent.
Thomas's every practical and personal interest demands he feel nothing for Edith, and to effectively overcome that, there needed to be some indication as to why Edith is different — why she's the exception in his entire existence. I would have taken some pointed looks, ardor, anything, but Crimson Peak makes Pride and Prejudice look like Anais Nin's erotica by comparison.
Stories need some kind of tension or unresolved conflict, and the ostensible love story between Thomas and Edith has neither. Absent some history and thin justification for their actions, there's not a lot of exploration of what makes either tick. There's no will they/won't they tension, no questions at all, really. And Hiddleston and Wasikowska have zero romantic chemistry, something desperately needed given the weight the plot puts on either of their characters to resist the romance in question.
There's a scene early in Crimson Peak where Edith is trying to find a publisher for her writing. Edith, who has a thing for Mary Shelley, explains that she's not writing ghost stories — she's writing love stories that have ghosts in them.
This scene is strange in part because it feels somewhat exposition-heavy. Edith just sort of ... offers the information, as if in protest. And after finishing the film, that's the scene that stuck with me the most, because in hindsight, it feels like a protestation, a defense of a film that doesn't work as a thriller, a horror movie or a romance.