I’m one of the few people who didn’t just like Pacific Rim, but absolutely loved it, but still, I was beyond pumped for del Toro returning to his horror roots with Crimson Peak. Guillermo del Toro directing a gothic romance meets haunted house horror film starring Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, Jessica Chastain & Charlie Hunnam? Yes, please. And the film is certainly very entertaining once you realize that it is a monster movie, not a ghost story; a scary film, not a suspenseful one. What I mean by that is that del Toro has no interest in hiding his ghosts in the shadows and creating a high level of tension. He wants you to see his creatures and they are wonderful, gorgeously grotesque works of art, no question. So, he puts them right out there and cranks the music up to enormous levels and gives you insanely effective jump scares. But that isn’t really my kind of horror movie; I prefer The Conjuring, really, to this style. In The Conjuring, the film takes a good thirty to forty minutes of just slow, slow tension building; we see not a single ghost and there’s not a single jump scare. But when it does come, in that terrific, explosive game of hide and clap, the audience has been wound so tight that it’s a jump of such intensity that I felt it in my ******* sinuses, in my ******* ear drums. In this movie, the ghosts arrive quickly, consistently, very plainly and it isn’t that this doesn’t work, it’s just something someone new to del Toro might not expect or appreciate.
But the film does have atmosphere. Crimson Peak itself is a beautiful design, a house literally sinking into the ground, with pipes that literally groan and walls that literally bleed. But it’s the surprising and brilliant touch of that deteriorating ceiling that just really works; the image of a main hall with leaves or snow constantly drifting down is just breathtaking. The visuals here are, of course, astounding. I saw it in IMAX and was glad I did. The stark skies, the long, stretching plains, the beautiful house, the astoundingly beautiful costumes, the grotesque ghosts – see these things on the largest screen, in the best quality possible. God, if this doesn’t win an Oscar for best costumes, the fix is in, I’m just saying that now. There’s a green number that Wasikowska wear at one point and she only wears it for a very short time; it’s just so gorgeous and the movie has so many other beautiful outfits that it can afford to just toss it off in a one scene appearance.
The story is . . . well, archetypal is nicer than clichéd. Let’s just say that if you see the trailer and then stop to think about what’s going to happen in the movie . . . you’re right. I mean, there is literally not a single thing that happened here that I didn’t expect to happen. Well, whatever; it’s done with brio and verve, so I can forgive it that. Wasikowska is perfectly cast (and about time I saw her in something good again; it feels like Stoker was the last time she was this good) and her look is perfect for the film whether she’s dressed in a more masculine way, hair up, scholarly round glasses giving her a boyish look or if she’s in her long white night-gown, blonde hair streaming around her shoulders looking like a ghost herself. Hiddleston and Hunnam look good and Hunnam’s detective plot is interesting if a bit too sketchy. Hiddleston does his best, but he’s hamstrung by being the most underwritten character (which is kind of saying something since Hunnam’s character is no slouch, given to delivering exposition about spirit photography and optometry and whatever else). There’s a late film reversal that Hiddleston’s character goes through (again, right on schedule) that the film doesn’t bother to really motivate at all. But it’s Chastain that really shines in this film; she knows the movie she’s in, an over-the-top, kind of seventies styled Gothic romance, and she isn’t going to let this chance pass without having some fun. She’s forever looming menacingly out of the shadows and then, when the film lets her go completely bonkers, she goes for it full throttle. In the final sequences of the film, we discover that she’s scarier than the ghosts and there are moments, as she charges down corridors screaming or dashes by in the back of the frame barely glimpsed through a torrent of snow, that her voluminous dress’ flapping gives her the appearance of some kind of a flying demon. It’s nothing short of an astonishing performance.
But anyway, the film as a whole certainly doesn’t succeed in all the ways I wish it did. I feel more positive about it now than I did when I first came out of it. In the moment, the clunky exposition and the completely predictable nature of the plot made the film feel slow and a little plodding in between the big moments. But it holds the viewer’s attention certainly and it has stayed in my head with real vividness, even some of the more clichéd scenes, like a stabbing late in the film. It’s definitely a movie I’d watch again and if the flaws in the script keep it from achieving real brilliance, I think I have to still give it a pretty high recommendation. The visuals are astounding, the designs gorgeous, the performances are really fine; a better script, both in terms of helping the dialogue to sound less stilted and the plot to be less predictable, would have doubtless sent this film into the stratosphere and part of the annoyance of the film falling short is the knowledge that it was so close to that perfection. When I walked out of the film, I gave it 3 stars, a conditional recommendation. Now, a few weeks on, I think I’m prepared to upgrade it to a recommendation across the board, a movie you should see, if something less of a masterpiece. 3 ½ stars.
tl;dr – a poor script can’t really damage a movie this gorgeous, this atmospheric and this brilliantly performed; a film that’s annoyingly close to perfect – next time, do another rewrite. 3 ½ stars.