In the aftermath of a family tragedy, an aspiring author is torn between love for her childhood friend and the temptation of a mysterious outsider. Trying to escape the ghosts of her past, she is swept away to a house that breathes,bleeds…and remembers.
For so long, director Guillermo del Toro had been trying to make a big-screen adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s ‘At the Mountains of Madness’ which eventually culminated in the studio, Universal, backing out. Rumors spread like wildfire across the web that Universal was afraid to move forward with the movie because the visionary director insisted on a hard “R” rating, instead of the “PG-13” rating the studio had hoped for, and while this movie, for right now, looks like it will never see the light of day, apparently it hasn’t tarnished their relationship because “Crimson Peak” is upon us and wouldn’t you know it, it’s rated “R”.
Del Toro is that rare breed of director who is as good visually as he is artistically and dramatically, always managing to extract great performances from his actors, no matter what is going on around them. While the two “Hellboy” movies and “Pacific Rim” were great fun and “Pan’s Labyrinth” was, to say the very least, one of the best fantasy films ever made, for me, his earlier films “Cronos” and “Mimic” were pure unadulterated fun. Sort of like Spielberg’s earlier movies “Jaws,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “E.T.,” neither director has been able to emulate the simple but amazing atmosphere and performances that permeated throughout these films. I feel that once a director becomes successful, they begin to lose the hunger that helped them strive for utmost realism and naturalness and while their movies continue to be entertaining, the true grit they possessed early on, progressively diminished.
With “Crimson Peak,” del Toro delivers one of his most ambitious film projects yet but I hasten to add, it is overly-ambitious. The trailers for this film give the appearance of a Gothic horror film but in reality, it appears like the director didn’t know what he wanted. The final movie is part tragic love story, part ghost story and part horror film and sadly, none of these categories are successfully executed. Instead of concentrating on one genre in particular, del Toro tries, unsatisfactorily, to incorporate all three, which transpires in a convoluted resolution.
It is the late 19th century and Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), a young author who lives with her father Carter (Jim Beaver) in New York, falls for an English aristocrat, Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston). Edith is heartbroken when it appears that Carter slipped and cracked his skull in an unfortunate accident at work and soon thereafter, she and Thomas marry. Wanting to get away from the tragedy that befell her father, she agrees to move to Cumbria in England where Thomas lives with his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) in a sprawling but decaying mansion named Allerdale Hall, which sits unbalanced on the red clay beneath it, hence its unofficial name, Crimson Peak.
Soon after arriving, Edith begins to feel unwell but is quickly tended to by Lucille, who is detached and unsympathetic and insists she drink her homemade English tea. Thomas instructs Edith never to take the elevator to the basement as it is unsafe but one restless night, she inadvertently goes down to the bottom and discovers large vats which are filled with a red, coagulated liquid. With initials carved into each vat, Edith becomes curious and the more she tries to unearth about the old house and its sordid history, the more debilitating she becomes. She begins being visited by ghosts who warn her about Crimson Peak and when a childhood friend of hers from New York, Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam), realizes that her father may not have died due to a workplace accident but might have indeed been murdered, this causes Edith to question everything that has transpired at Allerdale Hall. When she uncovers a disturbing secret about Thomas and Lucille and comprehends what the vats in the basement are for, the three end up on a collision course with destiny where only one will remain standing.
While the performances overall are fine, with Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain in top form, they do not compare to the film’s visual aesthetics. The dilapidated mansion that serves as home to both Thomas and Lucille, is like a never-ending puzzle; hallways that lead to more hallways that lead to secret doors and hidden compartments, it is a visual splendor that I could see being turned into a theme park attraction and one that I would want to experience. Unfortunately, the mansion overshadows every other aspect of the film, including its lackluster script. While Edith is full of gumption and resourcefulness, after she has been visited by various ghosts, she ultimately stops being scared by them and realizes that they are trying to communicate with her. As the mansion’s depraved history comes to light and each murder is explained, we are led to believe that she is going to set them free but then that element of the script is completely dropped for no apparent reason and never made mention of again.
There is just so much going on it is almost impossible to concentrate on one aspect without being distracted by the other. If del Toro had set out to tell a genuinely scary ghost story, there’s no doubt in my mind that he would have succeeded in creating one of the scariest films ever. Obviously wanting to branch out into other genres to showcase his filmmaking dexterity as a director who can create all kinds of movies and not just horror, he tries too hard to embrace the story’s diverse elements and instead of at least one of them working, they all flounder. And that is a shame because each component on their own would make for an interesting tale. Here’s hoping that del Toro will return to his roots and either make “Hellboy 3” or maybe, just maybe, Universal Pictures will rethink their stance on H.P. Lovecraft and let him make ‘At the Mountains of Madness.’ Now that is a film worth waiting for.
In theaters now
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