1 hour, 59 minutes
I do a lot of complaining that the “good” movies don’t play here. We get the big blockbusters and the dumb lowbrow stuff and none of the in-between.
Case in point, I read an article the other day that October was one of the lowest performing months, as far as box office goes, in a long time. Studios are frustrated that few people went to see such high profile films such as “Steve Jobs,” Robert Zemekis’ “The Walk,” “Freeheld,” starring Best Actress winner Julianne Moore, and the spooky haunted house epic “Crimson Peak.” Looking at that list, I muttered under my breath, “I know why I didn’t see any of those movies. None of them came here!” (It takes talent to mutter with an exclamation point. Try it some time.)
This week, our locally owned movie house remedied at least one of those injustices, and, while I heartily thank them for it, I really wish it had actually been good.
“Crimson Peak,” Guillermo del Toro’s gothic ghostly romance is more frustrating than anything else. Parts of the film work so well it feels like a lie to call the movie bad, but other elements fall so flat it’s hard to recommend. The trailers for the film make it look like a very traditional haunted house movie with a lot of gotcha jump moments and scary ghosts. When the movie was released to critics, there was a moment of confusion as critics tried to back away from the previous description, describing the film as a moody, atmospheric romantic thriller that just happens to have ghosts in it. The reality is somewhere in the middle, and it’s part of what makes the movie so problematic. It doesn’t know exactly what it wants to be.
Mia Wasikowska stars as Edith, a budding young novelist and the heir to an American industrial fortune. When the handsome, but ultimately broke British aristocrat Thomas Sharpe catches her eye, Edith’s father puts his foot down, claiming Sharpe and his sister are con artists.
The father’s untimely death, however, changes things and Sharpe is soon married to Edith, spiriting her away to his crumbling mansion in rural England. The house is falling apart and attempts at repair would be futile, Thomas explains. It is sinking into the bright red mud that covers the property, and from which the structure derives its nickname, Crimson Peak. Thomas has a scheme to turn that mud into the finest quality red bricks, but to do it he needs capitol, something Edith can readily provide. Living in the home with Thomas and his sister Lucille, played with icy malice by Jessica Chastain, is difficult for our young heroine, but soon the ghosts arrive and really up the ante.
It’s not hard to guess what’s really going on in “Crimson Peak,” and though I wanted to be shocked and completely drawn into the story, the obviousness of the plot’s direction was distracting. I kept wanting the story to go someplace deeper, bigger, grander, scarier, but it never did.
The film successfully maintains a beautiful and chilling air for about two-thirds of the run time, but that last act trades chills for blood and the whole thing just kind of falls apart, though never in a way that’s particularly surprising. Never gory, per se, the devolution into the more “slashy” kind of violence was an unwelcome turn.
The ghosts themselves undergo a similar metamorphosis. At the beginning of the film, there are ghosts that are draped in shadow, their skeletal forms barely revealed. Those ghosts were cool and scary. But by the time we really get into the secrets of Crimson Peak, the apparitions become dripping, gooey monsters. Way less scary, though way more showy. I was reminded of the way “The Dark Knight” falls apart at the end when Christopher Nolan makes the huge mistake of showing us Harvey Dent’s ruined visage, all gristle and eyeballs. It completely derailed the serious drama.
What works in “Peak” is definitely the production design, the costumes, the sound — everything technical. I won’t tout the special effects, because, as I mentioned, I think they go too far with the gory stuff, but the rest of the production is remarkable. The house itself is a marvel, rich with crumbling detail.
As far as the acting goes, Wasikowska and Chastain, rounded out by Tom Hiddleston as Sharpe, are all marvelous. I loved their interplay, as long as the script was on the rails, and, particularly in the case of Hiddleston, the characters they create are rich and heartfelt. Charlie Hunnam, a transplant from del Toro’s “Pacific Rim,” has less to do, but does a perfectly serviceable job nonetheless.
As far as big, spooky haunted house movies go, “Crimson Peak” almost knocks it out the park. I don’t know if del Toro was simply trying to please too many people or if he never had a coherent vision in his head, but the result is a film that promises a lot of different things to different people, and fails to deliver to any of them.
“Crimson Peak” is rated R for gruesome violence, sexual situations, and language.
Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.