One star. Rated R, for profanity, sexual candor and gory violence
By Derrick Bang
When the mighty fall, they fall hard.
Steven Spielberg and 1941. Michael Cimino and Heaven’s Gate. George Lucas and Howard the Duck. Warren Beatty and Ishtar, Bruce Willis and Hudson Hawk, Kevin Costner and The Postman.
And now, Guillermo del Toro and Crimson Peak.
The deliciously moody writer/director/producer’s career has proceeded smoothly along two parallel and somewhat related paths: extravagantly baroque, comic book-style action sagas, as with Pacific Rim and the two Hellboy entries; and splendidly eerie chillers, as with Mimic, The Devil’s Backbone and his Academy Award darling, Pan’s Labyrinth.
Even at their most outrageous — and Pacific Rim really stretched the credibility envelope — you could be certain of one thing: A Guillermo del Toro film wasn’t boring.
Crimson Peak isn’t merely boring. It’s leaden, insufferably slow, wearily overblown, monotonous, humdrum and butt-numbingly, makes-you-want-to-scream dull.
At best, it’s a 25-minute Twilight Zone episode s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-d into a plodding 119-minute trial by tedium. But even that comparison gives far too much credit to the sluggish script by del Toro and Matthew Robbins, which feels like an unholy love child spawned by Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and Friday the 13th.
Yep. It’s that clumsy.
Star Mia Wasikowska has made a career, of late, playing tortured young heroines in period and/or “heightened reality” melodramas, from Madame Bovary and Stoker to, yes, the title character in Jane Eyre. I guess del Toro figured that she was the perfect choice to play this film’s Jane Austen-esque Edith Cushing, heroine of the director’s unabashed attempt to re-create the classic Gothic romances of Hollywood’s Golden Age.
With ghosts thrown in, of course. We are, after all, dealing with Guillermo del Toro.
And yes, Wasikowska certainly looks the part of the naïve and overwhelmed young “spinster” at the heart of this story, which echoes and even name-checks Austin, the Brontë sisters and films such as Rebecca and Great Expectations. But although production designer Tom Sanders and art director Brandt Gordon have a field day with their meticulous re-creation of 1901 New York, and particularly the vast gothic mansion in England’s remote hills, this is a classic case of being all dressed up with nowhere to go.
Because the storyline is pathetic in its stupidity, agape with glaring plot holes, and unable to remain consistent even within its own ludicrous premise. This is a classic example of the idiot plot, which is to say that the narrative lurches from one random contrivance to the next, only because each and every character behaves like a total idiot at all times.
Edith, an aspiring author, lives comfortably with her wealthy father, Sir Carter Cushing (Jim Beaver), in dawn-of-the-20th-century Buffalo, New York. She apparently has a “sense” for seeing ghosts, and has grown up haunted by the impressively terrifying phantom of her long-dead mother: an apparition which, more than once, has appeared to issue a dire warning: “Beware of Crimson Peak.”
Okay, right away, we have to wonder why the ghost of a loving mother would so terrify the daughter she adored. Makes no sense. Never does, either, as things proceed. Just del Toro and visual effects supervisor Dennis Berardi trying to get us to jump.
Edith has long been attracted to her father’s doctor, the dashing Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam), and he to her, but their relationship has remained playfully distant, because — as countless characters keep reminding her (and us) — this unworldly young woman has no experience in matters of the heart. No surprise, then, that she’s swept off her feet by the seductive Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), a British visitor hoping to broker a business deal with Sir Carter.
Handsome or not, there’s something mildly sinister about Thomas ... and something decidedly unwholesome about his sister and constant companion, Lucille (Jessica Chastain, who overacts atrociously throughout the entire film). Clearly, these two share Big Secrets ... and while the eventual “astonishing reveal” might have surprised 1940s moviegoers, it’s screamingly obvious in this post-Flowers in the Attic era. (Or Game of Thrones. Pick your preferred pop-culture reference.)
But — sigh! — against the advice of all concerned, Edith marries Thomas and follows him to England, and crumbling Allerdale Hall, where he lives with Lucille and a small cadre of servants. The latter, rather conveniently, always seem to vanish when things turn weird.
Edith hasn’t been in the old mansion but a day, when she’s beset by gloppy red specters that wave bony, unnaturally long fingers in her direction.
To say nothing of the Impossible Dog — a cute little terrier whatzit — that shouldn’t be present, even under these aggressively bizarre circumstances (to explain why would be too much of a spoiler), and which also pops in and out of the story, mostly at random.
Thomas’ long-held ambition has been to invent a machine capable of dredging the massive deposit of blood-red clay on which Allerdale Hall was built: a geological abnormality boasting clay that can be shaped into bricks of superior quality. But lacking the means to extract the stuff, Thomas and Lucille have watched, helplessly, as their home has slowly sunk into the muddy red morass over the years.
This clay, incidentally, has given Allerdale Hall its nickname: Crimson Peak. Cue gob-smacked exhalations of breath by viewers, as Edith is shocked-shocked-shocked by this revelation. Goodness gracious! Crimson Peak! The place her mother’s ghost warned her about! Oh, the horror!
In your dreams, Guillermo.
The major problem is that Edith, despite the period authenticity that Wasikowska grants her, isn’t an admirable heroine. Granted, she’s unworldly and unschooled in “the ways of love.” But she’s not stupid, as is clearly depicted early on; she’s familiar with Arthur Conan Doyle and his rational consulting detective, and she follows her father’s business affairs to a degree.
Yet she behaves with jaw-dropping foolishness once “trapped” within Allerdale Hall, and treats Thomas and Lucille with trust and kindness, long past the point where anybody — and I mean anybody — would have recognized that Something Is Amiss. And then, even after being confronted with the true evil at work, Edith still behaves without a lick of self-preservational common sense: as slow and obtuse as the cardboard teenagers who get picked off in cheap horror flicks.
She simply doesn’t deserve our respect or emotional investment. She’s unworthy, and several patrons at Tuesday evening’s (free) preview screening demonstrated as much, by leaving in disgust long before the film was over.
And Oh. My. Goodness. Speaking of reaching “over,” this misbegotten nightmare drags through the longest third act in recorded cinematic history, with del Toro milking every fresh ghost sighting and heinous act long past the point the cow has gone dry.
He doesn’t even make good on foreshadowed carnage, as with a basement vat of clay that contains ... something ... that (sigh) never amounts to anything. Actually, del Toro telegraphs each impending “fright moment” so blatantly, accompanied by a thundering crescendo in Fernanco Velázquez’s score, that it’s impossible to be the slightest bit scared by anything.
No matter how ookie the apparitions, they’re just overblown stuff ’n’ bother. We laugh at them. And not kindly.
To acknowledge this film’s one strong suit, del Toro does create a richly unsettling atmosphere of death and decay. Allerdale Hall is an impressive backdrop, with its caved-in roof that constantly permits drifting dead leaves and snowflakes to pile up in the entry hall. The gloomy upstairs hallways and darkened rooms — all with massive ashen moths beating their wings against the walls — are the quintessence of ghastly uckiness.
That said, Thomas’ useless clay-dredging machine looks and feels wholly out of place in a setting that otherwise is straight out of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Bram Stoker or Edgar Allan Poe. It’s as if del Toro impulsively decided to inject a bit of steampunk, but for no reason; at the end of the day — once this cheerless film finally concludes — Thomas’ gadget has served no purpose. It’s just there.
But I sure wish I hadn’t been.
Crimson Peak brands itself a dismal fiasco from the very first scene: a brief glimpse of a dazed and bloodied Edith, who then recounts her entire story in flashback. This is rarely a satisfying narrative device, and — like so much of this film — utterly pointless.
Go see Goosebumps instead.