There’s a cooking expression that perfectly describes the lush, beautiful but pointless Crimson Peak: “all frosting, no cake.” Written and directed by the talented Guillermo del Toro, the gothic horror film has a loose storyline set in the late 1800’s somewhere in English countryside, but it’s really more of a master class in set design than anything else. And it’s not alone in the horror genre, there are other films that seem to have put all their effort into special effects or elaborate staging that leaves little space for an actual story that pulls you into the imagined world.
Crimson Peak revolves around ingenue Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), a naïve girl who believes in ghosts and spirits and has written her own book on the subject. The manuscript meets a poor reception with publishers, being criticized for not having enough romance, a staple for a successful “women’s book”. Then Edith meets the dashing, mysterious Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and they find each other quite interesting. Thomas is in town to pitch her father Carter (Jim Beaver) to gain funds to build a rather steampunk mining contraption that it turns out he’s created to help rescue his family estate. It’s derided and soon Thomas and his creepy, intense sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) are leaving town under a cloud.
A death occurs and Edith marries Thomas in the aftermath, seeking her true love. But his motivations aren’t quite as apparent, and his sister Lucille is quite clearly not as enamored of the blonde city girl as her brother is. Which brings us to the focal point of the entire movie, the Sharpe family mansion known as Crimson Peak due to the intense red dirt upon which it’s built and is slowly sinking into, year by year.
The mansion is gorgeously realized, with its damaged gables, gaping hole in the roof that lets atmospheric snow float into the main living area 24×7, bizarre architecture and decorations, and doors that lead nowhere, rooms that are locked and off-limits to the new mistress of the house and a basement complex that looks right out of the Universal Pictures prop room, by way of Sherwin-Williams for a completely different color scheme.
The story is somewhat interesting, though the ghostly appearance of the Sharpe matriarch is realized through a style of ghost that seems incongruent with the gentle, saturated colors and atmosphere of the rest of the movie. Think American Horror Story meets Harry Potter, perhaps. Creepy in a classic Japanese horror film sort of way, but not quite the right tone for the rest of this dreamy, technicolor horror film.
Worse, this happens more than once: the ghostly spirit of Edith’s mother at the very opening of the film, warning her of what is to come also hits an odd note. Floating ectoplasm, wispy presences and half-suggested visions in mirrors would have served del Toro much better in this regard, a film that focused on “chills” not “scares”.
What really impressed me was the set design and costumes, though. This is a film that truly understands the power and importance of color, whether it’s the gradually deepening red of the snow around the Sharpe estate, the oversaturated rich colors of the house itself, or the wardrobe of the main actors, including hair color and lighting.
A beautiful picture doesn’t make for a compelling story and ultimately Crimson Peak plays at arms length, inviting you to enjoy the gothic, steampunk visuals without ever pulling the viewer into the story or caring about Edith’s fate. The big reveal regarding the Sharpe family falls flat and isn’t much of a surprise, and part of it actually makes no sense at all.
In the end, the frosting of Crimson Peak is beautiful. It’s just too bad that the cake underneath was so poorly cooked.