October 20, 2015 by Zack
Period piece horror films are very hard to pull off. First you have to pull off the period piece. Everyone has to look like they come from that period, and they have to sound like they do. The mannerisms, the demeanor, all have to line up. Then, it has to have horror elements, atmosphere, and mood. If you can pull these off simultaneously, it’s quite an achievement.
As hard as Guillermo Del Toro works to execute this, the film falls short. I did believe the period, and I did believe the atmosphere. That is helped by a handsome cast including Jim Beaver who can always belong to the turn of the 20th century, rounded out by Tom Hiddleston and Mia Wasikowska. It looks like it should work, but something didn’t for me. The first thing I can point to, is when the horror elements are introduced for the first time. The CGI, to put it bluntly, simply clashes with the sets. Told in flashback, Edith Cushing (Wasikowska), tells the story of when she was a girl, was visited by the ghost of her mother. Her mother, who looks like a cross between a creature from “Pan’s Labyrinth” and the smoke monster from “Lost”, warns her about “Crimson Peak”, a mysterious place we know nothing about. This all should have the makings of a fun spooky horror film. But because the ghost is so obviously computer generated, and so unconvincing as a “scary ghost”, I was already out of the mindset necessary to enjoy the film.
It somewhat started to pull me back in with the introduction of Thomas Sharpe, played by Hiddleston, who is always a joy to watch. Sharpe is a young inventor of affluent means trying to persuade Edith’s(who is now grown up) father Carter (Beaver) to invest in a clay mining machine. I was a bit curious as to the idea of clay needing to be mined so much as to warrant a machine–but it’s a moot point, since Sharpe can’t really get it to work. He had tried in other parts of the world, and failed. So, Carter turns him down. Carter, who is a successful but “blue collar” businessman, is not endeared to Sharpe, especially because his daughter soon becomes so. A family friend, Dr. McMichael (Charlie Hunnan), also does not particularly trust Sharpe. It’s not just because of Sharpe coming from across the pond to introduce such a strange machine–but his sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain), is a bit strange and glowers whilst playing piano to entertain everyone in one scene.
But, Edith does fall in love with Thomas and she goes with him to England to live in his mansion, which is on top of a very large amount of clay. And, because the mansion is ancient, it has a typical horror movie gothic look. You already know it’s going to creak and leak and most likely be haunted.
The ghosts haunting this mansion frighten Edith, trying to persuade her to leave. These ghosts, like the ghost of her mother, are also computer generated and not at all frightening. They look a little creepy, and the hollow screams are sometimes chilling–but still, the film never made me feel “a part” of its world.
Edith begins to discover some dark secrets pertaining to Thomas and the mansion, and his sister–and the plot unfolds so transparently that you figure out what’s going to happen very quickly. But the film’s pace is so slow and plodding that it is almost like Del Toro thinks you won’t figure it out. If that’s the case, it’s a miscalculation at best. Insulting at worst.
Also, Chastain’s performance of Lucille is so over the top and obnoxious that it clangs like the seemingly collapsing house. The film’s climax, too, is very gory to an unnecessary degree, and feels like it belongs to another film.
Most of the other performances are good, especially Hiddleston who plays off of Chastain’s overindulgence well. Mia Wasikowska also is a credible and sympathetic character. But the structure of the film just doesn’t work very well, and in the end it feels very empty.
Guillermo Del Toro is a very gifted filmmaker, and a good storyteller as well. Perhaps they all got caught up in trying to tell a gothic romantic horror story, and forgot to actually show us one.