I didn’t like Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim as much as I wanted to, because no matter how cool it looks, the story is really dumb. And you can’t say “oh it’s just supposed to be fun” in an era where we’re seeing some really quality populist films, from Marvel and the Dark Knight trilogy, to the revival of Bond and Mission: Impossible, to movies like Inception and The Martian, that don’t draw a line between “popular” and “smart”. Letting a film off the hook just because it looks cool is selling short what we as an audience deserve from our movies. Also, we live in the age of seamless CGI and motion capture performance—EVERY movie looks cool. It is literally the very least they can do.
Crimson Peak, Del Toro’s latest, falls into the same trap as Pacific Rim—it looks great, but the story is really dumb, which is why it bombed over the weekend (the Friday-Sunday drop was 50%, which means word of mouth killed Crimson Peak). Del Toro obviously works so hard on his movies—they’re incredibly detailed and Crimson Peak is especially gorgeous—but good god is it ever stupid. There’s a lot of groan-worthy dialogue, and the plot is so thin it’s almost non-existent. If you don’t figure out the ending within the first twenty minutes, it’s only because you’ve fallen asleep. Every attempt at mystery is undercut by the sheer stupidity of the story, and tension is impossible to maintain because of the cheesy dialogue and blatantly obvious plot points.
Mia Wasikowska stars as Edith, an aspiring writer in late Victorian times. She’s written a “story with ghosts in it”, but no one takes her seriously because she’s a woman. At first, Edith is quite interesting. She’s spunky and outspoken and would rather focus on getting published than bagging a husband. Wasikowska combines charm and practicality as Edith, who confesses in voice-over to believing in ghosts because her dead mother visited her once to warn her about a mysterious “crimson peak”. But Edith becomes less interesting throughout the movie, as she spends most of the second half too ill to do anything except look scared. She soon meets Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston, in black-haired weirdo mode), an English nobleman who wants her father to invest in one of his inventions, but isn’t above romancing Edith to get his money, too.
Thanks to Edith’s dead mom, we know something dire awaits Edith, which makes her relationship with Thomas loaded from the beginning. And Thomas’s ancestral home, Allendale Hall, is so over-the-top creepy it’s obviously the scene of many gruesome deaths. And his sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain), is so clearly batsh*t insane that there is no question she is heavily involved in said gruesome deaths. And the camera lingers so obviously on the tea, and the siblings share such loaded looks over it, that it’s definitely poisoned. There’s just nothing subtle about any of this. Gothic stories are heightened, sure, but playing on strong emotions and atmosphere doesn’t mean you have to telegraph every plot point and rob the audience of the chance to marinate in the atmospherics and work up a good scare.
Which means that a lot of really stunning artistic design goes to waste. Crimson Peak is exceptionally, unbelievably beautiful to look at, and contains some images that will sit with you for a while. Unfortunately, most of the time you’re rolling your eyes at the dumb thing a character just said, or you’re thinking, “Yep, totally knew that was coming,” as yet another completely obvious plot develops. There’s also an issue with the ghosts—they’re mostly done with CGI, and thus they are not remotely scary or intimidating. There are a couple instances of CGhosts being seen from a distance where they work much better, but up close you know what you’re looking at is fake, and you’re brain can’t be tricked like that. The practical effects are so much more convincing for that very reason—a simple scene in which Edith explores a creepy hallway is a million times more evocative than any of the CGhosts scenes.
Guillermo Del Toro is so good at production design and world-building, but he should really be working off scripts written by other people. He just doesn’t care enough about actual story to put together a narrative that rivals his visuals—a problem he shares with Zack Snyder and Tarsem Singh—and instead he’s given us an incredibly good-looking movie that is also very stupid because of an undercooked script. Had Crimson Peak a script worthy of its production design, it could have been a twenty-first century Rebecca. Instead it’s just another hollow candy-coated shell of a movie, with all of the gloss and polish that a meticulously designed production can bring you, but an empty void where its story should be.