Wailing ghosts. Big dark creaky house. A woman wandering through shadows carrying a candelabrum. You’d be forgiven for thinking you’re in for a nice traditional horror movie. But you’re not. Not quite. One of the mild disappointments of the latest from Guillermo Del Toro, the man behind the genius Pan’s Labyrinth and the very noisy Pacific Rim, is that it never quite settles into what it wants to be. It’s a love story that’s not really romantic and a horror movie that’s not really scary.
One thing you can’t fault it on is mood. As a cinematic world it’s gorgeous, beautifully designed and oozing sinister atmosphere. It takes place at the turn of the century, with a young aspiring author Edith (Mia Wasikowska) romanced by a mysterious Englishman (Tom Hiddleston) who marries her and whisks her away to live in his crumbling mansion with him and his sister (Jessica Chastain), a woman who glares at Edith as a hawk might a mouse. When livid red ghosts start thumping around every time Edith goes to bed it becomes rapidly clear this marriage might come with quite a lot of baggage.
There is such potential here. Chastain claws the scenery as the terrible sister, her performance swelling madly to fill the huge, ornate sets. Wasikowska plays the victim with a steel core. Hiddleston’s a bit of a muddy puddle but his character isn’t given nearly as much to chew on as the women. The plot can’t rise to match them, promising swooning romance and terrible, unconscionable secrets, but delivering a few swoons and a wishy-washy scandal.
On the horror front, del Toro is a master at sending shivers slithering up your back. There are plenty of moments, as Edith stares down halls of shifting shadows, that will make you pull your arms around you, but then they’re let down by a terrible decision: all the ghosts are created with (shonky) CG. This just isn’t scary. It deflates all the tension.
Crimson Peak is a fantastically beguiling world in search of a better story. It’s gloriously OTT to look at; it’s just a bit underwhelming to listen to.