“Crimson Peak:” Style over substance

Michael Ambrosino, Staff Writer

Visionary filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro, whose resumé includes “Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Hellboy” and the recent “Pacific Rim,” reintroduces the gothic romance genre in his new film, “Crimson Peak.”

“Crimson Peak” is a film of tremendous beauty and imagination that unfortunately falls flat into the category of style-over-substance. It’s not a terribly bad thing, considering Del Toro’s visuals often tend to outweigh the story and still make for an entertaining product, but audience members looking for meaty substance and an emotional connection may exit the theater feeling underwhelmed.

Edith, who is the central character of the film and played by Mia Wasikowski, states just a few minutes into the film, “It’s not a ghost story, but rather a story with ghosts in it.” In her statement, she is defending her newest short story and its thematic undercurrent.

However, we can assume that this is Del Toro foreshadowing the tone and the nature of the rest of the film; to turn audience expectations around and have them watch the movie as one thing, rather than something else. No, this is not a horror film; it is a gothic romance that contains horror movie elements to serve the story. The problem, though, is that “Crimson Peak” doesn’t quite succeed on either fronts.

The film follows Edith Cushing, a young writer of short stories who, after a devastating family tragedy, marries Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and moves in with him and his sister, Lucille Sharpe (Jessica Chastain), to their house called Crimson Peak.

The house is old and creaky, yet darkly beautiful while being enormous in size. It drowns in a grim, gothic atmosphere that flows through the corridors and trembles within the walls. Did I mention that it’s haunted, too? “Many souls have come and gone,” Sharpe informs Cushing at one point, which is why she is constantly seeing brutalized spirits wandering the house both day and night.

Cushing and Sharpe appear to be very much in love, meanwhile his sister has something that is dark and vicious running through her bones. Her eyes say it all, especially when the three of them share a close space.

This isn’t the only secret that the house holds, and the more Cushing explores it and encounters its terrifying spirits, the more she becomes aware of what she is ultimately involved in.

I liked “Crimson Peak,” with reservations. It’s a beautiful-looking film and has its share of terrifying moments, but it suffers from poor characterizations and lazy screenwriting. Rather than finding a unique way to tell his story, Del Toro employs conventional plot devices that makes “Crimson Peak” a predictable and underwhelming yarn of storytelling.

There just isn’t much here that makes it substantially compelling to support the film’s visual wonder.

As a gothic romance, “Crimson Peak” falls unforgivably short, being completely devoid of emotion and dramatic tension. It’s difficult for the film to engross its audience in the romantic relationship because of how thinly drawn the characters are and how underdeveloped their relationship is.

The only intriguing character in the film is Chastain’s character, Lucille, who is a rather questionable, complex and terrifyingly bleak woman. We, as audience members, are just dying to know what she’s thinking about and how she’s feeling.

As I look back at the gorgeous visual appeal of his past films, I can safely say that Del Toro delivering something of astonishing beauty seems inevitable at this point.

Everything that gives the film heft on its exterior, from the costumes and production design to the detailed visual effects, is so enthralling. It makes it easy to forgive the film’s drawbacks.

If you are willing to set aside the film’s problems and give yourself over to Del Toro’s unique visual style, you are going to enjoy “Crimson Peak.”