Crimson Peak (mild spoilers)

Mia Wasikowska and Jessica Chastain in Crimson Peak

In a world where the franchise is King, referring to a filmmaker as a “genre director” means their career is headed in the right direction. There was a time when studio directors churned out Westerns and gangster films and were regarded as nothing more than assembly line workers until the French gave us the auteur theory. Now, a degree of success with a small, personal film means a shot at resurrecting a major franchise and maybe even bigger things after that. (I’m looking at you, Colin Trevorrow.) The career arc I’ve just described could easily have been that of Guillermo del Toro, whose early work (Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone) led to a shot at the Blade series and eventually to the never-realized The Hobbit. It isn’t too hard to imagine del Toro — burnished by the success of Pan’s Labryinth and the affection bestowed upon the Hellboy films — with a comic book movie directing gig of his own. It would have been a pleasure to see a filmmaker with del Toro’s love of myth, visual imagination, and ability to recast familiar tropes take on the Marvel universe. What would del Toro’s Hulk have looked like?

But del Toro has kept to his own path: writing books, turning one into a TV series (The Strain), and now returning to the director’s chair with Crimson Peak. What a pleasure it would be to report that del Toro’s imagination has broken new ground once again, but the underpowered Crimson Peak is the director’s most disappointing film to date. Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) is a shy young woman with literary aspirations in early 20th century Buffalo. Edith’s father Carter (Jim Beaver) is a wealthy builder who made his own way in the world. When English aristocrat Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) arrives in town with a business proposal Carter’s distaste is obvious, but the intervention of fate finds a smitten Edith married to Thomas and living in the Sharpe mansion. It isn’t giving too much away to reveal that Thomas and Lucille aren’t what they seem. They’re con artists, but to what end? The Sharpe family home is a remarkable affair, crumbling into the earth above the family’s clay mines and with a rotting roof that lets snow pile up in the front hallway. Thomas E. Sanders’s production design is an unqualified success, but when Edith starts seeing ghosts in her new home the film begins to lose its way.

What del Toro and his co-writer Matthew Robbins have come up with is the kind of story that, if it were a novel, the characters in an E.M. Forster novel might have read as a guilty pleasure. The movie can’t support the weight of del Toro’s need to insert supernatural goings-on, especially since Edith is quite capable of figuring out something’s wrong on her own. (The elastic actor Doug Jones turns up as one of Edith’s visitors.) The ghosts feel imposed rather than organic to this material. Back in Buffalo there’s a doctor (Charlie Hunnam) who’s also learning how much trouble Edith is in, and when he turns up at the mansion the Sharpes’ plans are revealed in their full horror. Tom Hiddleston doesn’t have much to play here as Thomas; he’s charming enough but isn’t given a scene to act in which we see his allegiances begin to change. Jessica Chastain gives a performance of exquisite control as the troubled Lucille, and I badly wanted Crimson Peak to turn into a battle of wits between her and Edith. Indeed, my biggest issue with del Toro here is that he has cast two of the best actresses currently working in film and he can’t think of anything for them to do other than fight with knives at the end.

Crimson Peak is a very good-looking film that never transcends the genre limitations of the script, It should have mattered much more that Edith is a writer, for instance, and why doesn’t Edith play the secret cache of wax cylinder recordings the first time she finds them? Del Toro has earned the benefit of the doubt though. A few years ago on Charlie Rose I heard him discuss his creative process — dreams were a big part — and even now I’ll bet he’s working on taking us somewhere new.

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