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“Crimson Peak” movie review

By Jeff Boudreaux

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“Crimson Peak,” the latest ghost story from visionary director Guillermo Del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth,” “The Devil’s Backbone”) is a lovely sight to behold. With its breathtaking cinematography by Dan Laustsen, terrifically gothic atmosphere and dynamic performances from its three main stars, what can possibly go wrong? Well, let me tell you. As welcome of an idea that this film is in the realm of horror filmdom, unfortunately it boils down to being a rehash of a half-dozen movies in a more attractive setting, and has a penchant for revealing too much, when less would certainly be more.

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Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) is a young, aspiring novelist in New York, circa 1900. Her mother died when she was a little girl, and she regularly receives visitations from the ashen-black entity, who is constantly warning her daughter of two words: crimson peak. Fortunately, Edith’s life isn’t always this depressing, she has a handsome suitor; Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam), and her father Carter (Jim Beaver) is a successful businessman. It is then that dapper gentleman Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), enters her life by seeking a partnership with Carter for his burgeoning clay-mining enterprise in his native England. While Carter doesn’t seem to like or trust Sir Thomas, or his clingy sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain), he cannot prevent Edith from falling in love with him. When Carter bribes Sir Thomas to leave Edith (after uncovering some unscrupulous news about him), it isn’t long before Carter is unceremoniously murdered!

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After the death of her father, when there is nothing left to keep them apart, Edith marries Sir Thomas and the two move to his residence in England. It is here where Edith fully realizes that her marriage to Sir Thomas is basically part of a package deal that comes with the increasingly-neurotic Lucille who doesn’t give the newlyweds much breathing room, a revamped set of apparitions and a house that almost seems to be alive. And with the red clay oozing all over the place and coming up through the snow, Edith finds out from Sir Thomas that the land has been nicknamed – you guessed it: Crimson Peak! Things start to go south rather quickly for the couple, as there are rooms that are deemed off-limits to Edith and strange occurrences start to happen on a daily basis. This leaves Edith no choice but to try and uncover the truth behind her husband, while Dr. Alan attempts to reach her after conducting his own investigation.

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Some of the most gorgeously filmed scenes in recent memory are diminished by a predictable plot that attempts to make up for its lack of scares by shoving gratuitous violence down the audience’s collective throat. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against gratuitous violence (from a film standpoint, of course), however there is a time and a place for it. For a Victorian-era gothic story about ghosts and creepy premonitions, the tactic was ill advised, which is sad because the ghosts do manage to be effectively creepy. But that’s also another area where this film falters; it borrows too many of its ideas from other horror flicks, such as Edith’s mother coming off as a much scarier version of the old woman in the “Insidious” trilogy, “Mama (also starring Chastain),” and the 1999 remake of “The Haunting.”

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I could pinpoint so many clichés from the unnecessary “jump-scares” (please Hollywood, leave this tactic alone!) to an all-out descent into slasher territory. With the gothic setting and compelling theme, I had hoped for a treatment that was more along the lines of the old “it’s scary, but you can’t see it” films such as Robert Wise’s original 1963 version of “The Haunting,” the definitive way to scare an audience without revealing your hand! To the film’s credit there are a couple of instances where ghosts appear onscreen and they happen to be two of the creepiest scenes in recent horror cinema (one at the beginning and a scarecrow-like effigy in the snow). Yet, the film is undone by the excessive use of giving the viewer way too much information when the implications could have very well stood on its own two feet. A story like this screamed for a reserved treatment of its superficially intriguing subject matter. Unfortunately, the mega-talented Del Toro could have chosen to rein in his spoon-feeding of the audience but he didn’t.

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Two things that this film does have going for it is its magnificent costume design (which is guaranteed to garner an Oscar nomination for Kate Hawley) and its splendid art direction by Brandt Gordon (who gets to go backwards in time for a change after working on the terribly sub-par “Total Recall” and “Robocop” remakes) with vibrant colors that just pop onscreen and capture the time period ‘to a t.’ I also must applaud Del Toro for his meticulously detailed framing of the house (which is a character unto itself), and a gorgeously composed ballroom scene between Edith and Sir Thomas that leaves the viewer spellbound. It’s no doubt that the film is enjoyable on a certain level but it really amounts to the equivalent of a hollow chocolate Easter bunny. After you pull the delectable outside layers off, there’s nothing of value inside.

 

** (two out of four stars)

 

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