Crimson Peak

crimsonpeak

This ghost story commits an unforgivable, positively ghastly sin: The ghosts don’t even matter! It’s a ghost story with pointless ghosts! Mere backdrop. Fluff.

It’s also a majorly flawed, tonally confused movie.

The story opens in late 19th century Buffalo, New York and our protagonist is Edith, an aspiring author whose publishing start is facing challenges due to extreme gender prejudice. “Write a love story”, they say. The writing plot[1] is dropped as soon as the story leaves Buffalo, but anyway, Edith has the ability to see ghosts. Her dead mother came to her as a child and warned her to “Beware Crimson Peak”, which turns out to be a completely useless warning because Edith doesn’t even learn the name Crimson Peak until she’s already there. She had no chance to avoid it. Thanks, Mom.

Edith’s dad is a big business man in. . . something. The type of business that allows one to don a pressed suit, grow a bushy beard, and pontificate on one’s own self importance. Dad’s money attracts an English aristocrat slash entrepreneur pitching a mechanical contraption designed to draw clay from the ground. Edith’s dad is not a fan of this guy, Thomas, for reasons of character. Dad insults Thomas and his soft hands, praises his own American rough hands, and tells him to get lost. But Edith inexplicably falls in love with him. Why she does this is anyone’s guess; Thomas displays a distinct lack of charisma and neither actor has much chemistry. He compliments her manuscript I guess. This is all it takes to get them wed right quick and Edith is swept off away from everyone she knows to an isolated, decaying English manor with her new husband and his creepy sister.

And through it all, this movie cannot decide if it’s a period horror piece or a fairy tale with ghosts. So characters make nonsensical decisions or live in a house that has an open roof, letting snow and rain and whatever else in. A house filled with bugs. The type of thing that’s totally acceptable in a fairy tale. But the dialogue and characters are typically playing everything straight. They seem to think they’re involved in a gothic drama, bound to the laws of reality, with piano solos and deep-eyed brooding.  It doesn’t help that few of the performances are any good[2], which is at least fifty percent a directorial problem in this movie, since the vision and tone are so muddled.

Crimson Peak has more continuity errors than I’ve seen in a movie in a long time. A character turns off a faucet and in the next cut, it’s back on. Time gaps abound. There’s other miscues that aren’t so much ‘continuity error’, as pure nonsense. Edith learns she’s being fed poison tea so she declines an offer of tea and then half a second later willingly eats porridge spoon-fed to her from the same person who prepared the tea.

And let me repeat: The ghosts don’t even matter! The actual plot could exist entirely without ghosts. They just kind of hang out in the background. They’re not particularly scary or well designed ghosts either (which is baffling considering this is the same director as Pan’s Labyrinth). The visual design and effects do not mesh well. The ghouls have an ethereal, semi-opaque quality that is thematically consistent, but comes off as cheap.

As for the plot, I could have settled for a cliche “the villains were ghosts all along!” over what we actually get: ghost bystanders to an entirely human story that happens to make no logical sense. The villains were seducing rich heiresses and murdering them after they stole their money, so they could finally finish building the clay extraction machine, to make money to repair their ancient house. Why didn’t they just use their victim’s wealth to restore the house? Who knows! It’s nonsense just like the rest of this movie.

All the movie really has going for it is the creepy-pretty design of the house that half the movie takes place in. It is beautiful and would be fun to explore. But it’s not that interesting, certainly not enough to carry the plot, dialogue, or performances.

 

[1] Did I mention this plotline also insults literary history? There’s a point where someone mocks Edith for being a single lady writer, and tells her Jane Austen died a spinster. Edith (cleverly) retorts that she’d rather be like Mary Shelley and die a widow. I wanted to flip a table over and shout that’s because Percy died when he was so young! And Mary herself didn’t exactly reach old age either. What the hell.

[2] While the tone and acting is confused, there is one actor who is somehow perfect: Charlie Hunnam, Jacks from Sons of Anarchy, plays Edith’s childhood friend. He is so earnestly campy, we couldn’t stop laughing whenever he was on screen. Despite being a doctor in 1900s New York, he still uses his modern day NorCal biker accent! It’s hilarious. While other stalwart men riding to Edith’s rescue, walking four hours through a blizzard, would be eye-roll worthy, watching Jacks do it is hilarious.

“Sir, we’re closed, you can’t rent a horse.”
[deadpan] “Then I’ll walk.”
“But it’s four hours in the snow, at night!”
[stoned-faced, biker accent] “Then I better get goin…”

At one point he gets stabbed in the arm, and the manner in which he pirouettes around, upper body frozen, face tense and quivering, is like perfect satirical theater. I don’t think it’s supposed to be this funny. It’s probably not funny at all if you’ve never seen an episode Sons of Anarchy.

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