As much as Crimson Peak loves to tell us exactly what is happening, there is the one instance where the movie doesn’t describe itself accurately. “Beware of Crimson Peak.” Only a few minor scares dot this movie; most of the work director Guillermo del Toro does focuses on the lighting and set itself, which make the movie look complex and beautiful, but unfortunately not very scary.
The plot of Crimson Peak is predictable for a horror film that is also a period piece: Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) is a unique girl who is swept away by Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) to a decaying manor in England, where he lives with his sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain). Edith slowly discovers that all is not as it seems in the house. By beginning to uncover secrets about Thomas and his sister—siblings clearly involved in something sinister—she disobeys the warnings of her father (Jim Beaver) and the ghost of her mother. I would worry about spoilers, but every possible plot twist is exposed before any tension can be built. Although it leaves something to be desired, this pattern of following a classic horror plot while revealing its clichéd twists at least acknowledges the viewers’ understanding of what will happen without pretending to fool them.
You might think that a movie that does not attempt much with its plot would use some other element to distinguish itself from other examples of the horror genre, but Crimson Peak only manages this in a minor way. For characters, the movie focuses exclusively on Edith, who may be the least interesting of the bunch. While the other characters have exciting backstories or developments, Edith is simply another person caught up in the siblings’ schemes. By contrast, Thomas has an emotional development that is rarely seen in horror films, but almost all of it takes place off-screen or secondary to Edith’s storyline. The cinematography and sets, on the other hand, are uncharacteristic of horror movies in their strongly colored lighting and provide a tense space ready to be filled with terror. Through eerily lit hallways and manors literally sinking into a red ooze, the movie primes us to anticipate fear even if it never quite comes.
This lack of horror is Crimson Peak’s main difficulty. While the lighting and sets make for some truly chilling moments, these end up being few and far between. Thomas introduces himself by saying, “Where I come from, ghosts are not to be taken lightly.” Yet only Edith deals with ghosts, even though they make up a significant portion of the film’s storyline and style. And when the ghosts do arrive, they usually only appear for jump scares, rather than creating the generally terrifying atmosphere that Crimson Peak (the manor) should rightfully have.
Crimson Peak’s one redeeming quality is this titular manor. Thanks to its intricate set, the place has a strange liveliness to it, making it the most interesting character in the film. The Victorian house is sinking into liquid red clay, and the shadows that fall through the open hole in its roof set up the movie’s few truly scary moments. Yet the manor can’t save all the other aspects of the film that fall short. Crimson Peak remains the ghost of a potentially great horror movie.
If you enjoy beautiful sets and design, you could take some notes, but don’t go in expecting to be scared.