Crimson Peak Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, Jessica Chastain. Directed by Guillermo del Toro. Rated R. Opens Friday.
After overloading on bombast with his would-be blockbuster franchise Pacific Rim, director Guillermo del Toro returns to his horror roots with the elegant haunted-house story Crimson Peak. The movie is so elegant, actually, that it feels a little musty, and while its atmosphere is spectacular, its story is a bit stale.
Set in 1901, it stars Mia Wasikowska as American socialite Edith Cushing, a shy and bookish aspiring novelist who eschews society balls and romantic overtures until she meets the dashing yet reserved Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston). The story gets off to a bit of a slow start, but eventually Edith marries Thomas and is whisked away to his family home in England, a decrepit estate that sits atop a mine of conveniently symbolic blood-red clay.
The house itself is a marvel of production design, a dilapidated yet strikingly beautiful cross between Wuthering Heights and Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion. There, Edith soon discovers that she’s more prisoner than mistress, constantly watched over by Thomas’ aloof and judgmental sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain). Also, the house is full of ghosts, who chase Edith and implore her to seek out the deadly (but ultimately not very interesting) family secrets. Del Toro is great at establishing the spooky setting, from the open-air skylight that offers a constant flutter of leaves or snow, to the vats of viscous red clay in the basement, to the attic workshop full of creepy, half-functional toys. But his screenplay (co-written by Matthew Robbins) is less compelling, doing little to update or subvert its old-fashioned ghost-story elements, aside from adding state-of-the-art special effects.
Edith’s plight recalls the main character of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca and Wasikowska’s own recent performance as Jane Eyre (in Cary Fukunaga’s underrated 2011 adaptation). Wasikowska brings some real sorrow and grit to her role as the tragic heroine, and Hiddleston (who’s played an evil Norse god and a vampire in the past few years) is great at being eerily seductive. But Chastain is miscast as the dour, jealous Lucille, and as her role in the story becomes increasingly important, the narrative loses momentum. Like the house it’s set in, it’s a sight to behold, but eventually unable to keep itself together.