Lawrence Toppman

Del Toro makes a molehill out of ‘Crimson Peak’

Tom Hiddleston and Mia Wasikowska whirl into a waltz without extinguishing a candle, one of many unbelievable elements in “Crimson Peak.”
Tom Hiddleston and Mia Wasikowska whirl into a waltz without extinguishing a candle, one of many unbelievable elements in “Crimson Peak.” Universal Pictures

You could justly apply many adjectives to movies by director Guillermo Del Toro, but “conventional” wasn’t one of them – until “Crimson Peak.”

He set out to make a classic romance novel overlaid with horror, a mix of Daphne Du Maurier and Edgar Allan Poe: “Rebecca” meets “The Fall of the House of Usher.” But the script doesn’t approach those heights; there’s not a surprise in 119 minutes, except for extreme and unnecessary gore.

Ideal casting mitigates the suspenseless screenplay by Del Toro and Matthew Robbins, who worked with him on the limp “Mimic” and “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark.”

Mia Wasikowska plays Edith Cushing, an heiress and novelist who falls for dashing, penniless Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston). He has come to America with Lucille, his eerily grave sister (Jessica Chastain), to seek money for an invention that could make him rich back in England as a mining boss.

A better movie would have let us wonder whether he was a fortune hunter or loved Edith, whether his checkered past contained a series of crimes, whether he and Lucille meant to do Edith in or bilk her. This movie gives away those answers earlier than it should, and we have nothing to do but wait for Edith to wake up.

Del Toro gets the ghostly elements right, with red and black flesh-torn spooks wailing warnings to the receptive Edith. But he goes wildly overboard in aiming for atmosphere after the story shifts to the Sharpes’ crumbling English manor.

It has a skull on the arch over the gate, snow and dead leaves falling through a huge hole in the ceiling – perhaps plywood was fabulously expensive in 1901 – and red clay seeping up through the floor, as if blood were oozing from an opening in a body. Like the house of Usher, the Sharpes’ decayed mansion is sinking into its mire.

Nor would the great suspense writers approve of the plotting. Edith finds damning records the Sharpes have inexplicably kept in their own unlocked closet. The plucky doctor who loved her back in the States (eternally bland Charlie Hunnam) realizes at exactly the right time what’s going on.

Poe and Du Maurier, for all their fantastical elements, insisted on a baseline of realism. Characters with multiple stab wounds (including one near the heart) or bodies full of poison didn’t run around like Arnold Schwarzenegger on a quest for vengeance, but they can in Del Toro’s comic-book fantasies.

The technical elements stand out. The warmhearted score by Fernando Velázquez and Dan Laustsen’s dark, scarlet-tinged cinematography provide plenty of atmosphere – if Del Toro and Robbins only knew what to do with it.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

Crimson Peak

Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, Jessica Chastain, Charlie Hunnam.

Director: Guillermo Del Toro.

Length: 119 minutes.

Rating: R (bloody violence, some sexual content and brief strong language).