There is no quicker way to kill horror than by explaining it. What is really scary lies just outside of what we can understand—the second we know what’s behind our fear, it loses its power to frighten. For a very good portion of its runtime, Crimson Peak, the lavish new gothic shocker from Guillermo Del Toro, is quite spooky indeed, wringing a great amount of tension from its titular locale. But as it begins to prioritize the progression of its muddled plot over scares and atmosphere, the film falls flat, lacking the steam to elevate its disparate narrative elements past cliché.
Weirdly enough, the film doesn’t even make it to Crimson Peak (properly named Allerdale Hall) until a little under halfway through its duration. The first half is spent mostly on exposition: Edith (Mia Wasikowska), an aspiring writer with the ability to see ghosts, is having trouble getting others to see the merit in her latest manuscript. Along comes Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), a British baronet and the only one to see potential in her writing, and his creepy sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain, clearly having a great time with the role). Edith swoons for Sir Thomas, so when her father’s death renders his objections to the match irrelevant, the two are married and we’re off to the races.
The early scenes in Allerdale Hall are those in which the movie really comes alive; after the plodding exposition, it suddenly feels like we can stretch out and breathe. The house is full of delightful details—the red clay that gives Crimson Peak its name seeps through the wall at the edges of the frame; the ceiling over the entrance hall is caved in so that falling snowflakes can dance around in a shaft of golden sunlight; a colony of moths flutters on a fading mural in the attic. It’s here that the film is most in touch with its chosen pedigree of gothic romances past, your Wuthering Heightses and Jane Eyres. Allerdale Hall is as vibrant a character as any of the people in the film, rendered in rich colors and luxurious textures and with just enough decay to make the house’s beauty even more beautiful. Splendor for splendor’s sake can get old fast; but by offsetting it with the wear and tear of time, the film at its best can evoke both nostalgic beauty and goth-y horror at the same time. If something’s crumbling, after all, what happened to the people who were supposed to take care of it?
Plus, with the grand old house finally at the center of the narrative, Del Toro can get into the business of hiding spooks around every corner. One great scene features a dog and a game of fetch as the camera slowly creeps down the hall toward Edith, invoking the menace that lies just out of sight. While the ghosts stay hidden like this—we know they’re there, just beyond our field of vision—the film is great fun. Del Toro and his crew seem to relish making the audience guess where the ghouls will pop up next, and the lavish set design lends those thrills a touch of rebellion, like building a house of cards just to knock it all down at the end.
These things-that-go-bump-in-the-night sections feel like the film Del Toro wanted to make; the rest, unfortunately, feels as if culled from a different film altogether. The central romance isn’t written well enough to warrant much more than a shrug, and none of the characters grow into anything more than types, despite the cast’s competent efforts. Del Toro has said that the film isn’t supposed to be horror, per se, that it’s more of a gothic romance, and yet Crimson Peak is at its best when it’s acting like a straight-up horror film—the romance, the intrigue, and the sense of foreboding that animate the best gothics are all missing. Perhaps there are just too many different elements working within the story, encompassing hauntings, swooning romance, familial conflict and abuse, and good old murder, for the plot to truly come together. Even the editing is mishmash. Some of the film’s scenes end in a classic Hollywood iris fade (a technique that pops up early on and disappears partway through), while others transition smoothly; modern jump-scare music cues coexist with tense, minimal piano and swooning orchestral sections.
Yet what ultimately dooms the film is its need to overstate itself, as if we can’t be trusted to understand what’s happening otherwise. In one key scene, Edith explains her manuscript to a skeptical publisher: “It’s more of a story with ghosts in it. The ghosts are a metaphor for the past.” It’s clearly meant as a statement of intent for the film—like the clay that rises through the floorboards of Allerdale Hall, the past keeps coming back to haunt the characters. But Crimson Peak succeeds only when it takes its story seriously on its own terms, when it views its ghosts literally rather than as a jumbled collection of metaphorical signifiers. It’s a bit of bitter irony that a film about being haunted by the past cannot escape its own messy grab-bag of antecedents—in genre, in symbolism, in style. After all, it’s nothing new to deal with ghosts; it’s what you do with them that matters.