BEWARE–this review is full of spoilers.
Crimson Peak is an okay ghost story about an American girl (with money) who marries an Englishman with a title, an old mansion, and a sister who likes poisoned tea and meat cleavers. Like the new bride on arriving at her new home, we find lots of motifs (the cold, the ratty mansion and more red than a mall at Christmas) but little in the way of scares, at least from anything supernatural. Yes, I know there were some moments where the undead plowed through a hallway carpet and rose from a vat of what looked like some super red preschool paint. The thing is, these devices don’t have the same effect anymore. The yawning death grin of Norman Bates’ mother scared the popcorn out of 1960’s audiences, but some times, and I’m talking to you, Guillermo, less is more.
I really enjoyed Mama, del Toro’s previous horror effort, but Mama, the actual ghost, with her absurdly elongated chin and little manic eyes looked like someone’s blind date nightmare. Much, much scarier was an earlier film of del Toro’s, The Devil’s Backbone. That one was truly eerie. Not only was the little boy ghost with a head of blood floaties like nothing I had ever seen, but the buildup to certain scares have stayed with me. Since I saw it for the first time, I avoid looking through keyholes.
One thing I’ve learned from watching Crimson Peak and Mama, del Toro’s latest scare-fests is if you’re the star and you die and come back from the dead, you get to be a good-looking ghost. In Mama, Nicolaj Coster-Waldau plays twins. One kills his wife and attempts to kill his children, and he dies as Mama’s first victim. One would assume, given his deeds, the dad would look like quite the troll in the afterlife, but noooo—he just looks sad.
The ghosts of all three victims of Crimson Peaks’ murderous brother and sister team, lost anything that might make them appealing and kept everything that rattled and oozed as they stalked poor vacant Edith (Mia Wasikowska). When she was a child, Edith’s dead mother appeared shortly after the funeral looking like a tar-drenched mummy with Halloween chattering teeth, ten-inch spikey fingers and wearing a funeral dress borrowed from Scarlet O’Hara’s Aunt Pitty Pat. So after being stalked by a number of gross looking ghosts, Edith tries to address what is eating (pardon the pun) the shades.
Alas, she discovers the truth. It’s murder and she’s next! But it’s complicated—She and Thomas (the brother) are in love and he’s having second thoughts. When sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) discovers that she and her brother Tom are no longer exclusive as a couple, hell hath no fury like Chastain. Seriously I would never want to have a fight with Jessica. She’s almost as manic here as she was in Zero Dark Thirty. A very fine actress, she steals every scene. And like every imperiled Victorian damsel, her old American boyfriend (Charlie Hunam—none of these actors are American other than Chastain), who makes it just in time to feel Lucille’s steel, saves Edith. Lucille, who makes quick work of the boyfriend, decides to teach Tom a lesson by shoving a knife through his face, and Edith has had enough. She takes Sister Dearest down, by whacking her with the business end of a shovel. Though the brave boyfriend, thanks to Tom, survives, Tom does not and his ghost distracts Lucille long enough for Edith’s shovel to make it count. And his ghost, looking rather gray, with blood floaties around his head, makes sad eyes at his soon to be out of there and on the way home bride. And for the star, Hiddleston’s ghost, there were no chattering oversized teeth and no head parts with a gaping hole where your brains once sat. And Lucille? There’s not a hair out of place nor is there a bow untied as her ghost plays the piano. They wouldn’t dare.
In The Haunting of Hill House, what walked there, walked alone. And we never saw it. It was one of the scariest novels I ever read and the 1963 film, made of it, The Haunting, was incredibly creepy. During the 1999 remake, there were tons of scary special effects and each over-the-top one detracted. Though I love a good monster and a good acid-dripping alien, when it comes to ghosts, less is more.