I saw Crimson Peak on the strength of its baroque costumes and set design. On that front, it did not disappoint. I especially liked Mia Wasikowska’s dressing gown, which had leg-o’-mutton sleeves so voluminous that that were deflating in on themselves, and Jessica Chastain’s end-scene…uh, let’s just call it deshabille, with endlessly flowing sleeves and streaming skirts, perfect for running around shrieking in. I was going to say that I’d like these articles of clothing in 1:3 scale or digital, but neither format would do justice to the restless, watery movement with which they moved on the big screen.
Oh yeah, I guess there were some people in those clothes too: aspiringly authorial Edith Cushing [Mia Wasikowska], the ingenue prying into the affairs of suspiciously vampiric Thomas Sharpe [Tom Hiddleston] and his scarily possessive sister Lucille [Jessica Chastain]. I liked the first act, occurring in Edith’s hometown of Buffalo, New York, during which the characters had personality and the Sharpes were obviously engaging in machinations. As soon as the action moved across the pond to Cumberland, England, location of the Sharpes’ ancestral estate, the quality of the costumes and set designs increased, while everyone’s personality evacuated. Opportunities for characters to not only demonstrate their personalities, but also somehow hitch into the plot — Edith’s writerly ambitions and her ability to see ghosts, Thomas’ mechanical aptitude, the whole thread with the dog and the siblings’ ambivalence toward it — appeared and then fell away because apparently del Toro could handle either a cogent script or lavish set dressing, but not both simultaneously.
I could have handled the general unraveling of the movie if it weren’t so lazily overdetermined. The movie sets itself up like a mystery, but there’s really no intrepid sleuthing of piecing together of clues. Okay, granted, Edith does a little poking around to find some wax cylinders from a previous tenant, but then the recordings spell everything out for her, as does Lucille during the end scene, as does Edith’s narration bookending the whole film. Look, del Toro — give the viewers a little credit. You don’t need to tell us that “ghosts are real” — Edith’s beginning and end claim. You can just tell the story, and we will recognize very soon that they are. Show, rather than tell. You’ll have a stronger story that way.
Crimson Peak would have been greatly improved if Lucille were dead all along, tied to Allerdale Hall, but still exerting influence over Thomas. He would have come to the US alone and then killed Edith’s father under Lucille’s urging so that Edith would feel compelled to marry him. Edith and Thomas would then go back to England, where Lucille would manifest to both of them and start restricting Edith’s life. Most of the plot would occur as usual, although there would be some hints that Lucille was not of the living. The true nature of Thomas and Edith’s relationship would thus be even more disturbing.
The climax would be mostly the same too, only Thomas’ clay extractor would somehow dig up Lucille’s corpse, leading Edith to realize that she’d been dealing with a dead woman all along. Thomas would become unhinged at the sight of Lucille’s body and start talking to it. His words would imply that his attachment to Lucille played a part in bringing her back as a ghost. At that point, thanks to Thomas’ invention, the creaky foundation of Allerdale Hall would fail, taking Lucille’s corpse and Thomas along with it. Edith alone would escape, probably to freeze to death in the blizzard. Sure, this ending owes a lot to Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” but it’s also a damn sight creepier and more psychologically interesting than the actual ending.