Crimson Peak is that rare film to provide limited appeal for audiences but perpetual fodder for academics, critics and budding filmmakers, not because of any ingenuity but for what, and what not to do when making a horror movie.
Guillermo Del Toro’s latest is a crash-course in gothic cinema, an unparalleled collection of classic horror tropes packed into one film that will have genre die-hards drooling. Its allusions will be more than familiar to the dedicated followers of the macabre and grotesque; at once a homage to the classics and a reversion to Del Toro’s tried and true formula best accomplished in Pan’s Labyrinth.
Mia Wasikowska plays Edith Cushing, an introverted, bookish Rebecca figure who falls for dapper English aristocrat Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston). Whisked away to his crumbling yet still grandiose mansion to live with his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain replete with a jangling set of keys), the scene is set as Edith is warned not to venture into certain parts of the house for her own safety, isolated half a day’s walk from the nearest town.
Believing she’s left behind her home and the ghosts that have haunted her since childhood, Edith re-encounters the spectres in her new residence, visions that she alone can see.
Crimson Peak is on its face a genre mash-up combining the style and sensibilities of period dramas including Jane Eyre and Madame Bovary (both of which have recently been adapted with the appropriately cast Wasikowska in the title roles) with grimy horror and gore. The only real scare takes place in the first few minutes of the film when we first see the spectre lingering outside Edith’s bedroom; Del Toro making the unwise decision to reveal the ghosts all too frequently and in too much detail, diluting any potential fear or suspense.
Obsessed with monsters, in this case less engaging or creative ones than the fantastical beasts featured in Pan’s Labyrinth, Del Toro would rather show us his demons than let them scare us; allowing the audience time to marvel fleetingly in their splendour while taking away any real contribution they could make to the film or it’s shock-value. The scares wane as the film progresses, with a spooky portrait of the siblings’ late mother, ostensibly meant to elicit fear, resulting in raucous laughter from the crowd for what could have been the distant cousin of Vigo from Ghostbusters 2.
A talented director, Del Toro is focused here on creating an all-encompassing pastiche of gothic fiction – borrowing plot points from Notorious, throwing in spinning door handles, billowing dresses, creepy dolls and finding a scientific reason to have a blood-type liquid literally seep from the walls of the house and surrounding grounds. A love letter to The Shining, this is actually a film about someone who has the ability to see ghosts and gets saved by a dude who decides to traverse countries and battle a snowstorm on the hunch that Edith’s life might be in danger. There’s even a scene involving a spectre stepping out of the bathtub in an all too familiar style, not to mention the creepy, old-fashioned elevator.
Crimson Peak however is primarily a new take on Del Toro’s blueprint in Pan’s Labyrinth, still one of the great achievements in 21st century cinema. Both focused on a naïve, innocent young woman, manipulated and at the mercy of a violent, evil figure who ultimately means her harm, both Edith and Ofelia find fear and solace in the amazing creatures which perhaps only they can see. In Pan’s Labyrinth, however, Ofelia’s visions are a central and integral part of the story, while in Crimson Peak they add little to the suspense and fail to move the plot along at all.
The ambiguous ending in Pan’s Labyrinth was all that much better for it’s devastating yet still aspirational tone as we are left to our own musings to determine just how real or vital Ofelia’s visions were to the outcome, while an end reveal of the ghosts’ authenticity in Crimson Peak falls flat, brought on by Edith literally overcoming her attacker by telling Lucille to look behind her.
The spectres could easily have been written out of Crimson Peak and replaced with a more realistic and grittier story. There are any number of ways that Edith could have found out about Sharpe’s former wives, who could very well have been locked in the basement and making those noises late at night. Alternately, Lucille’s attempts to poison Edith and her subsequent refusal to drink the tea could have lead to Lucille adopting more drastic and less covert methods to finish off the heroine. A darker film with less explicit references to the supernatural might have fared better; the prospect of getting Crimson Peak in its iterated form produced in the first place a testament to the Pacific Rim director’s obvious ability and power within Hollywood.
Each of the main cast does their bit to bring their more than capable talent to Del Toro’s ill-judged, ill-conceived misfire, but even with Chastain’s frightening performance it is not enough. Crimson Peak, while not a great achievement in itself, will serve as a reminder to film students and the devoted everywhere of just how bad, and how great gothic horror can be.
Crimson Peak is in cinemas now