Substance was never the draw to any Guillermo del Toro film, at least for me, who always felt his movies to be more of atmosphere than narrative. Even so, Crimson Peak is another movie that topped my list of the most anticipated for 2015, and it’s not the first or last time I’ve been disappointed by that list. The words of the protagonist hold as true for Del Toro’s foray into gothic horror as for the story she has written: ‘Not a ghost story, but a story with ghosts in it.’ While that may seem a fresh prospect and a new handle on genres themselves, the actual feature holds less excitement than is spoken for and instead falls back on tropes and cheese, to create a world that obviously paid way more attention to its visual richness than its storytelling.
While every film site I can find lists this one under ‘horror’, it would serve both the movie and the audience better to label it ‘gothic romance’. Crimson Peak tells, through the voice of Edith, the story of a Jo March archetype in the United States at the turn of the twentieth century, daughter to the businessman Carter Cushing and aspiring writer who shuns romance and social stereotypes. Having lost her mother at a young age, she has been haunted by the past – both literally and figuratively – throughout her childhood, which she now insists to insert into her literature. Into this setting enter the siblings Thomas and Lucille Sharpe, Thomas bringing with him a novel idea for a clay-rig and Lucille the eeriest stares and piano sheets she could bring. When tragedy and romance strike at the same time, Edith marries and leaves with Thomas to his castle in Allerdale, a beautifully dilapidated gothic extravaganza where creaks, shrieks and leaks are a daily affair. And as Edith starts to suspect and investigate the past of the castle and the many secrets that lie within its walls, the story unfolds in a least impressive manner: with exposition galore and weak secrets.
That which Crimson Peak suffers from the most is a lack of anything of special intrigue: what we get is a story that feels borrowed and outweighed by the set design. Everything points toward a plot and script better suited for the stage, with vibrant and elaborate set pieces and costume design, and a story that lacks much imagination. The failure of artistic depth to go beyond the excessively crafted images is the film’s downfall as although its opening words suggest more nuanced ideas and emotion, the film itself never escapes its dronish undertones. Even the ghosts and ghouls themselves – whose role in this film I would hold akin to signboards – fail to break free of monotones and the constant theme of excess. It is not as if elegantly designed dramas around the period are unprecedented: just last year, we saw a better one in The Grand Budapest Hotel. Del Toro manages here to create a world where the colours glow vibrant and dark, where characters have secret motivations that they aren’t too good at hiding. I would call him a stylist before a director, something most obvious in this feature where, unlike Pan’s Labyrinth, the atmosphere and design do not add much to the story besides playing merely locations for the events to unfold.
In this romantic mystery, there are countless dead parents haunting their children, walking the corridors covered in what is clearly the tar from the pits of Allerdale. The presence of the supernatural in this film is purposed to play metaphor to the pasts of the characters which cast long shadows over their actions in the events of the film. It is told to us from the very start, and it is easy to see that they hope for this theme to carry the depth and emotion of the film. Sadly, the portrayal of the ghosts and night-time hauntings fall short of whatever nuance of emotion del Toro was aiming for, playing instead the unfortunate role of inciting jumps and screams to break from the otherwise dry script. The ghosts in Crimson Peak – all painstakingly constructed with intricate details using practical effects, I hear – fall flat and monotonous, much like the two colours of tar the ghosts are covered in. (I’m not sure if the tar is meant to mean something more; but del Toro’s M.O. suggests he probably just found an excuse for dripping blood.) It is not as if the proposed theme of ghosts as totems of the past ever breaks free of the singular narrative followed in the film: not once is the character or history of Edith explored beyond her relationship with Thomas and the story plays her as lab rat more than protagonist. All the characters fall into perfect stencils, each given little more than one emotion to play with – cold looks and anxious stares never leave the faces of its characters, making the twist more predictable with each scene.
There are two kinds of stories: a narration of events that happen to a person, and the events narrated through the character of the protagonist. While I’m no stickler for standards, the way Crimson Peak handles its protagonist is remarkably out of place that the character herself brings almost nothing to the film. Starting out with the promise of the second type and a character that can drive the story forward, it instead gives us Edith – a constantly scared writer who makes a contribution entirely in screams and running. It is not that Mia Wasikowska is a particularly poor actress, but the film itself that gives her very little to do other than react to the strange things taking place around her. Edith starts out with the promise of an artist of words who wants very little to do with what society takes as acceptable, and then descends slowly to become yet another dry observer with not much to offer. The side of her that is the earnest writer takes a backseat after first mention and resurfaces only when it is time for it to be mocked by Thomas or otherwise thrown about as a plot device. In fact, most of her character traits disappear once Edith moves to Allerdale and into the care of Thomas and Lucille, priming her as the paper-thin scream queen. The characters that inhabit del Toro’s world do not seem to believe too keenly in layers, arcs or ranges of emotion, each falling into their neatly cut-out roles.
All that said, it would be unfair of me to not praise the rich visuals employed by del Toro, however much it may not appeal to my sensibilities. Filling every inch of his frame with intricate detail and elaborate set-pieces, he recreates the vibe of a gothic fairytale to match the gothic extravaganza that he has birthed. The Allerdale castle alone is a towering death-trap that could very well have been stolen from a Golden Age Disney villain. (In fact, I don’t think it’d be too far from the truth if Guillermo del Toro made a model of the castle for his nightstand, and then made a movie around it, in that order.) The worn down castle looks so formidable with the blood-tar running down its walls, the gaping hole in the ceiling and the million spikes that I was surprised Edith didn’t turn and run at first sight. It is easy to see the whole movie as an excuse for del Toro to create from his imagination and play with the Allerdale castle and its inhabitants (the ghosts, not the stoic Sharpes). It also has everything from ghoulish paintings of ancestors playing audience to the eerie piano, to a quaint but creepy workshop filled with dolls that could stare down into your soul. There’s a reason it’s on the poster with Edith, and the devilish building plays its role well.
Crimson Peak is a movie seemingly created entirely through contrasting colours, dramatic visuals and exorbitant layouts. It is quite obviously the castle and the ghosts that have been afforded the most time and effort, going so far as to create original concepts of tar-covered spirits. The downside of this is that the characters are written thin as paper and explored even less, something that can only be a drawback for a love story. This disparity in attention paid to the actual story also results in the twist basically being handed to the audience (and Edith) in a platter, basically an exposition without words. If you are one who shares del Toro’s excessive taste, then you will not leave disappointed, but unfortunately the same cannot be said of other viewers. Fans of the horror genre are sure to find themselves terribly underwhelmed at the resulting tale of romance, which was paid about half the attention the design of the blood-tar got. There are definitely things to like in Crimson Peak, but the whole package is absolutely a letdown.