There are a lot of directors who rise to the occasion once their labeled as geniuses and then use the greater resources that their higher profiles give them, then there are other who maybe get a little too wrapped up in their own hype and fail to deliver because of it and I’m becoming increasingly worried that Guillermo del Toro is going down that second path. Del Toro is a genre director who, for a while, pretty effectively played the “one for them, one for me” game. He would provide his distinctive flair and love of genre to Hollywood blockbusters like Blade II and then go off to Mexico or Spain in order to make slightly more sophisticated fare like Pan’s Labyrinth. In fact Pan’s Labyrinth is a big part of why Del Toro is so highly thought of, it’s easily the director’s best movie and it was bookended by his Hellboy movies, which were easily the best showcase for how his style could be applied to large scale entertainments. That one, two, three punch made us forget some of the more questionable elements in his earlier films like Mimic. Unfortunately after a long five year wait for his follow-up to Hellboy II: The Golden Army all we got was the movie Pacific Rim. That movie had some of that Del Toro creativity going for it which made it watchable, but it was still a pretty massive disappointment. It was, at its heart, a rather dumb movie with a lot of the same sloppy mistakes hurt some of his lesser efforts. That was something I could get over though because his next movie, Crimson Peak, looked like it would be a return to the kind of movie that Del Toro should have been making all along: smarter, smaller scale, more literary genre films in the vein of Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone.
Crimson Peak is a gothic horror film set around the turn of the century and focusing on a bookish young woman named Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) who is the daughter of a wealthy American industrialist named Carter Cushing (Jim Beaver). Edith dreams of becoming a writer rather than a housewife but her plans are put somewhat to the test when a dashing, if somewhat suspicious Englishman named Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) arrives in New York to present a business proposal to her father. Sharpe and his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) belong to a lineage that has seen better days. Most of their money has been lost, their old mansion is in disarray, and the clay mines that once made their family a fortune are no longer in use. Carter Cushing comes to dislike the Sharpes but in spite of his objections his daughter soon falls for Tomas and after a tragedy makes her reconsider her options she runs away with him back to England, but soon she will find that Sharpe’s dilapidated home has a number of dark secrets that are waiting for her.
To make Crimson Peak del Toro has restrained a lot of his humor and his habit of recklessly throwing cool comic-con approved genre elements at the wall and hoping it all sticks. Instead he’s adjusted his style to actually work quite well with the film’s period elements. Buffalo New York and the high society thereof is quite well rendered here and Del Toro mines the time period for interesting little details. When the film transitions to Brittan del Toro gives us a real haunted house for the ages, complete with the brilliant touch of having it be built on red clay which makes it look like it’s drenched in blood. The film also has a really good cast that seems like it would be a perfect fit for a less macabre costume drama. The classically trained Tom Hiddleston could probably do a part like this in his sleep, Mia Wasikowska shows that she’s aging into adult roles quite ably, Jessica Chastain continues to prove that she can do pretty much anything, and even Charlie Hunnam (who was boring as hell in Pacific Rim) is mostly able in his role here.
So why isn’t this movie great? Surprisingly, it’s the horror elements. I’m kind of surprised to be saying this, but I’m beginning to think Guillermo del Toro doesn’t really understand horror cinema. Let me qualify that statement. Del Toro definitely loves monsters passionately and has a long history of rendering them onscreen brilliantly and his knowledge of horror literature and tropes, however, I’m not sure he’s really the master of ratcheting on screen suspense that people thinks he is. While he’s made a number of horror-tinged action movies in the last decade I don’t think del Toro has made something that was actually trying to scare anyone since 2001’s The Devil’s Backbone, and as stylish and interesting as that film was it shared a fatal flaw with Crimson Peak: a lack of patience. Rather than slowly teasing his monsters and ghosts here, del Toro has them show up in full view very quickly, which diminishes them of a lot of impact by eliminating their mystery. It also doesn’t help that these ghosts look very fake and CGI-ish, and even on a design level they seem a bit uninspired as far as Guillermo del Toro creations go. They have that same “matter floating in water” effect that was used previously in The Devil’s Backbone but this makes less sense given that they weren’t supposed to be drowning victims, and in general they look more or less like what you’d expect a ghost to look like.
On top all that, the film’s script has a couple of clear issues as well, mainly related to the main character’s motivations. This is a character who, in the first scene of the movie, is visited by the ghost of her dead mother and warned to “beware Crimson Peak” and is then given yet another warning by this dead mother to “beware Crimson Peak” and yet she still finds herself doing a very bad job of being wary of Crimson Peak. Even without that spectral warning it seems like there are a lot of warning signs that this character seems oddly oblivious to, especially given that she’s supposed to be this intelligent young woman. Why does she just accept that this horribly dilapidated house is an acceptable living quarters? That all the plainly creepy stuff that’s going on is something to be shrugged off? That the man she’s decided to marry seems really shady? The answer of course is that if she did act rationally and flee this situation there wouldn’t be a movie. To some degree these are just genre conventions that you just need to go along with, and I’m not going to act like they were complete deal breakers, but there were things that Del Toro could have done to mitigate some of these concerns.
Crimson Peak’s other major problem is just that it isn’t a particularly original work, which is in part owed to the fact that Del Toro has opted to borrow heavily from similar works of gothic fiction like “The Turn of the Screw” and “The Fall of the House of Usher” and to fit his work very much in that lineage. There is, however, a point at which you have to diverge from your sources of inspiration and add your own twist and I don’t think Del Toro did enough to make his film stand out. Frankly, I kind of felt like it was a story I had already seen before. And yet, there was a lot about the execution here I did admire. The film does have the skeleton of a great horror movie, the actors do sell the material, and Del Toro does adjust his style nicely to better suit his material. Once all the cards are on the table the film does end pretty well and some of its gorier images are effectively disturbing and do feel somewhat unique when placed against a more upscale backdrop. There’s the skeleton of a great horror film here, and I can’t help but think that with a little more finesse in the writing and a little more restraint with the ghosts this could have really been something. As it stands it’s a pretty flawed film that is still entertaining in spite of itself.
*** out of Four