IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 119 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Edith Cushing, the daughter of industrialist Carter Cushing, had a terrifying encounter with the ghost of her mother, who whispered “Beware of Crimson Peak”, as a child. Now a young woman, she writes ghosts stories, but is pressured into writing about romance as it is expected of her gender. Her childhood friend Dr. Alan McMichael is in love with her, but she catches the eye of visiting aristocrat, Sir Thomas Sharpe. Despite efforts by Carter to break them up, they begin a romance. Carter is then found dead, his skull crushed in. Thomas gently persuades Edith to leave New York for his own home. They leave for England and are married, but her new home is haunted….
Crimson Peak, which seemed to either have an inordinately long post-production period or the studio dragged its heels about releasing it, has been much anticipated by both horror fans and Guillermo Del Toro fans as the director’s return to horror, and there is a lot to like in it, so much so that I feel rather sad that it most definitely won’t be the big hit that Del Toro still hasn’t had at the box office, and which he surely deserves. However, the film is also undeniably a rather problematic one for one major reason that really lets the side down. The script. Now I’m the kind of person who can easily forgive a film for having a poor script if, say, the film looks great, and Crimson Peak looks absolutely fabulous – in fact, I could probably write six paragraphs just describing how fabulous it looks. However, Crimson Peak is also the type of film that depends a lot on its story, and, while never less than interesting, it’s also messy, incredibly derivative and not very well thought through. Del Toro has described it as a “Gothic romance”, which is fine in itself, but he’s also gone and put ghosts in it. Jane Eyre with ghosts – that sounds rather good too – but a big problem about Crimson Peak is that the ghosts feel awkwardly glued onto the story and didn’t really need to be in the film at all!
Al this probably sounds very negative and I don’t want to be too downbeat about the film. In many other respects it’s of very high quality indeed, but the things I mentioned above are enough to seriously drag it down. This is a great shame, because I wanted to love Crimson Peak, and indeed there were things I loved in it – in fact, I’d go as far as to say that I pretty much loved its middle section. I usually go into things like photography and design later on in a review, but I’m going to repeat myself right here – Crimson Peak is one of the most visually stunning films of the year, an astoundingly beautiful looking film that in places reminded me no less than Mario Bava. If you’re familiar with my reviews than you’ll know how highly I regard the Black Sunday and Blood And Black Lace director, and I hope that I’ve explained in my reviews for his films why I regard him so very highly. Cinematographer Dan Laustsen gives us shot after shot of gorgeous compositions making wonderful use of colour, his favoured thing in the film perhaps being a turquoise-dominated frame illuminated by light from a candle. Meanwhile production designer Tom Sanders recalls and even betters his work on Bram Stoker’s Dracula as he helps bring to life one of the most memorable Gothic houses in movies, full of all the things you would expect but also with some very unusual features like a huge hole in the ceiling down through which leaves and snow come down into the house [more lovely visuals here], it being built on loads of red clay, and having rooms that seem to grow and shrink. Unfortunately, this living, breathing house ends up being the most rounded character in the film.
Crimson Peak gives us a creepy moment right at the beginning when Edith receives a visit from her dead mother, then proceeds as a period love story for a while. Even here the film just looks amazing and, while the impatient horror fan may be shifting awkwardly in their seat waiting for the scares, if you’re reading this than you probably realise that Crimson Peak isn’t so much as a horror film than a film with some horror in it, and may even agree with me that this first section is actually rather rushed. The romance has a rather cold feel about it despite a nice scene, which would have benefitted from being longer, when the couple waltz, Mia Wasikowka and Tom Hiddleston not really having much chemistry, though this is possibly deliberate considering that Del Toro and co-writer Matthew Robbins let us know that Thomas and his sister, who really may as well be called Mrs. Danvers, are up to no good. And, while Edith may respond to the comment very early on that: “You’ll die as Jane Austen, a spinster” with: “I’ll rather die as Mary Shelley, a widow”, indicating that she’s a headstrong, confident woman in a time when females weren’t supposed to have those qualities so much, her transformation into a woman in love doesn’t seem too convincing, especially when she decides to marry a guy right after her father has been murdered! Still never mind, it all passes the time nicely for a while, especially when Fernando Velazquez’s music, which is great throughout, is allowed to really soar in an old fashioned fashion.
It isn’t too long before we get a bloody murder, and it really is very bloody indeed, Edith’s father having his head bashed several times on a sink until he’s dead and has one side of his face virtually missing. Part of the sink comes off, causing the blood to pour all over the floor. Then, once Edith goes to live in Thomas’ house, the movie does get a bit scary for a while. I’ve read that the film isn’t scary and I would say that this isn’t true, though of course many of us differ on what frightens us. The scenes of Edith wondering the house and seeing the ghosts certainly worked for me at first, though Del Toro shows the spooks a bit too much, and eventually, despite looking really rather unsettling [though done much like Mama was], the effect diminishes, though Del Toro and Robbins then do a really bizarre thing – they have the ghosts entirely disappear from the film until right at the end. It may strengthen Del Toro’s favourite point that the real horror is in human villainy, and the film, even if it get progressively sillier, certainly isn’t boring without them, but it just leaves one feeling disappointed as well as causing one to wonder why the ghosts are in the film in the first place, and ghosts who don’t bloody do anything, basically just serving as metaphors for the past. The final act seems rather rushed, despite us getting a great showdown between the two women in the film which really is great exciting fun indeed.
Del Toro and Robbins pack their film with references, scenes and elements taken from literature and other movies. The Shining [or maybe The Changeling in one bit], Roger Corman’s Poe pictures and various Alfred Hitchcock films are especially obvious influences, but Del Toro and Robbins get carried away with all this and fail to spend enough time giving their own movie, despite its extraordinary look, its own identity, though it does work somewhat as a pastiche. It is nice to see Del Toro given the freedom again in a US film to give us some good old blood and gore, including the best use of a pen since Casino. In fact the blood really flows, and when it isn’t flowing there’s loads of red clay around which looks like blood. I can’t be the only one who detects a menstrual aspect to all this, along with the title. I reckon that Del Toro, who often puts this kind of symbolism into his films, fully intended the viewer to pick up on this very thing.
The performances are all enjoyable but sometimes seem to struggle. Wasikowska does her best despite having a really rather awkwardly written character to play [one minute feminist, the next minute pushover!] and Hiddleston, again playing a morally ambivalent character, may actually be the best he’s ever been, but Jessica Chastain, despite being very sinister, and Charlie Hunnam fight a losing battle with poor [though not Keanu Reeves-poor] accents. I’ve heard that the original script of Crimson Peak was better than the one that was eventually filmed. I guess Del Toro and Robbins wanted to make the viewer work out some things for his or herself, which can work for some movies, but in the case of this one it just resulted in a film which almost drowns under its amazingly lush look. It’s entertaining, it’s creepy, it’s suspenseful, and is full of shots that will be worth looking at again and again. I think that it’s a depressing sign of the times that this badly flawed, but often beautiful, film seems to be badly underperforming at the box office around the same time as we learn that the dull, lazy Annabelle, which remember was a sizeable hit, is now going to get a sequel and will probably do really well too. For God’s sake, we live in a time where a supposed film which consists of an hour and a half of looking at a computer screen is considered worthy of a release and people actually go and see it. In terms of studio movies, the horror genre seems to be largely relegated to jump scares, and other kinds of horror movies struggle to get a look in. However, I must admit that, despite its many fine attributes, Crimson Peak just falls a little flat and must overall be considered something of a failure….but a very noble failure. In fact, especially if you consider my star rating, it’s possibly my favourite failure of the year!