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….
Despite being very busy with screeners at the moment, I wanted to take the opportunity to cram in a watch of Arrow’s Blu-ray of Crimson Peak to see if my opinion on it had changed since my cinema viewing, rather than just copy and pasting the review I did back then. The film, which seemed to either have an inordinately long post-production period [or the studio dragged its heels about releasing it], was much anticipated by both horror fans and Guillermo Del Toro fans alike as the director’s return to horror, but seemed to slightly disappoint many, yet I still found it to one of the more interesting horror films of 2015 and felt that its flopping at the box office was a depressing sign of a time when the genre seems to be largely relegated to jump scares, and other kinds of horror movies struggled to get a look in – though thankfully things have changed a bit since then on that score. What hasn’t changed is my opinion on the film, which can be summarised as incredible visuals doing their best to compensate for an iffy script. Now I’m the kind of person who can easily forgive a film for having poor writing if it looks great, and Crimson Peak looks absolutely fabulous – in fact, I could probably write six paragraphs just describing how fabulous it looks. However, it also depends rather a lot on its story, which is sadly very derivative, rather messy and not very well thought through at all. Del Toro 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’ sounds rather good in concept, 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, because in many other respects it’s of very high quality indeed. I usually go into things like photography and design later on in a review, but I’m going to say it right here – Crimson Peak remains the most visually amazing work that Del Toro has made, astoundingly beautiful and often highly reminiscent of Mario Bava, which if you’ve been reading my stuff long enough you’ll know is high praise indeed coming from me. Cinematographer Dan Laustsen gives us shot after shot of gorgeous compositions making wonderful use of colour, his favoured device in the film perhaps being a turquoise-dominated frame illuminated by light from a candle. Meanwhile nearly every set, prop, and article of clothing not only has its own unique design but is also very telling of a scene’s or character’s given mood which really is incredible attention to detail. And 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.
We get a frightening moment right at the beginning when Edith receives a visit from her dead mother, then the film 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 benefited from being longer – when the couple waltz, while Mia Wasikowka and Tom Hiddleston don’t really have much chemistry, though this is possibly deliberate considering that Del Toro and co-writer Matthew Robbins let us know quite early on 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 immediately 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 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 has his head bashed several times on a sink until he’s dead and has one side of his face virtually missing, after which 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 doesn’t scare and I would say that this isn’t true even on a second viewing, though of course many of us differ on what frightens us. The scenes of Edith wondering the house and seeing the ghosts are initially very spooky, though Del Toro does show the skeletal ghouls drenched in some sticky red substance a bit too much, meaning that, despite looking really rather unsettling [and created much like Mama was], their effect does diminish a little. And then 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 human villainy, and the film, even if it gets progressively sillier, certainly isn’t boring without them, but it does leave one feeling disappointed as well as causing one to wonder why the ghosts were in the film in the first place, and ghosts who don’t even really do anything at that, basically just serving as metaphors for the past. And the final act feels rather truncated, despite us getting a great showdown between two characters which is great certainly exciting to watch.
Del Toro and Robbins pack their film with references, scenes and elements taken from literature and other movies. The Shining, The Changeling [in one particularly obvious bit], The Fall Of The House Of Usher and various Alfred Hitchcock films are especially notable influences, but the pair get a bit 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 an American film to give us some good old blood and gore, including the best use of a pen since Casino. In fact the red stuff 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 detected 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. Meanwhile 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. On the other hand, Jessica Chastain and Charlie Hunnam seem to fight a losing battle with poor English [though not Keanu Reeves-poor] accents despite Chastain being very sinister in places
Just before it came out there were rumours that the original script of Crimson Peak was better than the one that was eventually filmed, and that Del Toro and Robbins made parts of their story more vague in an effort to get the viewer to work out some things for him or herself. Considering that even more than ever we now live in a movie climate where spoon feeding the audience is king, this is commendable, and can certainly work for some films, but in the case of this one it just results in a film which almost drowns under its amazingly lush look. It’s fun, it’s creepy, it’s suspenseful, and is full of shots that will be worth looking at again and again, shots that belong in art galleries. It’s clearly been made with both love and painstaking care in many departments. However, I must admit that, despite its many attributes, Crimson Peak does fall a little flat and must overall be considered a slight failure….but a very noble one and probably my favourite one of 2015.