Crimson Peak (dir. Guillermo del Toro)

Posted: November 4, 2015 in Uncategorized

“Crimson Peak” is a visually stunning film. You could pause any single frame of the film and that frame would very likely be worthy of hanging in your living room as a fine art piece.  Like many of Guillermo del Toro’s films, it is a feast for the eyes, and you feel almost exhausted as you watch the film because you can tell an extraordinary amount of hard work went into the production design, art direction, costumes, lighting, color timing, and camerawork.  The problem I have with “Crimson Peak” is the same problem I have with most of del Toro’s films, and that is simply that del Toro is an excellent director, but a mediocre screenwriter, and he seems to insist on directing films he also has a hand in writing. Admittedly, I have not seen the Spanish-language films that are considered his best, “Cronos” and “The Devil’s Backbone”, so perhaps a lower budget and his native language result in better stories from del Toro, but it’s almost a shame that my favorite film of del Toro’s is “Blade II”, the one film he’s directed that he had no hand in writing.

“Crimson Peak” isn’t what I would call a poorly-written film.  It has an entertaining story, satisfactorily developed characters for the genre, and for at least the first half of the film it seems like del Toro is making a political commentary about class structure.  Specifically, about the dying aristocracy of England giving way to the slightly more work-create Gilded Age of pre-WWI America (the film takes place sometime in very early 1900s).  The film is also attempting to be more gender-forward with a protagonist, Edith (Mia Wasikowska) who is attempting to be respected female author and cut her own path in life.  One thinks of Mary Shelley, who is name-checked in the film, who wrote “Frankenstein” and was originally published anonymously in 1818 because a woman author writing such a story was unheard of.  We also think of Jane Austin watching the film, as her works were very much considered with class and land ownership, though we associate her work nowadays more by the romantic aspects.  Perhaps Thomas Piketty’s use of her work in analyzing economic inequality will change some aspects of scholarship of her work.  In any event, “Crimson Peak” for a little while plays as a dark twist on Austin in a more serious way than, say, “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” could ever be.  Edith is headstrong and independent, but still falls for a handsome, aristocratic gentleman in Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), a baronet who is traveling the world to seek financing for a machine that help him mine the red clay underneath his manor and revive his family’s dwindling fortune.  Despite Sharpe being on hard times, he is still a handsome and somewhat moneyed man, and despite being independent and intelligent, Edith still falls for him for shallow, girlish reasons, perhaps with a tinge of pity toward him.

Thomas comes with more than just financial baggage, however.  He also has a sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain), who has resting-murder-face and seems like she’s allergic to any emotion beyond anger and resentment.  Her dialogue is constantly underscored with barely masked contempt for all around her and seething with passive-aggressiveness.  In addition, Edith’s rich father, Carter (Jim Beaver) doesn’t respect Thomas for inheriting his wealth as opposed to “earning” it, and certainly doesn’t approve of Thomas’s affections for his daughter.  Then there’s the handsome ophthalmologist, Alan (Charlie Hunnam) who obviously has a thing for Edith, but too much of either fear or respect to explicitly state his affections to her.

By this point in the plot summary, you are probably confused, having heard that “Crimson Peak” is a horror film and not a Victorian Romance.  Well, “Crimson Peak” has certain visual tropes of a horror film, specifically the old haunted house films of the 1950s and the silent horror films of the early 1900s like “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”, and it does feature some ghosts, but “Crimson Peak” is not really a horror movie.  The script, in a groan-inducing way, actually had Edith speak the line (referring to the novel she’s written) “It’s not a ghost story. It’s a story with ghosts in it.”  I guess del Toro holds American audiences in as low regard as I do.  The ghosts themselves serve to give vague clues to Edith, pushing her to uncover the mystery of who the Sharpe siblings really are, and where there true motives lay.  As always, we’re left to wonder why, if ghosts can talk to living people, they don’t just plainly state their message, but instead give obtuse warnings dripping with dread?

The plot twists of the film are largely predictable and telegraphed quite early.  While the film attempts to do more than simply tell it’s story, the commentary about class pretty much disappears the second the action movies from New York to England, and the attempts to make a feminist statement are undercut by Edith spending time as a damsel in distress, and Lucille being ultimately portrayed as pure crazy and a force that hurts and subdues the main man in her life (Thomas), and having most of the female characters’ actions revolve around this callow man. Sorry del Toro, but simply having your main female character take charge in a sex scene and ride her man is not enough to make your film feminist when your main character goes googly-eyed over a handsome stranger for no other reason than he’s handsome, and your other main female character is a paragon of feminine insanity.  At least it passes the Bechdel Test.

Del Toro’s most well-regarded film is arguably “Pan’s Labyrinth”, a film in the genre of magical realism that takes place during the Spanish Civil War and fits into the genre of films like “The Tin Drum” and “Life is Beautiful” where kids have a hard time dealing with cruel world events and are sheltered from them or escape them.  While many loved the film, I didn’t think the realistic elements and the fantastical elements meshed very well, and while the film was admirably ambitious, it suffered from the stitching together what should have been two separate films.  “Crimson Peak” suffers because it feels like del Toro is forcing horror elements on a film that should have simply been a dark drama.  If this material had been dealt with a drama, it could have given up trying to make the predictable plot twists hidden from the audience, and just allowed the audience to have full knowledge and kept the twists from the characters.  Also, if del Toro had done more to deconstruct the Victorian novel and/or continued to make the film comment on the erosion of class or the transfer of the power of Capital from one nation to another, there might have been something here.  Instead, we simply have a beautiful-looking, predictable mystery film that fails at some lofty ambitions but is entertaining and pretty while it unfolds.

I wish del Toro’s filmography wasn’t full of films that are almost-great but fail from an inadequate screenplay. The “Hellboy” films are similarly visually inventive but lackluster on a story level.  If del Toro really wants to make a kick-ass horror movie, he should combine his talents with a suitable writer who could dream up the visuals for del Toro to execute, but also write a story that says something. Imagine if Clive Barker wrote a script and del Toro directed it?  Wouldn’t that be the perfect team?  As it is, del Toro did co-write “Crimson Peak” with Matthew Robbins, with whom he wrote the ill-fated “Mimic” with, but having a writing partner wasn’t enough to overcome del Toro’s inherent flaws as a writer.

“Crimson Peak” is worth seeing solely for the visuals.  This is a gorgeous movie.  The script doesn’t ruin the enjoyment of the film, but it does drag the great visuals down because if these visuals were combined with a great script, you’d have one of the best films of the year.  Instead, we have a feast for the eyes accompanying an enjoyable but forgettable story that tries to infuse itself with interesting messages and themes, but fails. You can’t blame del Toro for trying, but one hopes he lets someone else write his films for him. B.

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