The most common complaint leveled against Crimson Peak, the latest gothic fantasy concocted by Mexican director Guillermo Del Toro, is that despite being advertised as a horror movie, it’s not really all that scary. The first that comes to mind reading this complaint has to be incredulity that in these media-savvy days of 2015 we still have people who will believe movie trailers -a.k.a. commercials- are created to represent the spirit of a movie and not to sell tickets in the quickest (and supposedly most effective) way possible. Case in point, Del Toro took to Twitter soon after the first allegations of “not scary” came out to make the clarification that his latest opus was in fact a “gothic romance” that should not be mistaken for a horror movie.
While I will wholeheartedly agree that the people whose assessment of the movie ends at “not scary enough” are complete idiots who are not meeting the movie anywhere near the place it is trying to go, I will say that Del Toro’s case that this gothic romance is not meant to be in any way a horror movie is not satisfactory. It’s true that despite being an original screenplay, Crimson Peak shares in the tradition of literary “mysterious manors” as seen in Rebecca and Jane Eyre, but it also shares in the tradition of nineteenth century ghost stories. I respect (and appreciate) Del Toro’s decision to place his emphasis in the least commercial of the two influences, but his defense -while genuine- strikes me as a way of excusing exactly how weak the horror elements of his movie are.
This brings me to the second most common complaint leveled against Crimson Peak: that it’s computer-generated ghosts look bad. Now, Del Toro claims that all the ghost effects were achieved practically. However, it’s evident that computers where used to enhance the effects -particularly in giving the specters a semi-transparent quality- and these CG “enhancements” give the ghosts a shiny plastic quality that immediately reveals them as pieces of imagery that do not inhabit the same cinematic world as the human protagonists. For all of his stylistic eye, computer generated effects have always been Del Toro’s weak-spot (just think of the horrendous CG images of his supremely disappointing Pacific Rim). Crimson Peak is no exception, as the ghosts are the only ugly looking thing in what is otherwise a gorgeous* movie.
*I use the word “gorgeous” in the way one would apply it to a creepy film about a haunted mansion that relishes in decadent imagery and a blood-soaked violent finale.
Truly, the hideous ghosts don’t help in adding any kind of creepiness to the movie. Most of these ghosts are presented as skeletons of some sort, which in the days when AMC airs The Walking Dead every day of the week, it’s just not creepy. For all of his visual inventiveness when it comes to sets and costumes -and more on that in a minute- I think Del Toro has exhausted his knack for coming up with iconic creatures. It’s been a long time since the instantly iconic Faun and Pale Man of Pan’s Labyrinth. Instead, his latest creations are the generic Kaijus of Pacific Rim and the equally generic ghosts that haunt Crimson Peak. The look of the ghosts is not the only problem, but it does play a big role in making the whole ghost angle of the story stick out like a sore thumb when compared to the rest of the movie.
So let’s talk about the parts of the movie that do work. The great Mia Wasikowska -who herself played Jane Eyre in Cary Fukunaga’s 2011 adaptation- stars as the young bride with literary aspirations who is charmed by the aristocratic Englishman played by Tom Hiddleston, who takes her to his reclusive family home of Allerston Hall, a gigantic and decrepit house that is obviously haunted no one in their right mind would set a foot inside it. Except by the time the movie gets to Allerston Hall, it has set us up for a world of eerie campiness, where it makes sense that these former affluent aristocrats would live in a house whose main hall is covered in either leaves or snow thanks to the massive hole in the ceiling.
Allerston Hall -referred to as Crimson Peak due to the bright red clay that can be mined from underneath the house’s foundation- is nothing if not a triumph of art direction, which is to be expected from a Del Toro movie, but nevertheless deserves to be commended to production designer Thomas Sanders, whose previous credits include Francis Ford Coppola’s similarly stylized and Romantic interpretation of Dracula. The same can be said of the costumes by Kate Hawley, and even the hair styling, but the particular triumph of Allerston Hall’s design is that it so clearly a practically life-sized set. That the architectural layout of the property is immediately clear to the audience, and that the actors can seamlessly move from one room to another without the need to go to a different set.
This practicality of set makes the house feel like a theater stage, in the sense that one can sense these rooms connecting to each other, and the actors inhabiting them. The sense of a stage might have also benefitted the actors’ performances, because this cast -which was magnificent in name alone to begin with- sure delivers. Other than the solid work by the aforementioned Wasikowska and Hiddleston, Jessica Chastain steals the show as the main villain of the piece. Chastain plays the sister of Hiddleston’s character -and only other permanent resident of Allerston Hall- with the campy delight that being able to play a psychotic Mrs. Danvers-type would generate in any smart actor.
Crimson Peak derives its purest pleasures out of the oversized pulpiness of its cliffhanging plot. Wasikowska’s search to uncover the mystery of what exactly is going on with her new scary home, the twists and turns of a macabre conspiracy, and the sheer pleasure of watching these actors indulge in the theatrical and melodramatic nature of the genre. Compared to its complicated plotting, the presence of ghosts ends up being almost superfluous. The explicit presence of the supernatural actually takes away from the unnerving creepiness of the main character’s situation. The sense of not knowing what exactly is going on, of being alone in a big scary house that may or may not end up killing you, that’s what’s scary about Crimson Peak. The ghost sightings are just padding.
Grade: 7 out of 10