Before my screening of Crimson Peak, the new movie from visionary director Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy, Pacific Rim), a sheet labeled “Foreword” was distributed to the attending writers. Here is what it said, in full:
Welcome to Crimson Peak.
This movie is my attempt to harken back to a classic, old-fashioned, grand Hollywood production in the Gothic romance genre. For a while, in the Golden Era of cinema, movies like Dragonwyck, Rebecca, Jane Eyre, and Great Expectations were produced but then decayed into oblivion in the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s. In fact, it’s been about 30 years since someone has made a Gothic romance on this scale, and I am proud to welcome it back.
This is a genre that was important at the end of the 18th century as a romantic reaction to the Age of Reason. It marries things that are seemingly dissimilar: heightened melodrama layered with a lot of darkness and the Gothic atmosphere of a dark fairy tale that is both creepy and eerie. It combines these elements to produce a unique flavor.
Crimson Peak is designed to be gorgeous and beautiful, not only as eye candy but as eye protein. The movie tells you the story of who the characters are through their surroundings and the sets, which are also a reflection of their inner psychology. As well, the thematic elements of Crimson Peak come alive through the gorgeous wardrobe. Truly, the painterly beauty of this film makes it one of my favorites I’ve ever created.
I hope you enjoy.
—Guillermo del Toro
The only thing this director’s statement has more of than redundant synonyms is excuses. Excuses, excuses.
Crimson Peak is sumptuously decorated, exquisitely lit, and dreadfully dull. The film depends on its characters’ stupidity about as much as a terrible Friday the 13th sequel. It telegraphs or flat-out states nearly all of its plot developments way in advance, so when its protagonist Edith (Mia Wasikowska) finally realizes what’s going on in this mansion she’s traveled across the world to be imprisoned in by two weirdo siblings (Lucille and Thomas Sharpe played by Jessica Chastain and Tom Hiddleson), she just comes off as an idiot who is undeserving of sympathy. Wasikowska is generally wonderful, a real actor’s actor whose career I find thrilling to watch blossom. And yet, she is not wonderful here for one glaring reason: the stilted script just won’t allow it. This, too, extends to the rest of the cast; no one is wonderful at much of anything in Crimson Peak. In Thomas’s words: I’m afraid nothing gentle grows in this land. That includes performances.
Edith’s dead father warned her, her mother warned her, a ghost at the mansion she lives in with the man she just met (and married), Thomas, warned her, and yet she lingers at the Crimson Peak estate because if she didn’t, the movie would be over too soon. She stays despite exchanges like this:
Edith: Has anyone died in this house? Specific deaths? Violent deaths?
Thomas: Now is not a good time!
Edith is OK with this, despite the fact that it’s never a good time to talk about the woman whose head you and/or your “sister” bashed in, as evident in the half-skull of her ghost. Edith is a fool. Throughout the movie, while strings shivered and the camera settled on her terrified face, over and over again, I kept thinking of Judge Judy screaming at Edith: “YOU PICKED HIM.” But Edith stays and keeps drinking the obviously poisoned tea Thomas and his sister Lucille give to her so she can grow weaker and have less of a chance of escaping.
Crimson Peak may be a throwback to gothic melodramas, but it’s also very much a product of its time. It arrives in a horror climate that still hasn’t shaken its fascination with haunted houses, and surely Crimson Peak is the most aesthetically beautiful haunted house movie our eyes have been gifted. But it’s also the most tedious. Any Crimson Peak ghost isn’t so much a ghost but a “a metaphor for the past.” Edith explains this in the beginning when discussing the ghost story she wrote, and when the few, well-designed ghosts flutter their CGI ways across the screen it’s clear that this goes for them as well. They are Edith’s past and they are Thomas’s past embodied. They’re virtually beside the point.
Early on, Edith is criticized by an editor for not including a romantic angle in the aforementioned story she submits. She takes this as a sign of sexism, and it’s fleetingly refreshing to see a 19th century character bristling at misogynistic expectations. It makes it that much more disappointing when she falls for the first guy who can show up and waltz with her while holding a lit candle.
“But it’s a melodrama!” defenders of this movie will say. They’d be right, but so much of this movie, including its genre, is in service of propping up the props. I find myself often thinking about Guy Maddin’s oft-quoted analysis of melodrama—that maybe instead of it being life exaggerated, it’s life uninhibited. Something like Crimson Peak, though, suggests this is not so much an all-encompassing theory, but an ethos. Whether a melodrama feels hyper-alive or dead inside depends on its creator. Guillermo del Toro used melodrama as an excuse to do something old-timey and pretty. Crimson Peak is deader than its ghosts.