It’s funny how little I want to write about this movie, because when I came out of it I felt like saying a lot. This movie stuck with me for hours after the fact. It’s still sticking with me a bit. There are aspects of this film that are so fucking good, and that only makes the fact that it fails in the same way GdT movies fail over and over again unbearably heartbreaking. It’s that frustration and disappointment that has gotten me thinking, “You know, maybe this is my fault. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me five or six times, fuck me for being so stupid.” Crimson Peak is both apogee and the nadir of del Toro. It is his masterwork and it is his most embarrassing failure. I do not think he can get any better, nor can I imagine him any worse.
Okay, so for the heartbreakingly amazing stuff:
The set design in this film is, without a doubt, some of the most sumptuous, meticulous, and impeccable I’ve ever seen. Maybe the best. It’s jaw-dropping. You’ve never seen anything like it. It’s a dreamlike mix of Edwardian steampunk and Hammer Horror gothic, equal parts Jane Austen and Bram Stoker, and like the red clay that oozes into the old manor, you can see del Toro’s love of these aesthetics drip from every frame. You could quite easily picture the old place as where Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, and Christopher Lee meet up for brandy and cards in the quiet nights of the afterlife. Del Toro is an unabashed fan of Bernie Wrightson (who I met once!), and the whole film looks like it leapt from that artist’s pen and straight onto the screen. Every square inch is a visual feast down to the last detail. And the costumes? Oh my sweet jesus, they’re nuts. Just . . . aggghhh. If the costume and set design teams don’t win every award they can, the whole season is a sham (which it is, let’s be honest).
Also, I think we can now officially say that Tom Hiddleston is The Best. Seriously, this guy’s chops are so easy and natural and his presence so charismatic he has the problem of highlighting the slightest failings of his costars. Plus, he’s just the handsomest damn guy.
*yes, I’m still a lesbian, but I don’t care, shut up*
Here’s a silver lining for you: if you’ve never taken issues with GdT’s treatment of story and cinematography and narrative cohesion and character, then you’re probably going to have a blast here. For those of you who can’t get past that (like me), you’re in for a beating, because this film is del Toro at his most indulgent and least concerned with anything beyond his flights of fancy. Remember how I mentioned his love for Bernie Wrightson? Okay, so this is a famous print of his:
Notice anything? Probably a few things. Maybe a few hundred things. Wrightson is a master of classical form with an insane eye for detail . . . but holy shit is that print cluttered! Like, actual clutter! Victor Frankenstein there is about two graduated cylinders away from an episode of Hoarders. There is so much visual static that you have to scan the page just to find the subjects, and the line work is so busy that even when you do distinguish them they don’t stand out from the rest of the drawing to any great degree. It’s so perfect, ironically, that del Toro is a fan of his work, as much the same could be said of Crimson Peak. Unparalleled craftsmanship, questionable execution.
I say that because I sat through all two hours of this film, and after two days of thinking about it I still don’t know what the fuck it was that I saw. It’s not a horror film, though it has lots of horror elements; you’ve got jump scares and dark spaces and some of the scariest, creepiest ghosts and ghouls ever put to film. It’s not exactly a romance, either, despite the romance of the two central characters being the crux of the story. It’s a costume drama in the tradition of Pride & Prejudice, but it seems to have far, far less to say about the aristocracy or feminism despite occasionally dressing itself in those clothes, albeit in a trifling way with the gravity of thought one might give to their choice of socks.
Scenes full of portent and foreshadowing go unfulfilled. Chekov’s armory
And speaking of aspects, nothing might forgive del Toro’s sin of filming this movie in 1.85:1 instead of something with more dynamic scope, like 2.35:1. This is a film begging for room to show off, and GdT photographs it like a cheap comedy. It seems totally unintentional and absentminded, too, as del Toro employs extreme depth-of-field when choosing to highlight the cavernous guts of Allerdale Hall, but the text and metatext are at odds here as characters frequently mention the austere loneliness of both life within the mansion and the emptiness outside while being visually crushed by the claustrophobic frame ratio and blocking. This is a film of loving detail, of sweeping thresholds and vast empty winters, and yet the camera treats it all with such nonchalance and disinterest to give me a real concern that, along with evidence in his other films, del Toro might not understand what the fuck cinematography is supposed to do besides play the voyeur over his toys and objects of tangible interest. He can show you a million different angles of Gipsy Danger and all the dark corners of a haunted house, but all he can’t contextualize the information into anything that transcends rote superficiality. Yes, Guillermo, your robots and monsters are cool, well done, but I’m not here just to look.
This paradox spills over into the storytelling, as GdT tries to have it all ways and no ways. Like the film’s heroine says early on in a subplot serving as a flimsy attempt at metacommentary, “it’s a story about ghosts, not a ghost story.” Which makes sense in a way, as by design or accident the parts of the story about romance isn’t much of a romance story, either. Once again, much like I feel about Pan’s Labyrinth and Pacific Rim, the director appears much more interested in bringing his own imagination to life than having anything meaningful to say about it. His imagination is wondrous and brilliantly childlike in the best possible way, but there’s no maturity to pair with it, no depth to give it lasting impact, and no great love of storytelling to ensure his creations endure.
And that’s really unfortunate.
Amy Davidson is a graduate of the New York Film Academy and has been writing about film for over a decade. She currently lives in Texas with her wife and son, and once ate seven burritos on a dare. It was not pleasant. You can reach her on Twitter @_Atomika_.