Red is dead.
Crimson Peak is imitation at its most baffled and haphazard. Guillermo Del Toro has rarely been shy regarding his influences but the knack that he’s demonstrated in the past to engage in them rather than duplicate them has been absent from his recent work. Crimson Peak is every gothic horror that Del Toro has managed to get his hands on and yet the film amounts to nothing. Brontë, Lovecraft, Conan Doyle and Shelley, among others, are furiously referenced and subsequently let down. It’s as though Del Toro is throwing creativity at his film without actually being creative.
The aesthetics of Crimson Peak are crucial to this point. Del Toro is perhaps most celebrated for his visual flair and imagination but Crimson Peak is suffocated by excessive style that does a disservice to the breed of story he’s trying to tell. The colours are abrasively, and inappropriately, vibrant. The camera work is distractingly lively. The design is uninspired, from a man who has demonstrated a marvellous capacity for it. And it all barely distracts from the nonsense and the lack of substance that constitutes everything else that Crimson Peak has to offer. There’s something decidedly Tim Burton-esque about the film, and that’s rarely a good thing.
As the film opens, Edith Cushing (Wia Wasikowski) informs us that ghosts are real. “That much I kn0w,” she asserts confidently. It’s uncomfortable writing and it certainly sets the tone. Edith is an aspiring writer, one of many narrative elements that are introduced and then waylaid, and the daughter of a wealthy businessman, Carter Cushing (Jim Beaver). She meets Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), a prospective business partner of her father, and the two fall in love. Before long and after a number of developments that stretch credulity, Edith and Sharpe are married. They head for his English estate, which, among other things, houses Sharpe’s coldly menacing sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain) and sits upon a mine of blood-red clay that somehow manages to ooze from the walls of the house. As Edith settles into her new life, a series of paranormal disturbances begin to make her uncertain about the family that she’s married into.
For all his enthusiasm concerning horror cinema, Del Toro has always had a shaky grasp on instilling fear in an audience. Atmosphere and gothic fiction go hand in hand but Del Toro doesn’t appear to have the patience for developing the sort of foreboding that the story should thrive on. Winds rise, doors slam and floorboards creak but that’s not really inventive filmmaking, is it? It’s mimicry, and the conventions that Del Toro inexcusably falls back on in his work here are fatigued. There’s also an extraordinary level of exposure for the ghosts that inhabit Crimson Peak, suggesting either that Del Toro has never heard of the less is more school of thought regarding monsters on film or that he erroneously believed that the design of his creatures were frightening enough with the use of filmmaking prowess.
Elements are introduced that bear the markings of great gothic horror past. “There are parts of the house that are unsafe,” or “We weren’t allowed in here as children, we were confined to the attic.” suggest certain consequences that simply don’t materialise. The film that Del Toro is trying to make might actually be more obvious than the film he’s made. It’s a kaleidoscopic collage of homage with no logical or comprehensible correlation between events, ideas and actions.
Del Toro’s best film is the wonderful Hellboy 2: The Golden Army. There was a sense of cheer and fun to that film that the filmmaker is far more comfortable with than the mature themes of Crimson Peak or the relentless earnestness of his last film, the atrociously dull Pacific Rim. Such an overwhelmingly amount has gone awry in the execution of Crimson Peak that’s it’s problematic to know even where to begin. There may have been the best of intentions on Del Toro’s part but the result is something that far more resembles a cheap show ground haunted house than anything of real cinematic worth.