dir: Guillermo del Toro
Ghosts are just a metaphor…
It’s said so many times in the movie, that you know that the ghosts are actually meant to be ghosts, as well as metaphors for metaphors. When the characters within a ghost story question the parameters and plot points of ghost stories, I think we’re officially in the realms of the “meta” without ever having intended to take a trip there.
Crimson Peak is kinda sorta a ghost story. If you took the ghosts out completely, it would not affect or change the outcome, or even the path along the way, at all. The ghosts are queasy and nightmarish in some instances, but I would humbly suggest that they don’t really do much that couldn’t be easily done otherwise from a story point of view.
In fact, just to keep belabouring the point, I would argue that the screenplay already has the plot elements being discovered by the various relevant characters just fine, and then unnecessarily has those revelations underlined sloppily with these spectral redundancies.
Plus, it makes little sense. They’re maybe trying to help Edith with advice and warnings and such, but all they’re doing is scaring the shit out of her so that she makes dumb decisions that would seem to make it harder for her to achieve their goals.
Crimson Peak has a lot of elements that independently work beautifully. It would be reasonable to wonder what would have happened if they’d been properly blended together. They do not cohere, here, I’m sad to say. It’s like watching a grand recipe being prepared by a master chef with incredible ingredients that ends up being bangers and mash when you started with truffles and artichoke hearts.
That’s not entirely fair. Crimson Peak is not completely terrible, it’s just profoundly disappointing. It’s disappointing because it looks hellishly beautiful. It’s visually sumptuous, gorgeously gangrenous sets and (mostly) amazing costumes abound. The performances are okay, perfectly serviceable for this kind of flick.
The problem is… it’s neither engaging nor surprising. The obviousness of what’s happening, of what’s going to happen, is so dully obvious that at first I was wondering if there was going to be some kind of incredible twist, since playing it so pointlessly straight didn’t seem worthy of the time and money of the people involved.
Guillermo del Toro remains one of those incredible visual stylists as a director who ends up making very pretty but ultimately unsuccessful movies. It shames me to say that. There’re only two of his flicks out of an abundance of them that I actually think work that well. The obvious one is Pan’s Labyrinth. The Devil’s Backbone is the other, also a ghost story, which I would argue works much better (at what it sets out to do) than Crimson Peak does.
The rest of his resume is populated with impressive looking films with terrible plots and indifferent acting (at best).
And yet I still have a lot of affection for the guy. It’s not enough to give him a pass all the time; if anything my affection for him makes me even more critical, more unforgiving.
Tom Hiddleston is so charming and snidely seductive in this, as in everything, that I pity any woman who tries to resist him or tries to differentiate when he’s telling the truth or telling a lie. I also wonder how it is any woman who’s actually been involved in a relationship with him could ever feel that he’s being sincere. I think he could charm virtually any woman out of her corset and bustle, and probably a bunch of guys too.
You’d think he’d be perfect to play the part of a ruthless cad and bounder whose main goal in life is marrying clueless heiresses and stealing their fortunes once the girls go mysteriously missing. And you’d be right, but he’s only really ‘perfectly’ cast in the first part of the flick as Sir Thomas Sharpe. Once the other half kicks in, the full on Gothic romance ghost story bullshit, he’s lost in a sea of pointlessness.
The one who’s good in both aspects of the flick, though only because she’s deranged from start to finish, is Jessica Chastain, as Mrs Danvers, sorry, I meant as Lucille Sharpe, Tom’s sister. She plays her cards way too early, and has this clear air of derangement right from the start. She looks great doing it, there’s no doubt, but when a character looks like they’re a hair’s breadth away from killing people from the first instant you see them, when they start killing people it doesn’t pack much of a wallop.
This is one of the reasons why there’s not a single surprise to be had the whole way through. Our heroine Edith (Mia Wasikowska) is an intelligent but naïve (not sure how that works) young lady in the States, somewhere (Buffalo, New York, I think it was) at the dawn of the 20th century. 1901 to be precise. She writes ghost stories, and seeks to be taken seriously as an author, not as a socialite, and gets neither acknowledged for her troubles
Another reason why she writes ghost stories is because she keeps seeing her mother’s ghost, a ghastly dark red thing that pops up every now and then trying to give her some sage advice “Beware the Crimson Peak!! Repent, Repent!” that kind of stuff.
Instead of just telling this to her calmly, in a manner intended to maximise their opportunity for understanding, this chilly shade acts deliberately like something from the Ghost Train at Luna Park. I think you need to work on your people skills, ghosty.
Her father (the always great in everything Jim Beaver) is a very wealthy self-made man. He is such a self-made hard working man that when Sir Thomas Sharpe comes rolling through town looking for money to finance his design for some amazing machine with which to mine clay, like anyone needs that, Edith’s dad is all ‘tut-tut-tut, ain’t no way I’m giving my money to a soft-handed pansy who’s never worked a day in his life.’
What’s most disconcerting to Mr Edith’s Dad is that he can clearly see his daughter is bedazzled and besotted by this scoundrel, and, like the shmuck that he is, after he finds out that Sharpe is already married, instead of telling his daughter the one obvious thing that would cool her ardour and help her regain her senses, he tries bribing Sharpe into leaving town.
The Sharpe Siblings, though, aren’t people you want to fuck with. Edith’s beloved and useless father (I can’t point out with enough emphasis just how ridiculous it is that he neglected to tell his daughter this one obvious and simple piece of information) dies a very gruesome death at the hands of someone who’s obviously done this kind of thing before. With relish, and maybe fava beans and a nice chianti.
Before you can say “and then they get to the place what from the flick takes its name”, they’re at the creepy place colloquially known as Crimson Peak. Sure it’s a rundown slum, but these people are royalty, somehow.
It’s kind of like Charlie’s house in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: there’s a great big bloody hole in the roof, but people go about their daily business like it’s a minor inconvenience.
Bad things start to happen. Bad omens and scary ghosts abound. All the while Thomas avoids having sex with his new bride, and his ever vigilant sister looks on with barely contained fury, constantly stirring the tea she’s always foisting onto Edith.
The house is a despicable marvel, and it’s modelled on all the famous decrepit houses you can think of, and have seen, in countless films. The most obvious parallel / homage is Mandalay from Hitchcock’s Rebecca, which would be just as obvious even if you didn’t have the malevolent presence of Lucille anxiously fingering the keys hanging from her waist.
As awfully obvious as the house is, since there are ghosts telling Edith “bad shit happened here, sister”, she does the basic detective work required to find out the fates of the other young, naïve, wealthy women who came before her. Not quite sure why you needed the supernatural in this context, but then what the hell do I know.
As much as I “liked” Lucille, or her demented and ferocious character, she’s pretty moronic, really. She is basically threatening Edith at any opportunity from the moment she meets her, and also trying to kill her long before they’ve even gotten what they want from Edith (money money money). I understand the source of her jealousy, the poisonous envy that starts from her womb and spurts out from her eyes, and the horrible childhood she must have endured in that hideous house, but she’s pretty naff, truth be told. If she’s meant to be the smarter of the siblings it’s amazing the locals haven’t set fire to them long before.
There are certainly sexual thematic elements to the story, but they’re hopelessly tame, if you ask me, and you didn’t. Maybe I’m jaded or something, but for what this was marketed as versus what it actually is, it’s not even as racy as yer average vampire flick. It needed far more psychosexual drama to justify the cost of admission.
Maybe that’s the unimaginative women they were going for in the marketing: the fans who have watched/bought all of the Twilight flicks voluntarily, and need something new for their Christmas stocking.
It ends pretty much how you would expect it to end, letting you feel some slight relief, perhaps, but otherwise perhaps regretting the two hours spent in the company of these gorgeous visuals in want of a story worth telling. I can’t fault Wasikowska as the lead, it’s just that her character isn’t that interesting, even when she’s played this kind of character before. There’s no doubt there are elements of Jane Eyre in this story, but with nowhere near the same level of dialogue or conceptual complexity or intelligence. I know, different genres and all, but it would have made some sense to crib from that script a little bit more.
Del Toro cribs and cribs from all over the place, creating tremendous visuals and realising a singular vision, but then throws a perfunctory story at the visuals hoping that something will stick. The Thomas character stops making sense at all towards the end, and never sells (it’s that problem with sincerity Hiddleston / Loki has) his strange change of heart.
It’s an odd thing to concern oneself with, but what I wanted to know was whether his goofy steam-powered mining machine finally worked properly. Did it revolutionise clay mining in Great Britain after that? It would be nice to get some closure on that issue.
Enquiring minds need to know. Despite the pretty visuals and the gorgeous actors and all the talent on display, I’m afraid it’s a disappointment on pretty much any level other than the aesthetic that I can think of.
5 times the only person who gets naked in this is Hiddleston, so it’s pretty obvious what audience they were hoping for out of 10
“Beautiful things are fragile... At home we have only black moths. Formidable creatures, to be sure, but they lack beauty. They thrive on the dark and cold.”
- “What do they feed on? “
“Butterflies I'm afraid.” – I think the pudding has enough egg by now, dearie – Crimson Peak