Crimson Peak (2015)

OCTOBER 24, 2015


I usually hate seeing movies "late", i.e. after they've been out for a week, because by then all the surprises have been spoiled and my expectations are thrown all topsy-turvy by hearing everyone's two cents, which makes my viewing almost a complete 180 from how I prefer it - going in completely blind and untainted. But for Crimson Peak, it might have helped waiting a week, because lots of folks have been bemoaning the film's lack of full blown horror elements in favor of a romantic tale, so that, coupled with the fact that the trailer* left me cold, is the reason I think I actually quite enjoyed it - it might even be my favorite of Guillermo Del Toro's American (read: non Spanish) films.

I should add to that the fact that among those, I was no big fan of Pacific Rim, wasn't wowed by Blade II, and found the Hellboys to be fairly enjoyable but never wanted to watch them again - making Mimic (!) my previous favorite, ironic since he has mostly disowned it. But I love all of his Spanish language films, so despite my constant disappointment with his studio work, I keep giving him the benefit of the doubt, and finally I found myself rewarded here. I don't think the film is COMPLETELY horror-free, as some have claimed - it's fairly evenly split between the ghost/horror stuff and the romance between Edith (Mia Wasikowska) and Thomas (Tom Hiddleston). In many ways it's reminiscent of House of Usher, albeit with the sexes swapped - Mia's kind of the Mark Damon role, with Hiddleston as "Madeline". That leaves Jessica Chastain in the Vincent Price slot as the more villainous of the pair. But the plot is otherwise similar; the decaying home, the seeming refusal to leave it or welcome any outsiders, and a family "curse" of sorts that will prove to be everyone's downfall.

But Del Toro wasn't just looking at an old Roger Corman film for influence - there's lots of The Haunting, The Shining, and (maybe?) The Others in here, plus a subplot borrowed liberally from another genre film that I won't name because it will kind of be obvious what EXACTLY he is taking from it. Some of my peers weren't as careful, cluing me into something that's supposed to be a major shock at the end of the 2nd act, and it's the sort of thing that really annoys me. No, they're not coming right out and saying it, but if you have seen Crimson Peak and know what movie I'm referencing (based on a book, and recently remade for television), you will probably agree that just saying the title is a dead giveaway for the plot point that resurfaces here. It'd be like someone saying that a movie was influenced by The Crying Game - no one is going to think of that movie if the plot concerns IRA agents and double crosses, so obviously they mean that some woman in the movie turns out to be a dude.

Luckily, even knowing that was coming didn't ruin anything. There are certainly far worse ways to spend two hours than looking at Mia Wasikowska and Jessica Chastain in gorgeous period outfits; hell I might enjoy this movie even if there was ZERO horror. But what really got me was how patient it was - the trailers seemed to suggest almost nothing in the movie happened outside of its main location, but on the contrary - it's 40 minutes before they even arrive there. That first act establishes all of our characters in New York, and includes the great Jim Beaver as Edith's father. I didn't even know he was in the movie, so seeing him was a glorious surprise, as were the bit roles by Burn Gorman (also a bright spot of Pacific Rim) and Leslie Hope, the latter a one-time actress crush of young BC thanks to It Takes Two. As you can probably tell from the trailers' absence of these people, their roles are limited and before long we're down to the primary four, but the point is - there's a bigger world (and even some humor) than the marketing had led me to believe.

And it's these scenes that make the long-awaited arrival at the mansion as deflating for us as it was for Edith. The house is falling apart in wonderfully weird ways - the floor is sinking into the red clay that comes up from the ground (for bricks; it's the key element of the family's fortunes), and the collapsing roof allows it to snow inside - this has to be the only movie where a would-be kill from being thrown off a balcony inside is prevented by a large snowpile. But the red clay surfaces everywhere, allowing Del Toro to give you a movie where the house seems to always be bleeding (and even cinema's first logical "red water comes out of the faucet" scene!) but isn't anything the characters find strange. One of the best things about Del Toro's movies is his fascination for unusual details, and rarely have they worked so well as they do here - it's living up to its schlocky influences ("BLOOD POURS DOWN THE WALLS!" sounds like something you'd hear in a drive-in movie trailer, right?) but also not distracting away from the mostly grounded narrative. Hell, the first big horror moment in the main narrative (it opens at the end, and then offers a flashback) is something out of a giallo, with black gloves and a straight razor that may or may not come into play (I loved the misdirection here).

As for the ghosts, eh. I have long since grown tired of seeing CGI tendrils of smoke or goo or whatever the hell else these designers think is scary or even visually interesting, and even if I HADN'T just suffered through more than enough of them in Paranormal Activity 6, I would have been rolling my eyes at their usage here. Their primary design is spectacular, as they are formed (or half-formed) from the same blood red clay, giving them an appearance that is equal parts ghostly skeleton and Frank in Hellraiser. Most of their appearances are little more than floating down a corridor and pointing while croaking out some sort of cryptic warning, making the film more fitting for a Halloween Horror Nights maze than I thought (it was a kind of shitty maze), but that's the sort of thing that will make it a pretty good Halloween option for the years to come. In fact, given its Imax release, I'm kind of stunned the film isn't in 3D as well - the ghosts' movement and the house itself would have lent itself nicely to the format.

I can only guess that the reason is the film's length - it's only seconds under a full two hours, and seemingly could have been trimmed here and there - I swear there's two full sequences that are identical, where Edith wakes up, discovers her husband isn't in the bed with her, grabs a candle, and goes around to investigate until she finds a Haunted Mansion reject*. There aren't any major unnecessary subplots or anything like that (Del Toro's not Peter Jackson, after all), but since the story has to serve two masters (horror and romance) it's just kind of a given that it'll run longer than the average 90 minute horror (or 105 minute romance). Even 5-10 minutes could have helped it out a bit, and might have even wiped out a number of those "it's not even horror!" complaints. I mean, this is a movie that has a man's head being bashed into a sink, multiple bloody stabbings, and even a good ol' fashioned shovel to the head - even without the ghosts, it'd certainly qualify, but maybe the stretches in between those things are just too much for folks to handle.

It's a shame the movie tanked so spectacularly (it will be GdT's least attended studio movie by a wide margin), because while I get that it won't be for everyone, it seems the people that it WILL be for have largely avoided it. It has some minor issues but nothing too damaging, and the big screen is the right place to enjoy such gorgeous production design (and, for his largely female fanbase, Hiddleston's thrusting bare ass during a love scene). I take some solace in the idea that maybe after two money losers in a row, GdT will be forced to scale it back even further or just go all out and make something in Spanish again, since smaller = better when it comes to his features. If you think you might enjoy this sort of thing, I urge you to check it out soon (as in, this week, before Friday), as by then it's likely to be downgraded to the crappiest screens around in order to make room for the new releases, and will be gone entirely by mid-November, I'm sure.

What say you?

*Yes, I know this was one of Guillermo's 7,000 announced projects that have yet to come to fruition. Couldn't help but wonder if he was just getting this sort of ghostly action out of his system in case it joins all the others that will never happen.


  1. Great review! Definitely highly underrated, given its box office intake. I always find it interested the type of people who widely throw praise and love onto Pan's Labyrinth but bemoan a film like Crimson Peak. They are very similar in my opinion.

  2. Spot on review. I enjoyed it very much and pretty much ignored reviews online. If it's Del Toro, I'm going to watch it. That's pretty much a Fact. Especially when it's horror related? I, like you, love his Spanish films and want him to do that again! But this is one of my favorites!

  3. I think film culture would be much poorer if it looked away from this deliciously mordant work by del Toro, one of the few writer-directors today who don't just craft images but think in them.


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