After watching Crimson Peak last night I’m slowly coming to the conclusion that Guillermo del Toro is a director who persistently falls between several stools, and as a result never quite manages to deliver. It’s very frustrating because he is clearly an extremely intelligent and stylish director who could do wonders with a certain type of baroque fantasy horror (specifically Clive Barker’s Abarat or Weaveworld, or anything by Clark Ashton Smith). As it is, at the moment, he skips across the top of genres and styles without never really taking the plunge and so I come away from his movies with the vague sense of being had. Crimson Peak is a very good example. Although it’s clearly set up as a Gothic Horror (as in Hammer or Roger Corman, rather than Ann Radcliffe or Matthew ‘Monk’ Lewis) it pulls in visual references to Lovecraft, Hellboy, Tim Burton and even David Lynch – all of which undercut the core narrative he’s trying to build up.
Mia Wasikowska plays Edith Cushing, a spirited American wannabee ghost story writer who coincidentally also has the ability to see real ghosts. She falls in love, in fine Henry James style, with the sexy sinister English baronet Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) who’s looking to finance his machine for extracting the weird blood-coloured clay from beneath his ancestral home. He’s accompanied by his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) who floats around in black lace and plays ominous jangly stuff on the piano. Edith ends up back in the mansion in Cumberland, England, where she starts to realise All Is Not What It Seems in about five minutes (which is pretty slow considering that as a ghost story writer she should have flagged up what she was getting into much quicker). If it wasn’t the Charles Addams exterior you would have thought that the big hole in the roof, staring ancestral portraits, blood coloured water coming out of the pipes and endless racket of murmurings, groans, whispers, creaks and sobs would have set some alarm bells ringing. Not only that but there’s a weird lift going down to places where she is warned not to venture, and Lucille keeps offering her cups of tea in the tones of Hannibal Lecter while scraping the spoon on the rim of the cup. Yet Edith is as frustratingly dense as Daniel Radcliffe in The Woman in Black, even more so when troops of ghosts appear (starting with her dead mother) to warn her off. I’d have turned round at the gate.
It’s clear that del Toro is paying direct tribute to Hammer and Corman, particularly the latter’s House of Usher (1960), although Crimson Peak lacks a magnificent scenery-chewing villain like Vincent Price to echo the mansion’s baroque magnificence. Mia does serious Alice – running round and gasping at increasing weirdness, Jessica Chastain steals the show as mad Lucille and Tom Hiddleston is basically Tom Hiddleston – fey, charming and good looking with a creepy yet sexy grin. Without Loki’s staff and the Avengers to bounce off he ends up coming over as ever so slightly wet, though Hiddlestoners will no doubt feel compensated when he flashes his bum upstairs in the local Post Office.
On top of 60s classic horror cinema there’s the obligatory nods to Lovecraft (big locked vats in the basement, crackly recordings talking about encroaching doom), M. R. James (floaty spectre in misty dream land), but also Blue Velvet (toe-curling close ups of ants eating moths). The architecture is very reminiscent of Tim Burton – random spikes and twirly bits everywhere – though oddly del Toro often shoots sets straight on, which makes the interior of the house feel flat and stagey in places. A few more angles and shadows would have upped the creepiness, which too often relies on jump scares to maintain tension. For the ghosts del Toro falls back on Hellboy-esque grotesques. They are entertainingly weird, but not that frightening. When the spectre mother turned up looking like a melted bin bag in lace I felt like there should have been more interaction and, in general, a bit of conversation going on with these fascinating floaty denizens of the other side. Except the gibbering screamer pulling herself along the floorboards – you wouldn’t get much sense from her.
Crimson Peak does have flashes of brilliance but they are too few and far between to stop the movie from being a standard ghost film that feels ever so slightly out of date – The Woman in Black done in technicolor. Even the ending feels a bit of a cheat, although it might have been too obvious to have the house sink into the red morass beneath. I was looking forward to del Toro’s take on At the Mountains of Madness but now I’m not so sure. I’m still convinced that if he focussed specifically on the Weird stuff he’s so good at he’d do a brilliant Abarat or something set in Clark Ashton Smith’s Zothique.