More noise than signal

Crimson Peak

Guilermo Del Toro has, for as long as I’ve been aware of him, been a film-maker whose work I look forward to, even in the knowledge that, for me, his hit rate is something like 50%. However even in the films I don’t personally rate, there’s usually some touches to appreciate that ameliorate the rest. While it’s a little disappointing that his latest, Crimson Peak, is another swing and a miss, it’s certainly chock-full of touches that make this interesting, if not good.

Set in the late 1800’s, we’re introduced to Mia Wasikowska’s Edith Cushing, daughter of a wealthy industrialist and an aspiring writer, although her would-be publisher isn’t so taken with her intended subject matter. Edith has an affinity for ghost stories, possibly because as a young girl the ghost of her mother visited her to deliver the cryptic message, “Beware of Crimson Peak”. However ghost stories aren’t selling, and a romance novel would be a much easier sell. I’m still trying to decide some weeks after viewing if that’s an ironic meta-reference to the film’s marketing, or a happy coincidence.

Business picks up when Sir Thomas Sharpe and his sister, Lucille Sharpe arrive, played by Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain. He’s trying to secure funding from Edith’s father Carter (Jim Beaver) for a clay mining machine that he hopes will revive his family’s fortunes, as their mines are currently un-viable and the family is on the verge of bankruptcy, although the Sharpes take care to disguise that.

Carter isn’t impressed, but while Thomas sticks around to try and change this impression a relationship blooms between Edith and Thomas. Still suspicious, Carter hires a private investigator who uncovers something from the Sharpe’s past that, along with a bribe, forces Thomas into breaking Edith’s heart and announcing his intention to depart back to England.

Before he sets sail, however, Thomas writes a letter explaining his actions to Edith, and a suspiciously timed fatal accident befalls Carter. Thomas is there to comfort Edith, and before long the two are married and agree to sell up the family home in America and head off to the Sharpe’s estate, the name of which apparently hasn’t come up in conversation before reaching the gates. It’s known locally as Crimson Peak, due to the red clay leeching through the soil and turning the mansion’s grounds an improbable blood red.

The once grand stately house is now a dilapidated wreck, a stiff breeze away from falling over, and with the gaping chasm in the roof the wind’s never far away. Anyway, a still happy Edith settles into the new home as best she can, however it’s not long before her peace is disturbed by things going bump in the night.

These ghostly visitations prompt Edith to start investigating, and soon it becomes clear that all is not as it seems in the Sharpe family’s history and relationships.

The obvious point to make, which I believe is true across all of Del Toro’s films, is that it looks gorgeous. Sumptuous, saturated colours, intricate period detail, great character design of the supernatural visitors – it’s a real feast for the eyes.

That’s the only high point, sadly, although it would certainly be unfair to call the film bad. The cast put in solid performances, although Hiddleston and Wasikowska are rather outshone by Jessica Chastain, helped by having an altogether more interesting, devious, jealous, vindictive character. Hiddleston and Wasikowska are lumbered with rather blander material, necessarily, until the final acts.

The main issue with the film is that it can’t seem to make up its mind whether it’s a ghost film with romance in it, or a romance with ghosts in it. Tellingly, if you removed all of the ghosts from the film, it would make for a vanishingly small degree of difference in how the film plays out. For my money, it’d work far better with the ghosts removed, which turns it from a curiously mild supernatural pseudohorror into a more conventionally pschological pseudohorror drama.

I say pseudohorror, because Del Toro’s adamant that this isn’t a horror film. I agree with him, but perhaps he ought to have a word with his marketing department, as everything from the trailer to the launch window is leading people to expect a horror. It’s a basic mishandling of expectations, and I’m pretty sure that’s behind the poor word of mouth that’s lead to this flopping at the box office. It’s a niche outing that’s being pushed to a mass market led to expect a rather different beast, and that’s never a scenario that’s ended well.

Ultimately, the main issue I take with this film isn’t the marketing or the precise quantity and scariness of the supernatural elements. It’s that it’s a curiously flat experience, methodically paced but not really doing anything of note until the last act, and even that falls along achingly predictable lines.

That, more than anything else, proves to be the buzz-kill coming out of the cinema, and it’s why despite the stellar production values it’s difficult to recommend to anyone that certainly didn’t already know about and has already seen this film. There’s a market for these gothic romance cum horror outings, I’m sure, but it’s not niche that’s going to support a $55 million dollar film.

Still, had a nice line in borderline slapstick shovel violence towards the end, so that’s a bonus. Not enough of a bonus to actually recommend it or anything, but I’ll take whatever shovel violence I can get.