I’ve had a hard time getting in synch with Guillermo del Toro, although that may be changing, because I liked Pacific Rim (2013) and I liked Crimson Peak, although with reservations in both cases.
Let’s start with the reservations. Del Toro has a fanboy aesthetic, meaning his major influences seem to be from pop culture. This leaves his films feeling glib and shallow even when he’s being serious. (There’s nothing more painfully twee than the ending of Pan’s Labyrinth (2006).) In Crimson Peak, one of the main places you can see the fanboy aesthetic is in the design of the ghosts, which seem to come out of Ghost Busters or one of Peter Jackson’s movies. They look too familiar and generic, and they’re just slightly goofy looking, even at their most grotesque. There’s nothing particularly eerie or uncanny about them, although that actually ends up probably making the film safe for the adolescents and squeamish adults like myself who really ought to be seeing it, so maybe it’s intentional.
A little more troublesome is the approach to romance in the film. When Thomas Sharp (Tom Hiddleston) lights into the romantic ghost story written by Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) for being a pale imitation of real love written by a bookish, out-of-touch girl, it could just as well be a critique of the romance in the film. One of the nice touches in Crimson Peak is that the story Edith is writing can be understood to be the story of the film, but given that Thomas is lying when he criticizes Edith’s story I don’t think del Toro was actually being meta or self-critical of his own efforts. Basically I didn’t feel much sizzle or passion between Thomas and Edith, which is problematic both for her motivation in marrying Thomas to begin with and also when motivations switch in the end. This seems to be a case where del Toro is referencing the romantic obsession of other films, but can’t quite evoke it himself.
With those reservations stated, I’ll return to the fact that I enjoyed Crimson Peak. The main thing, of course, is the production design, which has always been the thing that I unequivocally liked about del Toro’s movies. Other than the ghost designs, everything else seemed quite magnificent, and most importantly for what is a Gothic story, the house is a masterpiece. To be honest, given my ambivalence about del Toro’s films, the thing that sold me on this one was seeing the house in the trailers. It’s a wonderfully elaborate multi-level pile of filigree, ornamentation, decay, shadows, gooey walls, and forbidding doors. A brilliant touch that doesn’t come out in the trailer is that it has an enormous hole in the roof, letting in beautiful cascades of dead leaves, rain, and snow. It really is everything you’d want in an old dark house.
Beyond the creation of a compelling character in the house however, the film also does a nice job of melding the romantic and the grotesque. It reminded me of Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd, in fact, in the way that it connected blood-letting and love, love and death. This isn’t a film that rewards asking, “Why?” Like many of the favorite films here at the Dreamland Cafe, it’s a dream movie — and a fever dream at that. It slowly builds to an eruption of madness, and when the madness arrives it has a hallucinatory quality. It’s irrational, wild, and weird. Lucille is a nightmare character, and Jessica Chastain’s porcelain features suddenly look cold and hard in this film, where so often they make her seem fragile. This is a great role for her, and she probably steals the show. While it’s the opposite of grotesque, I also loved how Wasikowska’s character looked like something out of an Edward Gorey drawing when she had her long hair down as she drifted through the house in a white nightgown. Again, this is primal Gothic imagery.
This feels like a very personal film for del Toro, despite all the references to other films. Or maybe that’s what is personal for him: his devoted love of other films. It’s as if he’s taken all his favorite bits of his favorite old movies and remixed them into a new romantic nightmare. As much as the result is still something that at least on first encounter feels a little superficial, it nevertheless has an edge brought by del Toro’s own cinematic obsessions. They’re fanboy obsessions, but they have their own kind of beauty.