I have this thesis on Guillermo del Toro. It stems from enjoying most of his films, but rarely loving any of them. There’s Pan’s Labyrinth, a film I flat-out adore, and there’s Pacific Rim, a big dumb movie that shamelessly tickles all the happiest childish parts of me. Otherwise, I can take or leave his work. Parts of the Hellboys delight, and The Devil’s Backbone is a beautifully put together if frustratingly simplistic fable. His TV series The Strain, adapted from his trilogy of airplane novels, is the sort of trash I greedily ingest between episodes of HBO-or-similar shows, but still find myself half-watching my phone the whole time. Because let’s face it, Guillermo del Toro is a great designer, but he’s rarely a great storyteller. Scratch that. He might be the best designer.
If Guillermo del Toro wanted to be a production designer full-time, he could be the Edith Head of production designers. He could be the Paddy Chayefsky of production designers. He could be the Sven Nykvist of production designers. Look at the elven guards of Hellboy 2, or the faun of Pan’s Labyrinth. Hell, one of the few things that kept Peter Jackson’s regrettable Hobbit trilogy watchable was the unexpected moments of bizarre design that clearly stemmed from del Toro’s latent role in their production.
All of this is a roundabout way of saying that, expectedly, del Toro’s latest, Crimson Peak, is a gloriously designed spectacle, but it is also in so many other ways a farce. Its DNA spliced from the core strands of gothic romance, the film begs to be given the dues of a Rebecca or The Innocents, but is really just a subpar Dragonwyck rolled in a tasty supernatural burrito.
So here’s the story. Mia Wasikowska plays Edith Cushing, the bookish daughter of a successful self-made Albany businessman and widower in the waning days of the Victorian era. Edith has aspirations of becoming a romance writer and a curious and unexplained tap into the netherworld that allows for occasional ghostly visitations. Tom Hiddleston is Sir Thomas Sharpe, a visiting English aristocrat whose vast family riches have been depleted, with a stately manor that has fallen into Money Pit levels of disrepair. With his caustic and pernicious sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) by his side, he’s in town desperately seeking capital to help mine the valuable supplies of blood-red clay that sit beneath their hilltop home. A few swoons and a murder later, Edith is off to England to see her new husband’s home.
If that bloody goo oozing up through the ground and the mother-shaped wraith warning her to keep away from some place called “Crimson Peak” weren’t enough to make Edith run for it, the house’s state of decay should have. Cartoonishly gothic, with a hole in the roof that Disney’s Haunted Mansion would blush at, the Sharpe Family home is as unwelcoming as its owner is dashingly handsome. Soon enough, del Toroan leaking ghosts are clambering through the walls, and someone is definitely trying to poison poor Edith.
On paper it’s the perfect project for the Mexican minstrel of the macabre. He has wildly elaborate sets to play with, drenched in saturated colours of dark hues, CGI-makeup-hybrid ghouls, poofy turn-of-the-century costumes, and even complex steampunk mining equipment to indulge his concerning clockwork fetish. As so often with his films, it’s a flimsy screenplay, co-written with Matthew Robbins, that leaves the film struggling at the best of times, and fails to attach any emotional or conceptual resonance to some finely realised imagery.
What the film does have, however, and all too rare in the del Toro canon, is a sense of camp. The film regularly simmers with it, and Jessica Chastain’s frantic performance spits it out in clots thicker than that visceral clay. If anything keeps the film aloft, it is the camp value (see the portrait of the late Mother Sharpe), but even this is abused by del Toro. Upon first arriving at Crimson Peak, Thomas advises Edith to take a bath, but warns (in the film’s most humourous moment) that the tap will briefly run red. It’s a wonderful play on an old horror cliché, but it’s undone moments later when, as Edith turns on the tap, del Toro plays its spluttering of bloody water for a scare, complete with Wasikowska gasp and musical sting. The director wants to have his cake and eat it too, and to watch the jam inside ooze everywhere as well.
On top of this, there’s surprisingly little tension to be had, nor mystery. The clumsily handled murder scene early on leaves no question as to whether the siblings can be trusted, and the underlying eroticism of Thomas and Edith’s romance flounders under his blatant Monsieur Verdouxism. Two achingly predictable last act twists are handled completely upside down – Edith takes the revelation that she is to be murdered with preposterous calm, and flees for her life upon learning a secret that should only add up to a serious breach of trust and an uncomfortable fireside chat. Any chance of going full Turn of the Screw and letting us wonder if our heroine is imagining things is mangled by the opening lines of the film; narrating from a position of post-film survival, Edith assures us “ghosts are real”. Well then, that’s that then. (The line seems all the more grating and unnecessary given how attractively inessential the ghosts actually are to the story).
The dialogue goes little better, often feeling jarringly twentieth century. Speeches about carnivorous moths and ghosts stories (or, stories with ghosts in them, hint hint) are the wrong kind of unsubtle. ADR (post-production over-dubbing) is evident throughout, especially whenever characters talk about Victorian-era technology, planting thoughts that the script as written was even more troubled than what has ended up in the finished film.
Despite itself, Crimson Peak is never quite boring (despite tertiary love interest Charlie Hunnam’s most valiant efforts to bland it into submission). Wasikowska is misguidedly directed, but she throws a good deal of energy at it, and Hiddleston is always modestly electrifying. Chastain, hamming it up to the nines, casts away her full house of Oscar-worthy performances and just goes for it with all the gusto she can manage.
An English-language triumph still evades del Toro, but he has once again produced a hauntingly beautiful, if painfully unsatisfying film. Too shallow to be high art, too confused to play as shocker, it will simply act as a stand-in film in his career while he searches for a truly personal project worthy of his talents. Perhaps, if we’re truly lucky, he might turn to design full-time and help make another director’s work look the very best it could.