When I heard that the writer and director of Pan’s Labyrinth was writing and directing a haunted house movie, I got excited. I looked forward to seeing the latest film from visionary Guillermo Del Toro. I couldn’t wait to see “his” ghosts; freed from his imagination and set loose on the big screen. To these ends, my wishes came true on Tuesday night, Oct 27. My visual appetite was satisfied, as was any desire I had concerning flair. It was a stylish film indeed. But alas, something was missing.
Let me being with what I liked about Crimson Peak. I liked the atmosphere. I liked the gothic manor and all its intricacies, seen and unseen. I liked the winding staircase and cage-like elevator. I like the unfinished roof and the atmospheric snow that flowed continuously into the house like background waterfalls. I loved all the props – the candelabras, the portraits, the piano. The music is appropriately haunting. The ghosts are great. Silky and spooky; they are like no ghosts I had ever seen on the screen.
I liked the overall tone – the Victorian/Edwardian formality in dress and speech. The film transported me out of the theater and into a different time period without any turbulence. It was nice to see a shout out to those glorious horror films of yore.
And the film is rich with symbolism. It’s poetic.
So much is good about the film. So it disheartens me to say that I left the theater feeling slightly underwhelmed. Why is this? It was the slow and unpromising plot. Actually, cancel that word “unpromising.” It was promising. The problem was that it made promises but failed to deliver upon them.
It teased out mystery where there was none. It built up false suspense and while the story didn’t leave viewers hanging, in the end it seemed to shrug apologetically for the fact that there was never a reason to hang at all.
It is difficult to provide examples without trudging into the storyline. But I don’t want to reveal too much, although the risk of spoiler contamination is very low. The young and handsome Thomas Sharpe arrives to New York from England with his sister. He is an opportunist and he tries to convince Carter Cushing to invest in technology that he has developed for mining clay. Carter turns him down. So Thomas and his mysterious sister will go back England, but not until Thomas woos away Carter’s daughter Edith. Carter does not trust Thomas. He says that there is something unlikable about him but he can’t explain what it is. But at least Thomas is friendly and charming, unlike his sister who is cold and expressionless. Thomas marries Edith and the three return to England to live in the spooky old mansion on top of Crimson Peak.
Here’s a hint as to how the suspense works in this film: if a character has a hunch (like Carter has with Thomas), he is probably correct. If a person appears evil, the person is evil. If there were a butler in this film, then the quip “the butler did it” would surely play out (There is no butler in this film.)
One might say, “Okay, so it’s a straightforward film. What’s wrong with that?” What’s wrong is that it starts viewers out on arcane paths, only to merge them into a plain old narrative of narrow storytelling. If you want to tell a straightforward, what-you-see-is what- you-get story, that’s fine. But don’t lead the viewers on with secrets and hidden histories. There are many examples of this kind of leading, but I won’t mention them, because I guess even a letdown can be a spoiler.
Imagine receiving a present. Not only is the wrapping paper beautiful, but there are bows and bells and pieces of candy attached to the box as well. Peel away all this and you find that the design of the box is appealing too. Inside the box there are decorative tissues and fluffy coverings that feel soft against your fingertips. Remove this covering and you find – tube socks. Happy Birthday. If this were a terrible movie with absolutely no depth, then my analogy would be a bit different. It would entail dazzling wrappings on a crappy, empty box. But it’s not terrible, it’s just, well, it’s tube socks.
Let’s end on a mostly positive note as I focus in on the ghosts. I’ll call this the “good, the blah, and the good again”
- The good – The ghosts looked good. The CGI worked to the film’s benefit. The ghosts didn’t come off as cartoonish. They looked genuinely creepy.
- The blah – We didn’t learn much about the ghosts. They were just sort of “there”, part of the background. Yes they scared the wits out of poor Edith on several occasions. But they didn’t contribute all that much too the overall workings of the story.
- The good again – Kudos for allowing viewers the time to take in the ghosts! They didn’t flash rudely on the screen as did the ghosts of other modern ghost movies such as The Haunting of Connecticut and the remake of Amityville Horror. Rather, they traversed slowly and creepily. They peered around walls. They peaked out of closets. THIS is what “scary” is all about.
So that’s about it. I really, really, wanted to like this film. And I guess I did, but I just couldn’t bring myself to love it.