Fantasy has enjoyed an upswing in the last two decades. Twenty years ago the term conjured for the public imagination images of Disney films, kitschy studio oddities like Willow and Labyrinth, and low rent embarrassments like the Dungeons and Dragons movie. Today fantasy films are often pitched as major awards contenders. They litter the summer and fall release slots. “Nerd culture” has not just been accepted by pop culture. It has become pop culture.
Guillermo Del Toro, the writer and director of Crimson Peak, is as responsible for the present climate as anyone. His early films Cronos and The Devil’s Backbone weren’t blockbusters, but they inspired the current generation of filmmakers and gave newfound legitimacy to ghost stories. His first foray into blockbuster filmmaking, Blade 2, is a rare beloved comic book hero film before the 2000’s onslaught. His 2006 Oscar nominee Pan’s Labyrinth is probably the most critically acclaimed fantasy of this century and rightly so.
Trends come and go, and just like fantasy and horror will likely one day cease to dominate the public imagination like they do now, they also were not always so anemic as their 80’s and 90’s nadir. Del Toro, a native Spanish-speaker from Mexico, grew up on movies from all eras and came into his own while the magical realist movement in literature was at its peak. His latest film is full of homages to genre classics like Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca, Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, and Jean-Pierre Melville’s Les enfants terribles. His ability to capture those films’ charms and translate their more dated quirks for modern audiences has given filmmakers from Peter Jackson to Alfonso Cuaron the tools they needed to bring their own fantasy visions to the public. No less than Quentin Tarantino, Del Toro channels his love for obsolete classics into a language that speaks to a new generation.
For this reason alone it would be nice to give his latest film a pass. Crimson Peak is literate. Its depiction of 19th century England and America is well-researched, covering that period’s interests and idiosyncrasies in a way that can only be the result of much effort and passion. It is gorgeously photographed. Its deep, intoxicating palette of primary colors is no less artful than the black and white classics that served as its inspiration. To further entice fans, the movie pitches itself as a sort of spiritual sequel to Del Toro’s clear masterpieces with a voiceover describing the nature of ghost stories.
“Ghosts are real,” insists Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), an American author who serves as the story’s hero. The line should jog the memory of anyone who has seen The Devil’s Backbone, which begins with the question, “What is a ghost? A tragedy condemned to repeat itself time and time again? An instant of pain, perhaps. Something dead which still seems to be alive.”
That film, along with Pan’s Labyrinth, not only told a fantastical story about history in the style of authors like Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It invited the audience to consider the nature of ghosts and our love for ghost stories. Within the context of the Spanish civil war and the rise of fascism, Del Toro used his lifelong passion for fantasy to make sense of his heritage. Ghosts may not exist in the most literal sense, but history is littered with the dead and history is always with us and always has much to say. Pain imprints itself on one person, who channels that pain when they cause pain for someone else. Emotions in this way can outlast lifetimes. What else is there to call it but ghost?
Crimson Peak aims for that same sweet spot but falls glaringly short. On the surface at least these issues are easily diagnosable in the script, which leans heavily on spurious plot devices at odds with the material’s literary bent. One of my least favorite plot devices in all of film involves the villains needing the hero to sign some document to solidify their plans. “Oh, we’ve killed children and old ladies and puppies, but HEAVEN FORBID we lower ourselves to FORGERY! You have to draw the line somewhere!”
That’s not exactly the problem though. Plot holes, narrative leaps, and even weak characters are all forgivable under the right circumstances. The trouble with Crimson Peak is that it just doesn’t pack the necessary emotional punch. When Edith is whisked away from her quaint American hometown by mysterious British noble Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) to their manor across the pond, it’s expected that her interaction with the Sharpes will lead to some sort of revelation. The opening shot of the film is a flash forward to her staring at something horrible in the middle of a snowstorm. If the ending is so dazzling that it deserves to jump into the opening image, then the ending had better be dazzling.
The ending here isn’t exactly that. Sure, there’s a lot of blood and violence. People do some really terrible things. The manor does turn out to be haunted, the Sharpes’ closets full of metaphorical and possibly literal skeletons. But unlike Del Toro’s best films, there’s no indication how what we’re watching should affect us. Not every story has to hit the viewer where they live, but when you’re going for what H.P. Lovecraft called “soul-annihilating” revelation, when moral repulsion or some kind of deep empathy for human pain is necessary for the story to work, then it helps if the audience can relate at all. Del Toro at his best is better at this than anyone. Whether the doomed romances and aristocratic anxiety of his source material here just rings hollow today, or whether he just tried something ambitious and failed, the point is that it didn’t work.
Edith likes to say of her own writing, “It’s not a ghost story. It’s a story with ghosts in it.” This perfectly describes Del Toro’s oeuvre, and explains in part why the supernatural elements of this film never really satisfy. The people are meant to matter, not the ghosts. The trouble is that Crimson Peak is a ghost story; just one with delusions of grandeur. Maybe the literal undead occupy a small part of the narrative, but none of these characters are what one might call flesh and blood. They just perambulate along set paths toward predetermined conclusions. And when such empty ghouls possess the soul of your film, it can’t help but register a little hollow. Some ghosts are more interesting than others.
Photos Courtesy of: Universal Pictures