Does Guillermo del Toro's 'Crimson Peak' Accomplish What It's Trying To?
Three Inverse writers debate if 'Crimson Peak' is a horror film and whether it succeeds at what it's trying to do
Guillermo del Toro’s gothic horror Crimson Peak is being marketed as a horror movie. Three Inverse writers discuss whether or not it fits into the horror genre and whether it succeeds at what it’s trying to do. Warning if you haven’t seen the film: the night is dark and full of spoilers. So is this piece.
Lauren Sarner: Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and Bram Stoker’s Dracula are two of my favorite novels. I’ve read The Monk, The Castle of Otranto, even weird shit like The Bride of Lammermoor. I love Penny Dreadful. I even interviewed some professors about the gothic in pop culture. So I’m pretty much this film’s ideal audience.
That being said, I wonder who its ideal audience really is. It’s not modern gothic — no True Blood or American Horror Story here —but old-school, with silver-screen sensibilities (up until some unexpected brutality at the end). The first half is very refined British literature, full of tropes from Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre: the brooding Byronic hero Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), the dull nice guy Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam), the bookish girl who chooses between them, Edith (Mia Wasikowska), the mysterious femme fatale Lucille (Jessica Chastain, whose scene-stealing performance is the best one in the film).
It’s being advertised as a horror movie, but I can’t see fans of modern horror being onboard with all the waltzing and nineteenth century banter and slow-burn thrills. What do you think — is it a horror movie? Is its own marketing going to hurt it? Who do you think this film’s audience is?
Sean Hutchinson: I think it’s tough to pigeonhole “fans of modern horror” in this case. It seems like you’re referring to the kids that flock to the theaters every Friday night and mindlessly watch the next Paranormal Activity movie for a good scare and then wait for the next time they have enough allowance money to have their mom drive them to the mall cineplex for another. I don’t want to act all high and mighty, but these aren’t real horror fans.
Maybe the best way to put it would be “genre fans,” in which case Guillermo del Toro is a revered figure. To them, I see Crimson Peak probably ranking among his best when it comes to the real horror fans who embrace him. It’s one of the movies he was born to make. It’s a movie about a haunted house from a guy who lives in an actual haunted house. Well, who knows if it’s actually haunted, but del Toro made it that way.
Anyway, I was never a big fan of gothic literature other than something like Henry James’ Turn of the Screw. That said, I loved Crimson Peak because it was such a slow-burning throwback to the kinds of creepy British horror movies from the ‘60s that del Toro absolutely loves. Crimson Peak hints at ways to deconstruct that, especially when it has Edith talk about being a writer of gothic tales where ghosts are usually metaphors. Crimson Peak doesn’t necessarily succeed in deconstructing the genre, but I don’t think del Toro meant it that way. He’s having his cake and eating it too by adding his voice to the types of films and filmmakers he adores. With that, I’d say Crimson Peak is a horror movie, but more specifically a certain kind of horror movie.
People who watch Saw over and over again on Netflix will hate it, but people who appreciate atmospherics, mood, ornate set design, and flashes of gruesome violence should have a great time.
Eric Francisco: It’s totally not a horror movie. It’s a gothic soap opera that revels in its atmosphere, and I love it for that. But I hate its marketing, which billed it as a horror movie because so-called horror fans will end up hating what is really a wonderful (if flawed) film.
The film’s audience are what Sean said: Genre fans. Anyone into this stuff tends to love del Toro and the film is quintessential GdT: breathtaking photography, convoluted plot, strong female characters, awkward pacing, absurd moments where you can’t help but smile, and a world you want to explore. I wanted to explore every hallway in the Shatterdome in Pacific Rim as much as I want to run around the Crimson Peak house. That’s what del Toro excels at, and his audience is a venn diagram of people raised on video games and Saturday morning cartoons to fantasy literature. That’s quite a lot of people.
You know, I’m really fascinated with the “dreadpunk” label simply because it’s something that’s been staring us in the face for so long, but now with a name. From H.P. Lovecraft to BioShock, this stuff has been with us for like a hundred years but it’s finally more than just a series of adjectives with dashes in between. I’m happy to call Crimson Peak just “dreadpunk” instead of “gothic Victorian fantasy drama.” Yeah, the “-punk” part sucks but it’s less of a mouthful.
LS: To address Sean’s point about whether del Toro was deconstructing anything, I thought he offered a mixed bag. For example, Tom Hiddleston’s character Thomas Sharpe kept you on your toes about his motives and about whether he truly loved Edith, and I thought that was nicely done. But Charlie Hunnam’s character, Dr. Alan McMichael offered a deconstruction on the “guy who doesn’t get the girl” archetype, best shown in this hilarious Pride and Prejudice scene.
That guy is dull and doltish, and although McMichael was boring at first, he was hardly clueless. With each new piece of information we learn, he becomes cooler: he’s into ghosts too, he’s an ameteur sleuth, he casually walks four hours in a snowstorm to rescue Edith.
It’s here where I thought it didn’t quite work, because in making him transition from the Boring Guy Who Doesn’t Get The Girl into a cross between Sherlock Holmes and Quincy Morris (the American Cowboy from Dracula) it becomes increasingly preposterous that Edith didn’t pick him. In trying to make McMichael embody too many different Gothic character archetypes, he was very uneven — you can’t be the guy who doesn’t get the girl and the Crusading Badass Rescuer. He would have worked better if his feelings for Edith were platonic, or if he was more comically clueless. I wasn’t sure what the writers’ intentions were with his character. That being said, I did love how the film deconstructed the “knight in shining armor” trope, when his big rescue was foiled in five minutes flat.
Also I love Charlie Hunnam but aside from the hair, his face looks too modern. He needed a mustache and a monocle. I would have been on board with Dr. McMichael 60% more if he only had a mustache and a monocle.
But he wasn’t the only character I found under-written; I found myself wanting more from Lucille’s backstory. Although Jessica Chastain’s performance was amazing, I didn’t think she was developed enough. I assumed the vats of bloodlike substance in the dungeon would turn out to be a Bluebeard style set-up where Edith would find Thomas’s dead ex wives and learn why Lucille murdered them, but they didn’t really go anywhere after they were introduced.
I needed more motive from Lucille besides a vague “she was jealous.” I initially thought she harvested their blood with that machine for some sinister purpose, but the machine was a Chekhov’s gun that didn’t shoot. What do you think of the film’s characterization — did they need to be developed more, or were you satisfied with their development and backstory? Do you think points like the machine and the vats of blood were unaddressed, or do you think not every mystery needed to be clarified?
SH: Well, honestly, Alan is definitely a dolt when Edith is in Buffalo being courted by Thomas, but he’s always loved her, or maybe just expected her to always love him back. This sort of thing seems like a normal archetype of the genre and it didn’t bug me all that much. There’s always the male character off to the side who assumes his role and the woman’s role, but it’s kind of switched up for him to earn that expectation in the end. He was always interested in her, and pining after her, and I think it works precisely because he turns into a crusading badass rescuer, yet doesn’t do that. When he shows up unannounced at Crimson Peak to save the day, he’s left for dead and Edith saves herself. I was glad del Toro made Edith the reluctant hero, because she was mostly the secondhand observer throughout the movie before that.
I agree with Eric when he says that del Toro is good at selecting actors that are able to round out certain poorly written characters. Idris Elba’s character from Pacific Rim — the awesomely named Stacker Pentecost — is a single emotion wrapped in an archetype, and yet he’s memorable because of the hard-assed military presence that Elba brings to him. There’s something similar going on with Tom Hiddleston’s performance as Thomas, who is sort of one-note in his evil anti-hero charm. And yet Hiddleston was born to play this kind of heartbroken vampiric lothario with a cliched British accent. His presence, and the glances he gives Edith really sell the character even when the words he’s meant to say sell him short.
The fact that they don’t play off the supernatural red clay goop is kind of disappointing, but I always saw it as a detail on the periphery. It was something that was just meant to shade in the gothic weirdness of the Sharpes and their huge creepy mansion. The more egregious fault I had with the movie was its CGI. Guillermo del Toro is the guy when it comes to grotesque but beautiful practical effects and makeup. After all, this is the man who brought us Pale Man and Abe Sapien.
Even if the base effect of most of the ghosts in Crimson Peak were people in suits, all of the CGI details added on ruined a lot of those shots for me. Maybe Pacific Rim’s hefty use of computer effects got the best of del Toro this time. It makes me wonder what he would have done with The Hobbit. But that said, I liked the atmosphere of Crimson Peak because it always refocused on Edith. Mia Wasikowska is so ghostly to begin with, and it really gets crazy at the end by turning into a sort of slasher movie with Jessica Chastain. I think it ends on a high note because of Wasikowska. The bookended lines at the beginning and end are great too, recontextualizing what we’ve just seen. Also, I’d be at fault if I didn’t mention what has got to be one of the most disgusting stabbings I’ve ever seen at the end involving Tom Hiddleston’s face. The gasps in the theater were deafening, which is the sign of a good horror movie.
EF: The difficult thing in analyzing Guillermo del Toro movies is that he’s an expert at getting the performance he wants out of his actors, so even if they’re written poorly it’s difficult to actually identify. That’s Crimson Peak. The more I think about the movie’s characters the more questions I have, most of it pertaining to the Sharpe siblings and the ghosts that haunt them.
What are their rules? Why are they there? What does it have to do with the elements they’re mining out of their land? What was the narrative purpose of Sharpe’s machine? As you said, it was a Chekhov’s gun left there so early on and when it came time to shoot, it didn’t. I’m absolutely unsatisfied with Crimson Peak’s history, backstory, and lack of rules regarding the world. I can’t accept ghosts being there just because “Hey, bad things happened.”
It’s still a breathtaking movie, though, which leaves me knowing that Crimson Peak is Peak del Toro.