Guillermo del Toro is the master of fantasy. His films are born from nightmares and the hallucinations of terrified children who hear a bump in the night. At one point in his newest imagination “Crimson Peak“, the protagonist Edith Cushing – played by Mia Wasikowska – says, “I tend to open my eyes to horrors.” Though it seems a bit forced and obvious in context of the film, it is the thesis of del Toro’s career. Guillermo has never grown up, and he has never ceased to allow the creak of a door hinge or the flickering of candlelight to race his heart and take his mind to ghastly worlds.
His most famous works are captivating masterpieces. “Pan’s Labyrinth” never fails to invoke a response when mentioned in a conversation, and “Hellboy” is by far one of the most unique adaptations of a comic book series. If those aren’t enough superlatives, Guillermo’s films consistently make me have the absolute craziest dreams. So it is no surprise that a film (and trailer) that opens with the following shot and the whispered voice over, “Ghosts are real” would be cause for a great deal of excitement, and high expectations.
Visually, those expectations are certainly met. In fact, it would have been a complete shock had they not. Guillermo creates fantastic worlds, worlds far removed from reality, but intensely believable because of his captivating images. The film is blood red, from the ooze dripping down the walls of the estate, to the decaying bodies of the ghosts, to the trampled snow on the Crimson Peak. If you have ever read “The Fall of the House of Usher” by Edgar Allen Poe, and wished for actual pictures of the house, then this movie would please you.
The house is in a dismal state, with no ceiling in many places, allowing snow and rain into the dissolving rooms. The walls are falling, and the pictures on them are so old that they look to be taken of ghosts themselves. In fact, the house is sinking into its own foundation, as it is directly on top of a red clay mine. The faucets omit blood red water due to the clay in the ground. And because of the sinking foundation, every time wind blows, the house “breathes” through its chimneys. All of these horrifying conditions only exponentiate the horror of ghosts crawling up through the floorboards and out of shadows in order to give their warnings.
But while “Crimson Peak” has the potential to also be a similarly intense psychological examination as “The Fall of the House of Usher”, one that operates on the premise that ghosts are real, actual beings from the past that haunt your everyday life, it falls short. You want it to examine the nature of these ghosts. You want them to have interesting origins. You want them to be an important part of the story – but they never are. You go in to the theater expecting a ghost story, one that uses supernatural and inexplicable occurrences to determine what the characters do. You want to feel the presence of these ghosts just as much as the characters they are haunting. You want to be haunted, and although del Toro sets the scene perfectly with his horrid house and fantastical backdrops, you never are. The ghosts are only part of the predictable detective story by which the narrative is driven. As soon as any attention is given to the haunting that is taking place within the house, it is quickly shifted to the all too obvious developing love triangle. And by that point, the terror no longer lies in anything supernatural, but in the rage of a jealous lover.
“Crimson Peak” is ultimately disappointing because it never delivers on what it sold itself as: a ghost story. But this is actually no fault of del Toro. He intended the movie to be a “gothic romance”, like the love story in Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” or something from Emily Bronte (who the protagonist actually references). The advertising at Universal were the ones who decided to market the film as a horror/ghost film, because that would attract a bigger crowd than those interested in a gothic romance. But in doing so, they cause the movie to not live up to its expectations.
Even still, it never reaches its potential to explore the supernatural. Though it is not, in fact, a ghost film, the ghosts have such a presence that you begin to want them to them to be important. But they never are, and this causes the film to never question reality, which is a quintessential trait of Guillermo del Toro. Instead, it falls into something simple and predictable. It is never boring, because its visual aesthetics continue to be incredible until the closing credits, but it never completely engages in the world of fantasy that it could. “Crimson Peak” would be an entertaining film for fans of creepy romances, followers of Guillermo del Toro, and fans of exuberant images. But, if you crave those psychological, fantastical, worlds in which reality wavers, the ones that del Toro is so capable of creating, it would be more worthwhile to just re-watch “Pan’s Labyrinth”.