2016.14: Crimson Peak (Blu-ray)
Crimson Peak is clearly Guillermo del Toro’s cinematic love-letter to the Hammer Films of the 1950s and 1960s, and also the Roger Corman Poe adaptations of the same period, and as such it succeeds brilliantly. Its obvious in the rich colour-palette and sumptuous gothic sets and costumes, and in little nods such as the protagonists family having the surname ‘Cushing’. But no Hammer horror or Corman Poe adaptation ever looked as strikingly beautiful as this film does. Guillermo is a visual stylist who crafts beautiful-looking films, the only problem being not having stories and characters that are equal to those visuals, and unfortunately this is something that Crimson Peak suffers from too. But goodness its one of the most beautiful Gothic horror films I have ever seen.
The main problem is, this film is a Gothic Romance that is strong on Gothic but weak on Romance. Its got shocks and scares and creepy moments and blood and violence and my goodness did I mention it really is incredibly beautiful, but somewhere, despite the great cast, it falls flat in the romance, which is rather unfortunate as that should be the core of the film. It feels more of a technical achievement than an emotional one, the romance being dominated and supplanted by those visuals. The house- my God the house! The major part of the film takes place in the titular haunted house, a magnificent piece of art direction that dazzles and takes the breath away. It is the House of Usher of Corman’s wildest dreams. It literally bleeds from the floor and walls, and snow falls elegantly from its broken roof that is open to the sky. Its jaw-dropping stuff and so well built and designed that it can be shot from all sorts of angles and never fail to draw gasps from the viewer. Its the main character of the film- possibly the best character in the film too, dominating everything to such a degree that the whole suffers. How can any story equal such an incredible piece of art direction? No matter how good the cast, they can’t fight it- the house steals the show.
Which is not to suggest that Crimson Peak is a bad film- far from it. It just feels unbalanced. Like many films these days, the story it has to tell is not equal to the dazzling way the film tells it. Which is not to suggest the story is weak (although the ending does have an inevitable feeling of anti-climax) its just that the visuals overpower everything. The heart of the film is lost somehow. I think if del Toro had spent more effort on the romance and the mystery behind it than on those striking visuals, the film may have been less pretty but better for it. Maybe if it were smaller, more intimate. Just because you can use a big budget to craft incredible sets and visuals doesn’t mean you have to. Its still a superior horror film – the jumps and scares are all there and I’d much rather watch creepy period horrors such as this than present-day gore fests populated by dreary youngsters, but I had the nagging feeling that this film could have been -should have been- something more, definitive in the Gothic Horror genre. Maybe subsequent viewings will improve things. I do feel with some films that I should be watching them two or three times prior to presenting a ‘definitive’ opinion, but it’s so hard getting to watch everything as it is without trying to watch them two or three times.
My problem with Crimson Peak -and I shall be careful here not spoil things, as I hate to put spoilers in reviews of ‘new’ films- is that the central premise, the mystery in the background that slowly unravels, is, when I think about it, genuinely disturbing and horrible. There is a central relationship in this film that it quite disturbing but it doesn’t really come across that way- something is implied but it seems to be lost behind those beautiful visuals. Which is unfortunate, because it could have been up there in Psycho-territory had it been handled a little differently. Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I was just too distracted by those incredible sets, which will lessen when rewatching it.
Certainly fans of Hammer and of Roger Corman’s wonderful Poe adaptations will lap this film up though. The scale just seems a bit too big for me, the craving to impress too obvious and overpowering. Its a good film that might have been great had it been rather more restrained, but that’s not how it’s really done in Hollywood these days.