Guillermo del Toro’s sympathies have always been with his orphan, discarded monsters: the aging vampire in Cronos, the beautiful, malevolent creatures of Pan’s Labyrinth, or the dying fairy kingdom of Hellboy II. They may be cruel and violent but they are also irreparably misunderstood, tragically separate from us, forever unloved, forced to exist in these exquisitely rendered worlds of perfect designs straight out of del Toro’s prolific imagination. You can practically see the intense feeling in every line of every design concept sketch. They’re fully realized in his own mind, and yet that emotion rarely carries over to the finished films.
In Crimson Peak, del Toro’s beasts inhabit a world a bit more recognizably real but no less fantastical. It’s a massive homage to classic gothic and romantic horror taking place inside a huge, decrepit, haunted mansion, one that nearly every character takes pains to refer to as a metaphor for the irresistible pull of past trauma. Shy Edith (Mia Wasiakowska), a budding novelist, is swept off her feet by Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), dashing heir to a dwindling clay-mining fortune. It’s not one of the film’s mysteries (such as they are) that Sharpe and his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) are gaslighting Edith; after her father (who objects to the courtship and has discovered the Sharpes’ duplicitous nature) is brutally murdered, they whisk Edith off to the crumbling family home, all the better to start conniving their way into her fortune.
The house is a gorgeous diorama, a fully-constructed set crammed with every portentous detail: rotting wood, an ominous hole in the roof, blood-red clay seeping through floorboards, a scary basement, ghosts… it’s a hoarder’s palace of creepy production design. But still del Toro has chosen to focus on Edith, the least interesting character in her own story, at the expense of the haunted, beautiful villains at the film’s core. Relocated to the mansion, we wait for the dim, wallflower-ish Edith to catch on to the already-revealed machinations of these far more fascinating creatures, draining the film of all its mystery and portent. It’s only at the very end, when the details of the Sharpes’ horrible obsessions are articulated in blunt monologues, that the hidden tragedy bubbles up, and the emotion that is intrinsic and obvious to del Toro finally reveals itself, too late.
Del Toro has made his Jane Eyre when he could have made his Wide Sargasso Sea
It’s also, strangely, rather tame. The ghosts that strike fear into Edith are crummy CG apparitions, weightless. The film is loaded with cheap jump scares accompanied by standard-issue creepy pizzicato strings and thunderous soundtrack stings. The element of knowing camp that might keep an audience on edge is over-articulated to the point of unintentional hilarity (just look at a scene in which Edith and Lucille regard a ridiculous portrait of the Sharpe family matriarch). The bloodletting, when it comes, is restrained, without catharsis or the sadness it reaches for.
In the face of the beautifully monstrous killers and hyper-erotic, almost avant-garde violence of something like Hannibal, or the recapitulation of gothic tropes on Penny Dreadful, Crimson Peak seems like half-measures, less than committed to its dream state. It seems too fully imagined, too much a product of this idiosyncratic filmmaker’s personality for such a counterintuitive compromise, but in making this Edith’s well-trod story instead of that of his beautiful monsters, del Toro has made his Jane Eyrewhen he could have made his Wide Sargasso Sea.