So I didn’t expect much from Crimson Peak, given that I cannot think of one single film that has been described as “gothic” since 1986 (when Ken Russell’s “Gothic” redefined the term for the worse) that has been anything other than tedious, self-indulgent, and infuriatingly shitty. But I thought maybe, maybe with first-rate auteur Guillermo Del Toro at the helm, Crimson Peak might at least kind of hold together, to the minimal extent required for me to enjoy the pretty pictures without having my intelligence too egregiously insulted.
No such goddamn luck, I regret to report.
I mean yes. This movie is pretty. So damn pretty. Pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty! But so was “Moulin Rouge” and “Phantom of the Opera” and “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” and “Interview with the Vampire” and “Sweeney Todd” and “Sleepy Hollow.” They were all heartbreakingly pretty. So why did they all have to suck so badly, each and every one of them? Whatever the reason, I can only conclude that era of the well-made “gothic” movie passed with Olivier and Welles and Hitchcock. I would love to see a modern interpretation that could hold a candle to “Rebecca” or “Gaslight” or “Wuthering Heights” or “The Magnificent Ambersons” … or even to “Dragonwyck” or “Sunset Boulevard” or “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane” … but I’m not going to hold my breath.
So anyway, on to my rant. Because when a movie gets my hopes up, even a little, then disappoints me, I tend to get somewhat vindictive. The TL:DR version is that Crimson Peak is a movie that obsesses over little details while getting the whole thing so wrong that it’s like a beautifully-decorated wedding cake that’s been baked with salt instead of sugar. Much like Allerton Hall, it is gorgeous ornamentation sinking into a faulty foundation.
But let’s start with what I liked, shall we? I already mentioned the pretty. I also appreciated that, in one oddly specific way, the “pretty” actually supported the narrative. Early in the film (which is easily dated to the late 1890s based on Edith’s ginormous leg-o-mutton sleeves), Edith notes that Sir Thomas wears fashion that is a decade out of date. Thus, when we first see his sister Lucille wearing a natural form gown that is totally not period (that silhouette would have been au courant between like 1878-1882, between the first and second bustle era) we actually realize that it’s a costuming discrepancy that’s accounted for in the plot–not a costuming mistake. So that was nifty. It was also kind of nifty that we pretty much only ever saw Lucille in one dress, that fancy dark blue number. That suggested that she didn’t have a whole lot of other gowns to choose from, which is also true to the character as an impoverished, yet proud, aristocrat.
That said, however …
GODDAMN IT VICTORIAN MOVIES, STOP IT WITH THE SUNGLASSES.
OK. Sure. There were some instances of people wearing smoked lenses in the Victorian/Edwardian era. But they were mostly invalids and blind people and people with syphillis. NOT vampires and bad asses. Just please stop it.
There was another thing I did kind of like, though I’m not sure if the movie actually meant to do this or not (I’m willing to be generous and assume that it did). Apparently, the convention of this world is that when someone comes back as a ghost, their spectral appearance is tied to the current, actual, physical appearance of their mortal remains. So this explains why Sir Thomas looks all handsome and wistful (because he has just died), while Edith’s mom appears all black and creepy (due to her death from the “black cholera” whatever the hell that is) and the dead wives all look all red and gruesome because their bodies have been, I guess, submerged in the the clay vats (which, why? Clay vats? Clearly I am not an expert on clay processing but by no stretch of the imagination can I think why it would require subterranean vats.) But anyway, this is kind of a neat convention. I did wonder why we didn’t see the ghost of Edith’s dad. And of course I wondered many other things, like why the ghost of Enola was cradling the ghost of a dead baby that wasn’t even hers. And for that matter, why do we even have a baby in this story? The baby serves absolutely no purpose in the narrative. I mean, I suppose it could have been used, in some way, to “clue us in” to the possibility that Sir Thomas and Lucille are gettin’ it on, incest-wise … but, no, wait, that would be completely unnecessary BECAUSE NOT ONE SINGLE PERSON, FOR EVEN ONE SECOND, DIDN’T SEE THAT COMING.
There was some interview I read (I can’t be arsed to find it) where Del Toro took the very noble and generous position that he wanted the women in the movie to be the ones who were the rescuers and not the rescuees. Which is great, except that literally every action Edith takes is because some ghost is pointing her there, or warning her, or scaring her so badly that she’s forced to try to escape down a creepy elevator. She never even asks any intelligent questions, like, “Hey Sir Thomas, where the hell do you GO every night when I can’t find you in bed?” or “Why haven’t we actually had sex yet, despite that we have been on an extended honeymoon trip?” or “Seriously? A hole in the fucking roof? And you expect me to LIVE here?”
By the way, what exactly does Edith do all day? Play with the dog? The only time she ever discovers anything seems to be at night, when she’s scared and has ghosts chasing her around. Why isn’t she doing any of her poking around in broad daylight, while Sir Thomas is working on his clay digger thing and Lucille is … oh, what the hell ever, playing the piano in an impassioned way.
By the way, speaking of Sir Thomas … damn. What a mook. If the only way Del Toro can make the female characters “strong” is to make the male characters completely weak and uninteresting … well, blech. It’s sloppy and condescending. And analogous, in an odd way, to how the movie tips its hat to socio-historical realism by casting black actors for all of the American servants (the bathroom attendant and housemaids). Does that depiction comport with the actual reality of the era? Sure. Is it also kind of weird that this is one of the few places the director decides to be extra-realistic in a fantasy movie about a rotting gothic mansion set atop a mountain of bloody red clay? Uh, yeah, kinda.
Oh man, there’s so much more. But I’m losing the will to continue. But let’s hit the highlights. The recordings and the evidence Edith finds about the dead wives. Boy, Sir Thomas and Lucille sure do keep nice neat envelopes full of evidence, don’t they? What a couple of tidy and obliging types they are. And why, precisely, are the gramophone cylinders themselves not locked up? They’re just sitting on a closet shelf? I guess because someone figures that if the gramophone is locked up, it doesn’t matter? But how exactly did this go down? There are, apparently, recordings all the way back to the first wife. OK, so, the phonograph is a toy that the first wife plays with. Fine. Second wife finds it, also decides to play with it? Except somehow the recordings from the first wife are not with the phonograph, but a blank wax cylinder for recording is? Oh … kay. Well, in any event Sir Thomas surely won’t make that mistake with third wife … but wait! I guess he puts away the recordings from wives number 1 and 2, but leaves the phonograph sitting around (again, with the ultra-convenient blank wax cylinders for recording) and Enola finds it and records everything! And then after she’s dead, Sir Thomas collects ALL the recordings, puts them on a shelf in the closet, and locks up the phonograph because … um … oh Jesus, my head hurts. This makes no damn sense at all.
I’m not even going to go into the ultra-convenient injuries at the end (Edith falls from a balcony, is almost dead from poisoning, and yet runs around spry as a frisking colt). My daughter was willing to attribute this superhuman performance to adrenaline. I have my doubts. Also, what did the letter from Milan say? Who was it from? Why were there rusty hoopskirt frames just sitting around in the hallway? Where did all the leaves come from that blew through the hole in the roof if the house was atop a tree-less peak? YOUR GUESS IS AS GOOD AS MINE!
Finally: poor dog. 🙁
Anyway, in closing, let me just say this movie depicts precisely why I never believe anyone who tells me they like my novels. Because seriously, the odds are they are just looking for a 4th wife to abduct to their creepy gothic mansion and slowly murder. Thank you and good night.