Film Review: Crimson Peak
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Release date: October 2015
Plot summary: 10-year-old Edith Cushing, who didn't get to properly say goodbye to her mother because of the closed casket, is visited at night by her ghost. The monster warns her about "Crimson Peak". 14 years later, the now would-be novelist encounters a charming English baronet, Sir Thomas Sharpe. Although her father does not sanction the match, his sudden death - murder - removes any obstacle. Edith, Thomas - and his sister Lucille - thus leave America together to start their new life in the family manor in England. But her mother is not the only ghost Edith is bound to encounter in her life...
As I am supposed to be working on my Master's dissertation - about Jane Austen and Ann Radcliffe - I found myself, of late, doing my best to avoid the subject almost entirely and finding always new ways of culturally entertaining myself instead of actually reading the books... This led me to discover - and incidentally become a huge fan of - Tom Hiddleston (a long review of the Thor series is coming soon(er or later)). Browsing through his filmography, I discovered that he had actually taken inspiration from The Mysteries of Udolpho (the supposed topic of my dissertation) and other gothic romances for his character in Crimson Peak. That was, then, the perfect excuse for me to watch this hugely handsome talented actor while somehow documenting *cough cough* the atmosphere of gothic romances.
Yet, I must say, I was rather disappointed. I saw that the reviews of the film were quite positive in general, and that Stephen King himself called the film "gorgeous and just fucking terrifying".
Now, the thing is that I know nothing about horror films, as I have hardly watched any in my life - except for one or two Halloween nights at a friend's as a teenager - so my opinion is that of a rather naïve neophyte: I don't know about the established codes of the genre, its traditions and the like. Still, as a member of the film's audience, I feel entitled to some kind of opinion.
It should also be noted that although I have been reading a lot about Gothic novels in the past few days, I have actually read none yet - The Mysteries of Udolpho is waiting on my bedside table...
My overall impression of the film is that it could have been really great, but it basically isn't.
So first things first, let's have a look at what's actually good in the film: the house and Tom Hiddleston . I mean, the house is just a perfect setting for such a gothic romance: it is very old, totally remote, falling to ruins, and really too large to be comfortably inhabited by only three people. It is the kind of house which would drive anyone mad, what with the howls of the wind, the cracks, the strange noises, the shadows in every corner and such.
Then, there's Tom Hiddleston. I know I can't help being a little partial here, but he is a great actor. And I thought he played Sir Sharpe's character very well, allowing us to glimpse at the different sides of his personality: on the one hand, he is a charming young man, full of life and energy, he is an inventor, and he seems to sincerely love, or at least warm up to Edith. But there's another side to this coin: quite soon in the film, we learn that something in his past makes him rather unsuitable for Edith - although we don't know what it is yet - and this is confirmed by his beeing obviously involved in some sort of plot or scheme with his sister. And to be honest, it is his character - or Hiddleston's performance of him - that made me watch the film until the end: I was genuinely curious as to see how this character would eventually develop.
Aside from that, I did not care much for the film. I believe the most obvious reason was: the ghosts. I don't understand why there are so many - there aren't actually that many but they are still too many for me - ghosts/monsters and why they had to be so ugly:
Again, I am not really into horror films, so maybe I'm missing something important here, but isn't it supposed to be freakier when you don't actually see the monsters straight from the beginning? Besides, what with the beautiful yet scary enough setting, wouldn't it have been easy and way freakier to create a scary (yep, I ran out of adjectives pretty quickly) atmosphere? What's more, I did find the monsters frightening enough and I think that, were I Edith, I would probably have died of shock at the mere encounter of one of them, especially in such a place, but the problem is that she is not afraid. Well, she is a little scared, sometimes, but since she saw her first ghost at the age of 10, she already knows they exist, so most of the time, she stays calm and doesn't scream or run... Which means that in most of the scary scenes, I was not able to identify with her - yet the supposedly fragile and trapped heroine - because I would have been freakin' freaking out and she was not!
So the monsters are ugly - why not just elegant yet scary shadowy ghosts? - and the heroine waaay to calm. In addition to that, I found the plot rather clumsy. As Edith starts to think that something is amiss, we turn to the detective phase of the gothic romance, but she finds clues rather quickly and I found some of them a little hairpulled. I also found there were inconsistencies in the story in general - a servant's greeting suggests that Sir Sharpe has been married for a while but that the man has not yet seen his wife, which suggests that she never came to the manor, yet her dog is still there; likewise, Edith receives a letter addressed to the former Lady Sharpe, so how could the man not know her? And also, what is the matter with Lucille's ring? Does it do anything at all or is it just a piece of family jewelry?...
Then, there's the whole American subplot - Edith's former friends finding out about the Sharpes' secrets and coming to rescue her - : how does it help to create a claustrophobic atmosphere to give us deep breaths of fresh air every now and then? Of course, this subplot gives us clues and answers to understand what is really at stake in the manor, but why couldn't these elements be found by Edith in the course of her own investigation? Why should she need an external rescuer? After all, she can see ghosts and still remain calm, isn't she freaking badass? Well, not really, apparently... (I also heard this kind of criticism about the film Silent Hill for example: whereas the main action, based on the eponymous video game, takes place in Silent Hill, the producers added another character to the story (because it lacked a strong male lead character HAHA): the heroine's husband, outside in the real world, looks for her in normal non-creepy American places, which results in taking the audience out of the creepy plot in the creepy place with the creepy monsters and thus ruining the film's atmosphere.) I also did not understand why we are made privy to the Sharpe's bad side so early in the film. This makes us more suspicious than the lead feminine character, so I think it really limits the identification process. The film thus does not use internal focalisation in its narration and I think it's really a shame because, in my opinion, THAT's the basis of and most important factor in creating fear in this kind of film: if you show a character who is afraid of something and you are led to identify with this character and you only know what the character knows, then, you naturally become afraid for the character as you watch him/her move, but also as if you were moving in such an environment. And by the way, why is Edith a writer? How is this relevant at all in the story? It could have been an interesting fact, helping her think her way through as in a novel or on the contrary, making her go mad because she can't tell what's real and what's not... but it just isn't.
And finally, there's the final scene, after all the masks have fallen: I won't spoil the end of the film here, but let's just say that there's some blood, some running, some fighting... and yet, I didn't care about it because I was bored and this was not the type of scene - or ending, for that matter - that I was expecting and wanted to see... The scene clearly didn't work for me and nor did the resolution of the plot.
To sum up, I was very disappointed in the film because I found the rhythm of the action, part of the lines and acting, as well as the editing poorly handled, I didn't identify much with the main character, and I didn't like the end nor understood some elements of the plot/setting: why does the camera focus on the ring while it actually does nothing in the film? Why do the photographs and the servant's greetings somehow suggest that Thomas and Lucille may be older than they look, perhaps long dead, while they are not? So is the manservant part of their plot? Obviously not... Why doesn't Edith wonder more where her husband is at night? And, to finish with, I didn't care for nor understood all the symbolicism that was very obviously out there to be seen: I understood the metaphor of the moths eating butterflies - *spoiler on* the Sharpes eating off young, innocent and rich spouses *spoiler off*, but what's with all the red clay, and the f*cking family ring? Is it just the family wedding ring? So does it just stand for the pseudo-importance of matrimony and husband-wife relationships? And why does Edith see ghosts and why does Lucille see one too at the end? Did Thomas and Lucille know that there were freaking red monsters in their house?
So, had there been less red monsters and one or two actual ghosts instead, had the heroine been a little less stoic, had the action been centered only on the claustrophobic mansion, had there been no hints at there being more than just a creepy family history - or at least, that's how I saw it - and had the editing been better, yes, I believe Crimson Peak would have been a terrific and horrific film. I know it is a topos of Gothic romances such as The Mysteries of Udolpho to hint at supernatural phenomena only to explain later that it was much more down-to-earth a phenomenon than we thought, but the ghosts f*cking exist in the film so why make us think that there's magic at work in the plot where there actually isn't? I see no point in that, except disappointing me... Moreover, I did see, 12 years ago, another film by del Toro, Pan's Labyrinth, and I remember liking it much better than Crimson Peak but expressing, to some extent, the same criticism as here: what's with all the monsters??
Tags : gothic, England, film, USA
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