crimson peak (2015)

Guillermo del Toro is an auteur who's never quite congealed - by that I mean he's very susceptible to making films with such a personally distinctive mark that it becomes a calling card, one that could, at any moment, fall into self-parody (especially the more budget gets thrown his way). The danger is that his mark, much like Tim Burton, is more aesthetic than thematic, is more about superficial similarities between his films than a strong thread of shared explorations. This makes him less interesting for cinephiles to academically study and more interesting to t-shirt manufacturers and teenagers. The best thing that I can say about Crimson Peak is that it points to a healthy refusal to becomes THAT director. It's a film with a lot going for it that falls short of its own potential by missing out on a clearly developed mantra. What more is Crimson Peaks about than a few well placed appeals to our senses? This plate of cinematic charcuterie has some great samples, but it's not exactly a prepared dish. Something is missing from Crimson Peak, like a ghost of a film without a beating heart. It's gothic romance at its very best, as del Toro is a self-confessed fanatic of the genre, but Wuthering Heights and its ilk point to a deep unsettling part of life, the concept of something that lasts forever. The idea of death is terrifying in its mystery, yet the concept of other people ending is comforting. We wish to see our loved ones again, but would hate to find them creeping up from under our bed at night. Forever is a horrible concept to a finite human being. The supernatural is terrifying because we can never understand it, can never best it, it is playing outside of our rulebook. Everything that governs our lives is of no concern to specters and spirits, and its our relationship to them, what they may mean for us that is the source if all passion and romance and terror involved with this genre. Fertile ground, but del Toro seems content to simply tiptoe through like a respectful onlooker, always on the outside, admiring. 

Crimson Peak begins promisingly, but soon sheds its deft portrayal of gentlemen and ladies in exchange for a sinister plot. Del Toro, in his defense, I suppose, shares the same juvenile and ultimately distracting sense of cinematic humor with Kubrick, whereby a scene may be working to serve his purposes and in an almost embarrassed self-aware moment will add a bit of foolery to the mix, some funny face or goofy moment, almost not wanting the prospects of what he films to become realized in their fullest sense. I'd attribute this more to a director who sees both sides of life, who views the beauty and the farce in full view at once, and who wishes to communicate it. Del Toro, however, has never been able to capture the Felliniesque in a way that feels on the mark, though. From his earliest film (that I've seen), Cronos, to Crimson Peak, I see a director who comes closer and closer to realizing his masterpiece, but his films come off like paperback novels, each more comfortable to be dime-store and never wishing for a grandiose statement. He may be better off this way. He's a director whose ingredients and elements always seem to play far better than any of the combinations, it reminds of the old adage that the director should never step foot on set and should instead maintain his vision through the lens. The sets, costumes, creatures and such are all brilliant works in their own rights, but the film never assembles them into anything with impact. Something is missing in a film like this, some piece of general construction. The reveals come too little too late, the characters cooly remain aloof of one another in many ways, we're shown a great deal of mystery and intrigue that seems to point to a much more complex plot beneath the surface, what is hiding in the dark corners of the room? What is hiding in those rooms we can't see? More of the same, sorry to say, and the film plods along toward its inevitable curtain. This is, coincidentally, where it shines the most. The film's last act sidesteps all of the possible trite avenues and becomes something of its own beast by the conclusion. 

For all of its uninspiring (not uninspired) bits, this is where we see the true heart of the matter, Crimson Peak is a film that knows exactly what it doesn't want to be, and it's an appealing bit of 'not like all the rest' from the outside looking in. Sit through its runtime, however, and it becomes painfully clear that the mystery adds up to a lot of predictability. Not unwelcome, though, since the alternatives of shrieking ghouls and jump-scares and the all too familiar deus ex machina moments would have driven this into the ground very quickly. By the film's conclusion we've been properly through a ghoulish story of intrigue, though the strengths of gothic horror and romance have not been entirely played to. The film could easily have been a dark and eerie memento mori, but its adherence to conventional thriller logic has it stuck as something that it, frankly, is not. Like all dime store publications, it has a need to be exactly the kind of pop entertainment that the audience believes it will get, while never truly diving into the themes that are so clearly in the mind of the creator, but can never get out and onto the page. The strict need to entertain and to be a bit of a faux horror film drag it into a realm where it should not tread and instead should have focused far more on its strong suits. The half-baked motivations and actions of our antagonists don't do much to help matters. That beautiful final set piece, the red clay under the falling snow, there was so much potential in the look of the scenes, the overall stages that have been set. Sadly, the film is never able to rise above intrigue and point us toward the better film that lurks outside of frame.