It can be a fascinating thing when a very talented artist creates something genuinely and uninhibitedly bad. Watching such imaginative potential being so spectacularly misdirected can be perversely entertaining, even while it is also, of course, saddening and eventually tiresome. Guillermo del Toro is a man with an immensely fertile visual imagination: this is a fact that only those who are thoroughly without imagination themselves could sincerely deny. He is also, we know, a screenwriter and director capable of staggering originality and power. We know this because he made the enduringly mighty Pan’s Labyrinth, which is not a subtle film, but which interweaves its bold strokes of horror, tragedy, and enchantment with perfect balance and gut-wrenching immediacy. And yet with the arrival of Crimson Peak, it is hard to resist the terrible suspicion that this might have been an unrepeatable success. The audience with whom I saw Crimson Peak spent much of it in giggles and some of it in outright laughter. We were lucky that the film is extravagant enough to be enjoyable as an accidental comedy, because we certainly weren’t going to find it enjoyable as the Gothic horror-romance that it’s intended to be.
In Crimson Peak, Edith (Mia Wasikowska), an innocent young lady from a rich American family, is courted by a suave English aristocrat, Thomas (Tom Hiddleston). Thomas is accompanied everywhere by his sister Lucille, who is clearly meant to be the menacing presence lurking at the heart of this story, but who is portrayed with such bug-eyed melodrama by Jessica Chastain that she comes across as merely silly. Thomas and Lucille, we become aware, have something dark and unwholesome planned for Edith. Eventually he marries her, and they take her back to their ancestral home in England. Here the film enters full Gothic mode: the house is an enormous, creaking, shadowy, mouldy old mansion, and nobody gets any prizes for guessing that it’s thoroughly haunted. It also has a massive hole in the roof. This allows rain and snow to drift atmospherically around the characters during scenes of dramatic confrontation. But really, one has to wonder why there’s a massive hole in the roof.
Practical details like this are, sadly, the kind of thing you find yourself noticing far too often in this film. That’s because it’s the kind of ill-thought-out movie that puts impressive moments ahead of coherent plotting or logical world-building, and then fails to reconcile the two. So there are plenty of sumptuous views of splendidly decayed hallways, and plenty of lingering shots of red-soaked apparitions in creepy poses. But it’s hard to appreciate the artistic design when you’re wondering why Edith insists on wandering the house alone at night again, or why she leaves the door open when she’s in the bath, or why Thomas and Lucille have left incriminating evidence lying around where she can easily find it. Such mundane inadequacies are what we fixate on when a movie fails to transport us; and Crimson Peak is so clumsy that we soon realise we are not going to be transported.
In the midst of all this, del Toro manages to scare us for passing moments in the cheapest possible way, by having frightening things jump out at us accompanied by sudden blares of music. But the broader effort to establish an atmosphere of dread falls quite flat, because it is handled with such portentous excess. The house is built on red clay, and in a geologically questionable twist, this has the effect of turning all the snow to crimson. It also allows del Toro to give us troughs of red sludge in the basement, and blood-red water gushing out of all the taps. This kind of blatant disregard of nuance has a place in some horror, but it only works if it is handled with extraordinary deftness. Del Toro, sadly, seems oblivious to the obviousness of what he is doing. It is depressing, but now plausible, to imagine him as a second M. Night Shyamalan, each of his films met with lower expectations than the last, as the memory of his one great triumph is slowly clouded over.
An edited version of this article appeared in The Oxford Student on 5 November 2015.