Film

Review: Guillermo Del Toro’s ‘Crimson Peak’ Is The Cinematic Equivalent Of Bad Sex

So much potential for a climax, squandered.

At the start of this year, I was looking forward to this film: “I can’t wait to embarrass myself in the cinema with terrified screams,” I wrote. But Crimson Peak turns out not to be very terrifying. Indeed, it’s strange how insubstantial it is; how hollow, how… unsatisfying.

Recently I’ve been reading a blog of anonymous essays by women writing about orgasm, especially about the lovers who don’t know how to get them there. Perhaps that’s why it strikes me that Crimson Peak is the cinematic equivalent of bad sex. It teases something abject and overwrought, but is ultimately very polite and predictable, failing to offer viewers any true release in any of the time-honoured ways of cinema: hairpin plot twists, shocking gore, psychological tension or melodramatic emotion.

Sex is often thematically crucial to horror movies, from Regan using a crucifix as a dildo in The Exorcist, to that infamous opening sequence of Don’t Look Now. The act transgresses boundaries: it’s sacred and profane, corporeal and psychological, penetrative and enveloping, empathetic and alienating. Everywhere in horror, the little death and the big death intertwine: serial killers are sexual fetishists in films from Psycho to Maniac; Hellraiser is a BDSM parable; Alien and Species play on rape fears; Carrie and It Follows are coming-of-age stories; and only the virginal Final Girl survives a slasher.

Academic film criticism has used Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytic theory to describe both cinema and its audiences. I can take or leave endless talk of the phallus, but a more interesting Lacanian idea is jouissance. This term for an extreme, inexplicable and transgressive pleasure can apply both to orgasm and to the way we experience the scares and shocks of horror movies.

As a viewer, it’s tremendously frustrating that del Toro gestures to a huge, juicy cinematic vocabulary of jouissance, and yet he just fumbles it. How?

All Flirtation And No Follow-Through

In the opening shot – from which the story unfolds in flashback – Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) appears in a snowy white landscape, with loose blonde hair and pale skin, wearing a diaphanous white gown with huge puffed sleeves. “Ghosts are real,” she says – and she looks like a ghost herself. Is she narrating from beyond the grave?

It’s only the first of many tantalising ideas the film raises and then fails to explore. Crimson Peak is oddly uninterested in who its ghosts are and what they intend. They mainly appear in the jump-scare manner of a ghost train amusement ride: as skeletal wraiths trailing tatters of CGI ectoplasm. The spookiest spectre is Edith’s dead mother – mainly because of the genuine horror implied by one’s beloved parent manifesting as a crinoline-clad skeleton hissing malevolently, “Beware of Crimson Peak…”

Surely mama could have saved Edith a lot of trouble by referring to brooding English baronet Thomas Sharpe’s (Tom Hiddleston) isolated family mansion by its real name, Allerdale Hall. But then the ghosts are incidental to what turns out to be a fairly straightforward Bluebeard story.

In upstate New York, Edith aspires to write horror fiction, idolising not Jane Austen but Mary Shelley. While her childhood friend Dr Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam) has long held a torch for Edith, Thomas is holding a pitchfork. As he sweeps Edith away from her protective tycoon dad (Jim Beaver), Thomas’s sister Lady Lucille (Jessica Chastain) harbours resentments that are only partly sublimated in her soulful piano playing. But they’re pretty obvious if you’ve seen Game of Thrones.

These characters are like colouring books for erotic fanfic: they’re so paper-thin, cast in such obvious erotic roles, that they only become interesting once you fill them with your own imagination. All the actors struggle, although Chastain seems especially lost.

This is a narrative problem, not a craft problem, because the film looks fantastic. There’s a lovely tonal shift between the prosperous yellows, pinks and browns of Gilded Age America and the chilly, decaying, aristocratic blues, reds and greys of England, which ensures that the Sharpes look out of place in Edith’s home, and Edith in theirs. Costume designer Kate Hawley (Edge of Tomorrow, Pacific Rim, the forthcoming Suicide Squad) exaggerates puffed 1890s-style leg o’mutton sleeves to make Edith resemble a butterfly – a motif echoed in production designer Tom Sanders’ (Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Braveheart, Red Riding Hood) ornate interiors.

Crimson-Peak-Tom-Mia

Allerdale Hall is a palimpsest of gothic country houses: Wuthering Heights, Manderley from Rebecca, and even the goblin-infested home from del Toro’s 2010 reimagining of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. However, Sanders offers the film’s most striking and original image: the house is gradually sinking into the bright blood-red clay on which the Sharpe mining fortune was built, which stains the surrounding snow red, oozing ominously between floorboards and down walls.

Yet the film squanders even this, ironically refusing to mine the thrilling potential of a steam-powered mining machine Thomas develops. Like everything else in Crimson Peak, the terrible Allerdale clay is all show.

Guillermo Can’t Take You Past The ‘Crimson Plateau’

Much as vanilla sex can be delicious, there’s nothing wrong with a film that works entirely within timeworn tropes — as long as the clichés are put to strategic use. Just look at Francis Ford Coppola’s deliriously artificial Victoriana in Dracula, or even the hormonal perversity that bubbles to the surface in YA movies. But Crimson Peak seems frightened to let go and become the lurid giallo it secretly yearns to be.

Edith and Thomas’s ballroom waltz scene, for instance, can’t hold a candle to the repressed eroticism in Anna Karenina or The Age of Innocence. Nor does the film go on to explore the metaphorical potential of candles, even though Edith is never without a candelabrum during the anxious exploration of her spooky new home.

The funny thing about Crimson Peak’s timidity is that many assumed we were in bolder hands. Guillermo del Toro is still synonymous with The Devil’s Backbone (2001), Hellboy (2004) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). He’s known for a ‘dark’ mood, for elaborate supernatural or genetically engineered creatures, and for a certain playful verve.

But del Toro has never really been interested in dramatising sex. While Hellboy (Ron Perlman) has a girlfriend (Liz, played by Selma Blair), they’re more like buddies; and Pacific Rim is a romance without sex. This makes del Toro an odd choice to direct a traditional romance.

“I’m not like a fish in the water, you know?” he said in an on-set interview last year. “[Crimson Peak is] not by any means a Nymphomaniac with ghosts. There’s very tame content for anyone’s standards, but for me, it’s a big deal.”

 

We’ve probably all had a sex partner do something weird that killed the mood. And Crimson Peak makes some strange choices. In the film’s key love scene, Thomas passionately kisses Edith’s thigh; she then pulls down his trousers to reveal the Hiddlesbum, while she remains shrouded in her enormous pale gown. A scene in which Lucille freaks out over scrambled eggs is just one of many other moments that veer uneasily into camp and away again; and the film is peppered with shots of shocking, incongruously explicit gore.

These moments aren’t jouissant because they aren’t earned. They don’t create a sense of narrative climax; this film just flounders helplessly in its own elaborate universe.

Leaving the cinema afterwards felt like sneaking out of someone’s house at 5am with your shoes in your hands.

Crimson Peak is in cinemas now.

Mel Campbell is a freelance journalist and cultural critic. She blogs on style, history and culture at Footpath Zeitgeist and tweets at@incrediblemelk.