Hey. There are some spoilers over here.
“It’s not so much a ghost story. It’s a story with a ghost in it,” I quoted in unison with every snarky film reviewer across the planet. That is a quote from Guillermo del Toro’s latest film, Crimson Peak, taken from a scene in which Mia Wasikowska’s character Edith is going over her novel manuscript with a publisher. It is also a perfect way to describe the film, which is more of a legal drama or a romance than the spooky Victorian ghost story that we saw in the trailers. While I could probably talk in circles for hours about how it wasn’t the movie it was advertised to be, I would rather talk about something a bit more concrete and substantial that I felt was a problem with the film.
In my opinion, the strongest aspect of Crimson Peak, like most del Toro films, is the visual. The monster design, visual effects, and production design are all stellar, as anybody familiar with del Toro’s worm has come to expect. While I loved the idea of the setting, a secluded manor in the English countryside that sits atop a dilapidated clay mine, and the way it looked, something about it bothered me. Why is the mine there? Obviously to mine things if you want to be a smart-ass, or to give a reason for the Sharpes to have to steal money to steal money in their worldwide insurance scam (I told you it was a legal drama) if you want to give a real answer. It is true that it makes sense in the logic of the film that the Sharpe siblings would need money to get the mine up and running, giving them a (tenuous) motivation for the things they do. But why is it a mine? Why isn’t it a plantation or an old hotel or a factory? Because of the spooky red snow effect.
There is really no discernible plot or thematic reason for the mine existing besides being a money sink. There are no vengeful souls of mistreated miners, government officials trying to shut down the mine due to its unsafe condition, or pollution causing an ancient earth god to punish the Sharpes. While those plot beats may be quite cliche, they are inherent to a dilapidated mine. Aside from being a reason for the Sharpes to take the money, the red clay mine in Crimson Peak exists at the service of the visuals. The red snow, the blood colored water in the bathtub, the vats of clay and clay seeping through the floorboards.
Now, there isn’t anything wrong with an interesting setting inspiring neat visual effects. The Overlook Hotel from The Shining’s blood filled elevator is a great example and is also comparable to the effect in Crimson Peak. While they are similar effects visually, they are both blood or bloodlike liquids coming from beneath the earth, there is one fundamental difference; the Overlook inspired the interesting effect, Crimson Peak’s red clay mine was inspired by the interesting effect.
Although I love every other work by del Toro, this method of storytelling comes across as lazy and drew me out of the film. The Shining would not work in any other setting; the snowed-in hotel causes (or brings to the surface) Jack’s madness and the building’s construction desecrating an ancient burial ground leads to angry spirits haunting the Torrences. Lucille is insane because she is insane and the ghosts in Crimson Peak were people killed by a meat cleaver and cholera. The exact same story could’ve been told in pretty much any setting in pretty much any time period, there is nothing in the story that gives any relevance or necessity to the setting.
While I felt that there were many other fundamental problems with Crimson Peak’s, most of them didn’t merit much discussion. The ending was anti-climactic and cliche (that’s all that I can say about that), Charlie Hunham’s character could be removed with little consequence to the film (I wouldn’t want to hurt darling, sweet Charlie), and the film that was released was entirely different than the one in the trailers (I just talked about that last week, guys), but this topic interests and worries me much more. Del Toro has always been a great visual storyteller, but the visuals in his other films only enhanced the narrative. The visuals of Crimson Peak, while certainly beautiful, felt like a substitution for narrative substance. Although not every film needs to be thick on plot, see Mad Max: Fury Road and Gravity for examples, films are first and foremost a medium for storytelling, and the story should never get lost beneath the spectacle.