The best piece of advice I ever got about writing film criticism was this: “Don’t write about what the film isn’t.” Going for long tangents about What Could Have Been doesn’t do any of us any good. Let’s talk about what the film actually is and go from there. But there are times when I ignore that advice, because it’s important to talk about what a film isn’t in order to understand what it is.
Case in point: Crimson Peak. I try not to watch trailers, but I saw the preview for Guillermo del Toro’s latest numerous times before getting into the theater. When he posted that trailer to Flixist, Matthew Razak said, “Have we seen the whole movie now?” And I felt that way too. I was convinced that I knew exactly what Crimson Peak was going to be about and what the big twist was going to be.
But I was wrong, because the movie that Crimson Peak‘s trailer telegraphed bears little resemblance to the actual film itself – for better and for worse.
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Release Date: October 16, 2015
Here is a brief synopsis of the movie I thought I was going to see: Blonde girl falls in love with Tom Hiddleston (and, I mean, who wouldn’t?), who lives in a creepy haunted house with creepy ghosts. All kinds of strange things happen, and ultimately we find out that Tom Hiddleston and his creepy sister are actually dead/supposed to be dead but is being kept alive by this house and are confined by these ghosts or something. Terror ensues and probably bloodshed also. Based on the way the trailer is edited, all of this is crystal clear. Spoiler alert.
I got a few things right: blonde girl, Tom Hiddleston, creepy ghosts, bloodshed. So… the imagery. I was able to see those four things and think, “Yes. I recognize that.” But the actual narrative? Not even close. And I tell you all of this because there’s a fairly decent chance you are expecting the same thing. And even if you weren’t expecting that, you were likely expecting a scary ghost story about scary ghosts. And once again you will be wrong. Because it’s not a ghost story. It’s a story with ghosts in it.
It’s kinda funny, really, because something like ten minutes in, Crimson Peak tells you exactly what it’s going to be. You see, Edith is a would-be novelist. She says that she wants to be the next Mary Shelley. She shows her manuscript to someone, who asks about the ghosts. She says it’s not a ghost story; it’s a story with ghosts; the ghosts are a metaphor. He tells her it needs a love story.
And so that’s what we really get: a love story with ghosts that are a metaphor.
If that sounds good to you, then you may well enjoy Crimson Peak. If it doesn’t, you should skip it. I found myself somewhere in between. The narrative is pretty flat and the characters kinda bland, but I will admit that there was an upside to the false marketing: I legitimately didn’t know what was coming next. The reality is both more and less interesting than what I was expecting, but the surprise in and of itself is… something. It’s certainly not amazing, but it’s something.
It’s worth noting here that the audience laughed a number of times during my screening. At least a half dozen moments elicited not just one or two chuckles but actual laughter. I’ve discussed this with a couple of others who’ve seen it, and though some people think those laughs were intentional I don’t. If I had been watching it on my own, I would have laughed… once? It was all very serious, even things that were fairly easy to laugh at. There’s no humor in the whole thing, and while that can be funny in and of itself, there’s no hint here that it’s anything but serious. It’s just drama all the damn time. It’s hard to know actual intent without asking, but I’ll say this: If it was supposed to be funny, it half-succeeded at best. You need to surrender to the melodrama.
Or, you can just pay attention to the visuals. Because while I can rip apart the film’s concept and execution, its production design is unimpeachable. This is a gorgeous movie through and through (with the exception of a single outdoor scene early on in a sunny park that has some seriously weird coloring choices; also, some of the ghosts are a bit too CG for my liking). As soon as they reach Crimson Peak itself, you’re in for nothing but amazing visual after amazing visual. And it’s really this that kept the film going for me. I was lukewarm at best on pretty much everything that the film contains, but holy cow do I love the way it looks. That adds at least 10 points to my final score and brings it from a “meh” to “ya know, consider it.”
Just be sure to temper your expectations.