Crimson Peak is why we can’t have nice things.
In the opening scene of Guillermo del Toro’s latest film, as the protagonist whispers in the kind of voice-over that prefaces a clumsy campfire story, a ghost approaches a terrified little girl. It wails: “Beware of Crimson Peak.” In the theater Friday night, I was confused. I believed what I heard her say was “Beware of Clumsy Pete,” and given what I endured for the next two hours, I’m not sure I’m wrong.
You might not want Crimson Peak spoiled for you. Let me put that fear to bed: Nothing you can read about the movie today will make the experience of watching Crimson Peak any less insulting. Unless you happen to be totally enthralled by those teen blog sites with pat observations like “I’d rather feel something than nothing at alllll” or “Art speaks to me in ways no human ever coulddddd” superimposed over pretty scenes of rain falling on a dark road, or some nice trees or whatever.
Before I forget to praise something about this turd, a positive: The set design was dope. The one part of this experience I don’t regret is spending two hours inside a Really Aggressive Wes Anderson Dollhouse. Even the ballrooms are tiny in a very threatening way. It’s the only part of this movie that delivers any of the tension upon which it was sold to audiences.
There is a version of a movie about an incestuous pair of desperate psychopaths, and the young heiress they lure to their creepy ghost palace, which accomplishes something. This is not that movie. This is a movie in which every line of dialogue in the interminable first act can, and should, be followed by a verbal “Get it?” This is a movie in which Tom Hiddleston explains that they call it “Crimson Peak” because minerals in the ground turn the snow red — gotcha, good to go — and ten minutes later the camera lingers on the blood-like seepage in a fresh boot print for eight seconds. Get it?! This is a movie whose sole purpose is to justify its own existence.
And I understand that impulse. I didn’t mind when Decent Popcorn Film Jurassic World tried to do so by talking obliquely about a purchasing public that always wants something bigger, newer. It’s difficult to make movies. No one wants to pay for one. No one wants to pay to see one. But, maybe in the search for a witch to burn, Hollywood (yes, you: Scary, Metonymic Hollywood) should look inward?
Speaking of that first act, if you’re going to spend what feels like 6,000 minutes setting up a mystery and what’s meant to look like a romance, shouldn’t at least one of those things be convincing? If you notice halfway through the first act of your script that the only way to dig this eye-roll inducing mess out of the hole is to have two people fall in love over interpretative waltz while a third party scowls menacingly, that should be the first sign that something needs corrected. Like maybe the scene where the protagonist helpfully intones: “The ghosts in the story are a metaphor for the past.” Thank god she explained. You could also consider cutting the scene where suitor picks up the first page of a story Mia Wasikowsky’s Edith is writing and says “It’s quite good, don’t you think?” Dude, there’s no way you could know.
I’m all about suspended disbelief — I’m at a movie about ghosts — but I cannot tolerate cynical laziness. To drunk-stumble through the setup because you know that we know that the whole premise of this story presupposes that Edith is going to move to the creepy mansion with Tom Hiddleston’s Thomas is unforgivable. You still have to make a fucking movie. If you can’t figure out how to get us there, maybe just start there. But what the hell do I know? I’m not the one who was able to sell this drawer of mismatched spoons to Universal.
A quick aside: To memorialize Bill Simmons — whose project at Grantland was the best place on the internet for four years, I believe that — even if by the end I didn’t read much from him specifically, I’d like to play “Are We Sure He’s Good?” for Guillermo del Toro. He gets a pass for Pan’s Labyrinth from everyone I know, but… Pacific Rim was stompy and pointless, FX’s The Strain is garbage television (a horror show that is neither scary nor compelling, hmmm), and he wrote the screenplay for all three of the Hobbit movies, which were fine I guess, except the last one, which remains the worst movie I’ve ever seen (at least you can laugh at Troll 2). At this point, he’s just a working Hollywoo Director, yeah? Is he just a chill old guy who wants to play with his toys? Do we just accept the maudlin dialogue and unconvincing emotions of his movies because, hey, Pan’s Labyrinth was dope and parts of Mama were scary? WAIT. He neither wrote nor directed Mama. What do we like about this guy?
Forgive me. Back to the matter at hand. Did you want to see a horror movie? Too bad. Did you want to see a competent drama with an interesting twist that I’ve ruined for the version of you that lives in an alternate universe where you can only watch the first half hour of every movie? Too bad. Did you want to watch decent actors having chemistry and delivering lines well? Too bad, unless Jessica Chastain — wonderful in this, when finally given something to do — is the only actor you care about. Like in the whole world. She’s great. Did I say that already?
This was billed to us as a horror film (fuck what you’re trying to tell me, Guillermo). It ended up being a…I don’t know, you tell me. Murder mystery? Romance? To be one of those, wouldn’t the mystery or romance in the movie have to be somehow compelling? This movie, conceptually reliant on the existence of ghosts, marketed as a goddamn horror movie, and released in October, went for scares a total of three times in two hours.
Saturday afternoon, as I was researching for this piece, I found a slew of smug headlines such as “Crimson Peak isn’t a horror movie. It’s a ghost story. Yes, they’re different.” I found the movie everywhere, sometimes sarcastically, rebranded as a Gothic Romance. As a romance, it reads no better. There is more chemistry between Michael and Oscar than between Mia Wasikowska and Tom Hiddelston. The arc of their relationship is coherent only if you’re watching with the sound off. What’s meant, I assume, as an homage to the way Jane Austen-type characters fall so hard, so fast, comes off as a Wayans Brothers parody of the idea of love. Nothing about this movie, except as I said, the set design and Jessica Chastain, feels honest. Or like anyone involved cared.
Crimson Peak feels like a Twilight Zone episode where your punishment for pirating ten years’ worth of media is to watch nothing but relentlessly focus grouped movies. I am not a real journalist, and thus cannot confirm that In a board room in Los Angeles two years ago, this conversation definitely happened:
“What is hot right now?”
“Game of Thrones?”
“Gross, but okay. What else?”
“Loki, from The Avengerz.”
“Wonderful. Oh, what about Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals?”
“Like ten years ago, so, sure? What about Sons of Anarchy?”
“Well the guy from Sons of Anarchy, sure.”
“Yes, wigs, sure.”
“Wigs are wonderful.”
“What about class dynamics, and the struggles of the wealthy to maintain appearances at the cost of their own humanity?”
“Dave are you okay?”
I accept that a movie would need to have the potential for wide appeal in order to get made with the kind of money that breeds competence (or, should). I’m not just out here watching Blue Is The Warmest Color and To The Wonder all day. I accept that #notallmovies released in October are horror movies, even if we’ve been told since June that this is definitely a scary movie. I accept that some of you guys like Tom Hiddleston as an actor, and are out of your minds. And I completely get that movies are really hard to make. What I don’t, can’t get on board with is whatever combination of laziness and incompetence and ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ keeps getting this kind of film made. So fucking poorly.
You pontificate ad infinitum about why we won’t go to the movies anymore. You build boogeymen, like Netflix, the economy, and presumably some perceived dearth of origin stories and reboots. You want to know why we won’t go to the fucking movies? Because of this fucking movie, and movies like it. Because movies can’t stop jerking off over themselves — they don’t need us anymore, I guess. Like the fantasies that inspired the erection that inspired an executive to allow del Toro to make this movie, the idea of Crimson Peak is much more exciting than the real thing.