Edith Cushing, an aspiring young author, has led a life dogged by tragedy. When a mysterious man arrives in Buffalo with his equally enigmatic sister, she falls hopelessly in love and is swept away to his dilapidated estate in rural England. There, she learns that not all is as it seems with the Sharpe siblings… And she may not make it out alive with their secrets.
Words: Lauren Burgess, Subeditor: Jason John
On paper, Crimson Peak has everything going for it. A world-renowned director at the helm, a big budget and a solid cast of talented lead actors, all of which are on the cusp of becoming A-listers. It seemed to many that for Guillermo Del Toro, this would finally be the film that proved his english language productions didn’t need to be based on comics or feature giant fighting robots to be successful. With all the magic, charm and beauty of Pan’s Labyrinth (arguably his greatest triumph both critically and commercially) and the box office draw of Tom Hiddleston, Mia Wasikowska and Jessica Chastain.
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It garnered generally positive reviews from critics and was tipped to be a success. IGN’s Scott Collura called it “a beautifully horrifying experience” and the Guardian’s Mark Kermode announced it to be “one of the year’s most handsomely mounted productions” awarding it 8.5 out of 10 and 4 out of 5 stars respectively. Hardly the scathing reviews you would expect for a film that debuted at number four in the US box office and has been rapidly making its way down the list ever since. It made just $13.1 million in its opening weekend. With a budget of $55 million, before any distribution and promotional costs are taken into account, it seems unlikely that Crimson Peak will be making much of a profit. To put that in perspective, Columbia Pictures’ family friendly Goosebumps, starring Jack Black, opened to $23.5 million. The results are disappointing to say the least.
So what went wrong? The core issue was that Crimson Peak didn’t seem to know what genre it wanted to belong to. Too gory for audiences looking for a Wuthering Heights-style romance and far too many candlelit waltzes (yes, one is too many) and wistful glances for lovers of traditional horror. The trailers sold it as a fairly straight ghost story. Supernatural horror has had a serious revival over the past few years, thanks to the Paranormal Activity franchise and 2013’s surprise runaway success The Conjuring. It seemed as though this would fall in the same vein, but with the bonus of stark, lonely moors in turn of the century England serving as a backdrop. We came in expecting the usual spooky ghouls and murderous demons and got the plot of Edith’s rejected novel, “not a ghost story, a story with ghosts in it”. It seems ironic that she so lamented including the romantic subplot that her editor insisted on when horror fans will probably be feeling the same way after seeing Crimson Peak.
Undeniably, the best thing about the film is the set. The contrast between the house in Buffalo, all warm oranges and smooth, worn wood, and the rambling estate of Allerdale Hall is stunning. When we’re first shown the Sharpe siblings’ home, through the naive and hopeful eyes of young bride Edith, it leers out of the screen; dark, imposing and run-down beyond repair. This house is the greatest character of the film, outperforming Wasikowska and Hiddleston by miles. It breathes, sucking air through the chimneys and howling as it does. And it even bleeds – red clay seeps incessantly through the walls and leaches up through sagging, rotten floorboards. With a seemingly endless maze of corridors and sumptuously decorated rooms, it aches to be explored. Unfortunately, a beautiful set does not make a brilliant film. It’s like Tyra Banks screeching at a doe-eyed wannabe model to “stop relying on pretty” (possibly scarier than Crimson Peak) – it just can’t make up for the predictable story and lacklustre script. The fear is that Del Toro is going the same way as Tim Burton, creating movies that are instantly recognisable as their work at the expense of a compelling story. It’s a matter of style over substance – and it’s clear which of these the film prioritised.
Crimson Peak in SFX Magazine. pic.twitter.com/zLv9I4jzqY
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This issue of style is demonstrated in Del Toro’s use of CGI. Much like in 2013’s Mama which Del Toro produced, they created some fantastic makeup and costuming for the supernatural characters of the film and then totally overshadowed them with effects added in post production. The style of the ghosts is in keeping with Del Toro’s signature – short jerky motions and bearing twisted, exaggerated features like long dark-tipped fingers and gaping mouths. It’s scary in a way that doesn’t need loud noises and sudden slamming doors to have viewers feeling on edge. Unfortunately, the creepiness is lost by covering them in excessive wisps of red vapour. Even the omnipresent red clay falls victim to an over zealous special effects team. The unconvincing sludgy drips add nothing to the film visually and only serve as an awkward distraction.
It’s likely that if Crimson Peak had been made earlier it would have found its place in the market more easily and would have felt less predictable. The original script was written in 2006, immediately after the release of Pan’s Labyrinth. The script went through numerous rewrites over the years, being tweaked again when Benedict Cumberbatch and Emma Stone, the actors originally attached to the lead roles, pulled out. It’s difficult to say if the cast change would have had a dramatic effect on the film’s reception but it’s certainly possible that the popularity of Cumberbatch and Stone would have brought in more viewers.
It really is hard out there right now for original scripts. So many of the films that have excelled commercially in the past few years have an already established fan base, be it from best-selling books, comics or older films that are being revitalised for modern audiences. Just look at Mad Max: Fury Road or Jurassic World for evidence. It’s even harder for films that come without a family friendly rating. It wouldn’t have been difficult to compromise by leaving out some of the gorier violence (Del Toro really has a thing for smashing faces) and getting a 12A rating.
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Perhaps Crimson Peak will be able to make up some of its losses in the international market and through Blu-Ray and DVD sales. Although it seems far more likely that it won’t be getting a lot of views until it hits Netflix. It’s a shame to call it a total flop, it’s still a beautiful film with an eerie score and solid performances. If you can sit and watch Crimson Peak as a piece of cinematic art you won’t be disappointed. For anything more, look elsewhere.
The Good: Beautiful set, good score, good acting.
The Bad: Lack of originality, script needs sharpening.