Movie review: “Crimson Peak”

Here are some things that other people have said about “Crimson Peak”, Guillermo del Toro’s Gothic horror/romance that’s out right now:

“But you don’t go to a del Toro movie for the story […] or even the characters.” — Peter Howell, Toronto Star

“Like a theme park attraction, it’s a giant, intricate contraption that’s utterly amazing to look at. But ultimately it’s rather a dull ride.” — Steve Tilley, Toronto Sun

“Del Toro builds a tight plot but never develops it […].” –Richard Brody, The New Yorker

Here’s what I have to say about “Crimson Peak”: It’s really a shame that some of the top movie critics in the country are so bamboozled by the artistic use of color that they cannot see a perfectly decent forest/movie for the beautiful, spooky trees within it.

Yes: every frame Guillermo del Toro shoots is a master class in dramatic framing; interior design; costuming. He makes beautiful movies, haunting visual feasts that communicate not just plot but texture, scent, temperature–and yet when faced with all this artistry, the predominant critical reaction seems to be a sulky insistence that he must be doing something wrong. The scales must be balanced! A movie is only great in one area if it’s lacking in another, and Guillermo del Toro’s movies excel in all the feminine-coded arts of decoration, costuming, and set-building, so of course he must not be able to cobble together a decent, manly plot. And so a critical consensus is built: “Crimson Peak” is a pretty, slight bit of visual fluff. Nice to take the little lady to on Halloween. She’ll enjoy the pretty dresses and Tom Hiddleston’s pretty face, but there’s no “there” there.

The only problem with this critical consensus is that it is wrong. Wrong on every single level. Crimson Peak is a lovely ghost story that works just as ghost stories do: you watch with mounting dread as the protagonist nears a peril that you can see, but they cannot. You hope that they will escape, but thrill at the possibility that they won’t. And (spoilers ahead if you care), how is “Precocious innocent seduced into a fraudulent marriage and then trapped in a nightmarish haunted house by a psychopathic dyad of incestuous, murderous siblings who are slowly poisoning her” NOT A PLOT??? Is that an average Tuesday for you? Is that just par for the course for the nation’s critics? Do they discover familial murders caught on wax cylinder every time they clean out the bathroom cabinet? More to the point: did they even watch this movie?

Listen: “Crimson Peak” isn’t a life-changer. It’s not going to give you terrible nightmares or stun you into staggering personal epiphany. I’m not going to set up a false dichotomy where if the movie’s one thing, it absolutely can’t be another (would that the critics had extended it the same courtesy). But what it is, is not what is being written about it. It is a cautionary tale about taking people at face value, whispered by a terrifying, skeletal ghoul who may, in fact, have your best interests at heart. It is a house that is speaking to you in symbols and color and wallpaper and light, being projected at an American critical audience who thinks none of those languages are worth listening to. It is a tree falling in a forest. Try listening.

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