I got a good laugh the other day when I was scrolling through Netflix’s endless list of categories and saw that they had listed Congo in their “movies based on books” section. Now I am fully aware that Congo is, in fact, based on a book. (Hell, I’m pretty sure I even read Michael Crichton’s novel when I was in middle school.) However, I had to laugh when I saw that because most people equate "books" with "literature" and Congo is not even close to literature - it is a really cheesy thriller about killer apes that is overflowing with Taco Bell product placement. So, yes, technically Congo is “based on a book” - but saying that is still kind of disingenuous.
A similar semi-bait and switch is at play with Crimson Peak, which was advertised as a horror movie about ghosts. Now, that’s certainly justifiable – after all, there are quite a few phantoms on display over the film's two hour run time. In fact, Crimson Peak begins and ends with ghost sightings: the first scene features a plucky young woman named Edith Cushing arriving home after her mother’s funeral only to encounter the elder Cushing’s spirit in the upstairs hallway. As for the last scene – well, I don’t want to spoil it, but let’s just say that one unlikeable character gets the afterlife that they deserve.
However, Crimson Peak is not really a ghost story because the undead do nothing to motivate the plot. In fact, you could remove them entirely without changing the structure of the story; they function more as metaphors than they do as characters.
No, at its heart Crimson Peak is actually a Gothic romance set at the turn of the 20th century. You see, Edith is the daughter of a wealthy Buffalo businessman, which means that she’s a juicy target for a down-on-his-luck aristocrat named Thomas Sharpe who needs a quick infusion of cash so he can build a new excavator that would help return his mining properties to their former glory. The audience distrusts Thomas the instant they see him, and they like his sister Lucille even less; the Sharpe siblings are obviously the real villains and the tension of the story comes from trying to figure out what exactly they plan to do to poor Edith once they’ve ensnared her in their spiderweb.
This unfortunately means that there isn’t much tension in the story, because you don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to see through the Sharpes’ exceedingly simple plan, which basically boils down to “let’s marry this rube then murder her for her money.” And that regrettable lack of tension is a big reason why Crimson Peak’s unwillingness to commit to a single genre is so problematic: it is easy to forgive a period piece for being predictable (after all, it is easy to predict things that have already happened), but a horror story – well, that needs to offer up surprises in addition to splendor in order to be effective.
I suppose someone could be scared by some of Crimson Peak’s specters, but that person would have to be very gullible – the ghosts appear on such a predictable schedule that they might as well be cuckoo birds in a cuckoo clock. Furthermore, they never really threaten Edith; they just kind of point in her direction with their bony fingers. As someone who isn’t afraid of apparitions I never found them to be particularly spooky, although I could appreciate that they were well done as far as CGI monsters go.
In contrast, Crimson Peak really excels as a period piece because Director Guillermo Del Toro has always had a great eye and the antiquated setting really allows him to indulge his talent for visual opulence. All the hair, the costumes, and the make up are so gorgeous that I’m sure that this will be nominated for multiple craft Oscars. (Honestly, I can even see it winning a few; Pan's Labyrinth, which he made in 2006, won for cinematography, make up and art direction.) Although the part of me that likes horror movies was often bored during the first three quarters of Crimson Peak the historical drama fan part of me kept asking: who cares that this story is so threadbare when the mis-en-scene is so sumptuous?
If I thought that both halves of this film were equally ineffective I wouldn’t bother berating it for being half-assed, but alas the period piece half of the equation really does work, and the seriousness of those sections really does undermine the goofiness of the ghost-y sections, leading to an unnecessarily uneven film. It is a shame because I know that a non-hybridized version of this movie would have killed; I've seen enough of Del Toro's straight-forward horror movies to know that he can do simple jump-scares effectively, and he clearly has the painterly touch required to make a compelling film about a lovelorn lass. Alas, his ambitions got the better of him - and even worse he ended up getting stuck with a marketing campaign that emphasized this movie's weakest aspects instead of its strongest, leading to a film that lures the wrong audience in and then gives them a snack instead of a meal.
Still, I do think that Crimson Peak will probably become slightly less disappointing over time as its unfortunate commercials fade from memory and as word spreads about how scare deficient it really is. I expect that it will eventually find its true audience not amongst horror fans but amongst people who love watching old timey dramas for all the frilly coats and frocks, and that underserved audience will probably find Crimson Peak to be a rare treat despite all of its flaws. After all, it is possible for every imperfect movie to find an audience as long as they broadcast their true content to the right crowd. After all, there are a lot of ways to mess up your movie - being uneven, being predictable, being an overlong ad for bad tacos - butat the end of the day those can all be forgiven. But promising your audience something lowbrow and giving them something that's too serious (or vice versa)? Well, that's a surefire way to become a laughingstock.
Winner: Me (Well, the period-piece loving part of me)