‘It’s not a ghost story,’ remarks Mia Wasikowska’s aspiring writer Edith Cushing about the draft of her novel at the beginning of Crimson Peak (2015), ‘it’s a story with a ghost in it.’ This is a huge hint from director Guillermo del Toro, perhaps the most well-known Mexican film-maker working today and one of the pioneers of modern fantasy, as to what we should do with our expectations for this film. We should throw them out the window because, much like del Toro’s critically acclaimed Pan’s Labyrinth, this film is just as much a fantasy as it is a horror. A ‘gothic romance’ as he describes it, Crimson Peak holds the same sensibilities towards ghosts and the supernatural as the director’s earlier work, The Devil’s Backbone (2001); they are infused into the story, paramount to creating tone and leading the characters, but not there for scares.
Sadly, it appears that few people are realising this, and the reception for this film has been less than enthusiastic. The trailers have bastardised Crimson Peak, and it just won’t do.
Our attitude to horror has changed. Audiences lap up everything from remakes of popular slashers, to found footage ghost movies. Meanwhile critics lament the fact that there are perhaps one or two horrors a year—mostly independent or foreign—that can genuinely be called great. So when a trailer for a new Guillermo del Toro directed horror film is released a spiral begins. The critics are interested and the film buffs are interested. Throw in the fact that it features that girl from Alice in Wonderland (2010) and now your average audience might pay attention. Seemingly, it’s a shoe in for praise and success across the board. Unfortunately this wasn’t the case.
This is because Crimson Peak is not what was advertised. The ghosts are not the main driving force as they appear to be in the marketing, elbowing their way through the romance and mystery elements that actually pervade throughout the film to give the audience a bit of a scare before they sit through the Poltergeist remake. It is the romance and mystery, the familial intrigue and the unravelling conspiracy that these trailers should have focused on. Instead, audiences are complaining about the lack of ghosts and scares, having been spoiled rotten by them in the aforementioned Poltergeist (2015), the Paranormal Activity series (2007-2015) and The Conjuring (2013). Yes, the latter was a perfectly serviceable haunted house film, but it pales in comparison to Crimson Peak, which takes the sub-genre to places even the Overlook Hotel would impressed by.
Speaking of The Shining (1980), I deem it decidedly unfair that the review the trailers decide to focus on came from the mouth of iconic horror writer Stephen King, who called the film “terrifying”. Yes, I was on the edge of my seat and clenching the armrests with tension throughout the entire showing. However, when you combine a quote like that from an author who penned some of the scariest books of the 20th century with a trailer that features blood red ghosts dragging themselves like the undead through gothic corridors, an image of what this film is going to deliver begins to be painted in the audiences’ heads. Yes, these scenes were wonderfully creepy and gripping, but they do not occur every few minutes, as the trailers suggest.
When the film itself does not match this image, anger and disappointment ensues. This has already happened this year. When the trailers for Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) were released, it seemed to indicate a darker tone, a more serious threat, and when this wasn’t the case. It was dubbed a letdown. As if a Marvel Studios film wasn’t going to be just a fun romp with decent action and a few good laughs, which they are every single time. The crime the Crimson Peak trailers have committed, however, is far more egregious.
Not only do they directly ignore the director’s intentions, but the marketing was so inaccurate and misrepresentative, del Toro himself felt compelled to take to Twitter to remind audiences what they should expect when they sit down in the theatre stating, “Crimson Peak: not a horror film. A Gothic Romance.” The director may not be one of the most powerful film-makers working today, but his work on popular blockbusters, helming at least some of the more visually interesting action films in recent years—Hellboy I and II (2004-2008) and Pacific Rim (2013)—should grant him some influence over how his movies are portrayed.
Evidently, this was not the case, and the studio seemed to have a better idea as to how Crimson Peak should be marketed. Things like this don’t really make a scratch on blockbusters like Age of Ultron, which made over $1 billion just by having “Avengers” in the title, but it’s a real blow to smaller films like this, which has so far earned just $7 million more than its $55 million budget. It deserves far more, and its terrible rankings among the 2015 box office will simply tell studios that releasing horror films that have intelligence and heart, and aren’t overly reliant on formulaic horror beats and scares, is a very risky move. I won’t be expecting another film like this—which contains elements of horror, but doesn’t rely on the genre as its focus—that isn’t part of the independent circle for a good long while.
Age of Ultron is not one of the best films of the year, so the trailers don’t really matter, but, in all honesty, Crimson Peak really is. Featuring excellent performances all round, some of the most beautiful and compelling cinematography on screen this year (credit to director of photography Dan Laustsen) and an intriguing mystery with a slow burn but a thrilling pay off, del Toro’s new piece of work is the best thing he’s directed since Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), and a worthy spiritual successor to The Devil’s Backbone.
The best horror films are never made with the sole intention of scaring its audience. They need to be about something. Crimson Peak, with its themes of love, obsession, and madness is a fantastically creepy deconstruction of sex and relationships. Crimson Peak is not “terrifying”, as Stephen King puts it, but it is unsettling and thrilling.
We have been conditioned by modern horror to expect certain breeds of scares; something making you jump after a long stretch of quiet, a gratuitously gory image to shock you into being uncomfortable and creepy songs to encourage your unease – “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” from the underwhelming Insidious (2010) comes to mind. All methods that are highly effective when used properly, but they rarely are. Crimson Peak knows better.