Crimson, Blood, Death, Yeah, You Get It
The Screaming Skull, 1958
a kindly review of Crimson Peak
by David Clemmer
Have you ever seen The Screaming Skull? The 1958 Alex Nicol thriller? Season 9, Episode 12 of Mystery Science Theater 3000? Because if you have, even if it was with a guy and a couple robots cracking jokes at it, then you’ve essentially seen Crimson Peak.
I’m going to spoil the everloving balls off of this movie in the ensuing review, and I don’t have the technology to use spoiler boxes on WordPress. Therefore, please note that clicking the ‘Continue Reading’ thing, or reading past the third paragraph, is tantamount to clicking a spoiler box.
Unspoiled nutshell review: If you had to choose between watching Crimson Peak, and going to a financial meeting at a company you don’t work for, consider the meeting. You could gain some insight about Verizon’s budget concerns and projected outcomes. You could gain some free crappy Safeway cupcakes. Or a stale bagel with runny cream cheese. You could be arrested for being there in the first place. Seriously, how did you get in here? Where did you get Janice’s access badge? What did you do with Janice?
Let me tell you about the 1958 movie The Screaming Skull. In The Screaming Skull, a young woman is newly married to a guy who owns a big lovely house in the middle of nowhere. The young woman is plagued by the ghastly visits of, well…a skull with the propensity to scream. This skull turns out to either be or symbolize the spirit of the guy’s ex-wife, who he murdered. It’s classic ’50s B-movie: there’s a painfully slow build-up, a dearth of talented performances, a dearth of ghosts in a ghost story, and a boring ending.
Crimson Peak is that, plus Jaime and Cersei Lannister, plus Guillermo del Toro’s visual style—the latter of which is not at its…peak. I’m sorry. I’ll just go now. Just forget that I even said that. Oh god.
You can put things together from there.
It’s obvious that this was an homage to classic B-movie thrillers, but the problem is that GdT took the wrong aspects of the pastiche. See: painfully slow build-up. See: dearth of talented performances. See: dearth of ghosts in…Yeah, you just read that paragraph too; it’s right up there; you don’t need me to—
1958’s The Screaming Skull opens up with a Surgeon General’s warning that this movie may scare you to death. I’m not making that up. It shows you a coffin and it’s like, ‘This is for you, because the movie may kill you. Be warned. Ah-ah-ah!’ This is a tinge of ghostliness designed to pull you through the next ghost-free half-hour. Crimson Peak does the same thing by explaining that Mia Wasikowska sees her mother’s ghost when she’s a little girl, and the ghost warns her vaguely of ‘Crimson Peak.’ I wish someone had warned me like that. Consider this review that warning. I am a spectral black skeleton crawling into bed with you and whispering things in your ear. Comfortable?
This doesn’t serve the story what. So. Ever. Okay, so Mia Wasikowska has foreknowledge that ghosts exist. Maybe that was to keep her from running the fuck out of Allerdale Hall the first time a legless corpse squirms down a hallway after her? No, that can’t be it. Her reaction to seeing the first ghost at Allerdale Hall, i.e. as an adult, is a barely discernible gasp. Is her corset too tight? She been hitting the laudanum? Is Mia Wasikowska just resisting every temptation to actually act? Either way, what the hell does her mother’s ghost have to do with anything? Seriously. Answer my question. I said answer my question.
And then you get to endure an overlong romancey, businessy setup. Run-on sentence incoming, for effect. Okay. So. *big breath* Tom Hiddleston needs money, so he has to get it from Jim Beaver by marrying Jim Beaver’s daughter, Mia Wasikowska (who writes ghost stories purely for the reason of making the movie self-aware), but then Jim Beaver is suspicious and so he hires Burn Gorman to check Tom Hiddleston out, finds out that Tom Hiddleston is already married, and so Jim Beaver pays Tom Hiddleston to bail on Mia Wasikowska, but then Jim Beaver is murdered, and Tom Hiddleston comes back and is like, ‘Mia Wasikowska, I’m sorry, marry me anyway?’, and then they get married…and then…then, after all of the shit that doesn’t matter, that’s when we finally go to Allerdale Hall and start seeing ghosts.
That run-on sentence felt like half the movie. It may have been half the movie. I don’t remember. I was drinking. I had to drink.
The symbolism. Allerdale Hall is the site of a mining operation for this bright red clay that seeps everywhere. I know this may be a stretch, but bear with me: I think that it’s a symbol for blood! Look, don’t close this review. I know that’s a huge leap in logic. But check this out. Blood is red. The clay in the movie is red. The theory I posit is that because both of these things are red, there’s a symbolic relationship there. You’ll notice that every time something pertaining to murder happens, you get a shot of some of the red clay. Get it? The CLAY is supposed to be BLOOD. Because MURDER. BLOOD. DEATH. MURDER. RED CLAY. LOOK AT IT. LOOK. LOOK AT THE SUBTLE SYMBOLISM. DON’T YOU GET IT? DON’T YOU SEE? THE CLAY IS BLOOD. BLOOD IS THE RESULT OF MURDER. MURDER IS BAD. LOOK AT THIS TEXT. THIS TEXT IS NOW SCARY. THIS TEXT IS LIKE BLOOD. BECAUSE BLOOD COMES OUT WHEN YOU MURDER. MURDER IS SCARY. DEATH IS SCARY. DEATH, BLOOD. BLOOD. BLOOOOOOOOOD. BLOOOOOOOOOOOOO—
The actors. Mia Wasikowska is a cup of room-temperature water. It’s no surprise that she reacts to things with tiny gasps, but what surprised me was the bored, empty performances of Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain. There’s a point where (spoilers!) Jessica Chastain stabs Tom Hiddleston in the face. Like, right through the face. Just right in there. Classic Guillermo del Toro gratuitous facial trauma horror (for no reason.) Anyway, Tom’s reaction to this is, like, ‘Oh, did you just…did I…did you stab me in the face? Actual question. Like, I’m confused. The director’s telling me that this is supposed to hurt, so, “Ow,” but…what happened? I said it’s an actual question. Help me out here.’
Comparing this movie to GdT’s other facial trauma showcase, Pan’s Labyrinth, you can draw the parallel of supernatural things being used to tell a non-supernatural story. Pan’s Labyrinth‘s Ofelia uses the fantasy world—be it real or imaginary—as an escape and means of coping with her terrible asshole facebreaking stepfather. There’s a strong relationship between the real and the unreal. In Crimson Peak, that relationship is far more tenuous. For one, there’s never any sense of danger. Even if Wasikowska reacted to seeing horrifying ghosts as if she were an actual human being with emotions, what do the ghosts do? They just approach her. That’s all.
Crimson Peak never tried to sell itself as a horror movie, I know. But when your very first scene depicts a nightmarish vision of a ghost doing something unmistakably benevolent, you ruin any amount of tension when ghosts show up later. Without tension, there’s no intrigue in any kind of story. When the Allerdale Hall ghosts begin to appear—clearly as victims of grisly murder—you’re not covering your face asking yourself, Oh my sweet shitting fuck, what’s gonna happen to our unsalted Saltine protagonist? What nightmare will infest my waking thoughts for the next 36-48 hours? Instead you’re asking yourself, What information is this dripping monstrosity going to reveal?
So, bulging-eyed, wailing skeletons serve the same purpose as a sealed envelope in a locked trunk.
That’s really exciting, Guillermo. Please. Thrill me with more of this.
I’m going to harp on this decomposing raccoon spleen of a movie for one more thing. You may have heard that most of the effects and sets in this movie are practical. Indeed they are, and that’s neat. It’s GdT’s forte. The ancient, creaky elevator was a real working elevator; the house wasn’t green screen. Cool. How ’bout the ghosts? They were supposed to be practical too. Except whatever effect of realness he was going for was completely negated by the ethereal, wispy tendrils of…blood? Smoke? Bloodsmoke?…trailing off of them whenever they appeared. Again, I know this isn’t supposed to be a horror movie, but those ghosts were clearly designed to look like hell had fucking risen. But the application of the CGI completely took me out of the movie by putting a very fake image over a very real image. It’s a lack of synthesis.
Comparing every scary movie to Kubrick’s The Shining is unfair, but check out this example: one of the more unsettling things in that movie is the lady in the bathtub. Yes, she transforms into something more unsettling, but when you see her for the first time she’s just a naked woman. Nothing scary about that. But the way that scene was shot, the way she was used in the scene, and other factors like lighting and music made that a really uncomfortable experience. Same with the twin little girls in the hallway. And the butler. And the guy in a bear costume…uh…taking a nap in that guy’s lap?
My point is that the otherworldly doesn’t have to look otherworldly, and that the effects used in Crimson Peak diminish the effect they were aimed toward. Like everything else in this movie, the effects fall flat.
I’ll say again that the intent of this movie was not to be a horror movie, but a ghost story. So it makes sense that it’s not calibrated to make pee trickle out of you. Or spray, or seep; I don’t know how peeing works. But the thing is, the movie is not effective in any other way. It’s a notch on GdT’s visual effects résumé, and it’s not even a great one.
Maybe skip this one, children.
80/220 imperial gallons of
blood clay, it’s clay. CLAYYYYYY
15/40 Mia Wasikowska waking-up shots
4/10 horrific facial traumas
0/1 pureblood Lannister to ascend to the Iron Throne