Horror isn’t exactly an exciting genre in 2015. That’s not to say that there aren’t good horror movies being released. There are indie gems like The Guest and It Follows to enjoy, as well as mainstream fare like The Cabin in the Woods and The Conjuring. But the former two are a part of a movement of nostalgia horror, movies that draw on styles and atmospheres that originated in the 1980s. And the latter two may be standouts among studio fare, but they don’t add anything new to the mix.
It’s been over a decade since the last time a horror movie really shook things up. Successful movies like Insidious are nice, but the genre has been stagnant since the early aughts. We had a three-movie run from 1998 through 2001 that truly changed the game for horror: Japan’s Ringu in 1998, The Blair Witch Project in 1999, and the US release of Audition in 2001. Ringu began a stylistic shift in American horror away from the slow burn of slasher flicks to the dread of unsettling Japanese effects. The Blair Witch Project was the precursor to the more recently annoying found-footage style, though the world was so shocked by Blair Witch that it took a few years for the trend to fully catch on. And Audition set the example for torture-porn to which the Saw and Hostel movies owe a debt of gratitude.
But the best horror movies of recent years are either throwbacks or, like The Cabin in the Woods, clever about playing with the genre’s tropes, which isn’t the same thing as being innovative. It’s a fun quality to have in a movie, but cleverness isn’t transformative. Horror is a vital movie genre; traditionally, horror is how we process the very real fears in the world around us. Standard horror movies can do this, but if they’re just repeating styles and plots from the past, they’re going to cease to be relevant.
In the buildup to Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak, it felt like the kind of movie that could be a swing movie one way or the other. Based on del Toro’s past work in movies like the Hellboy films and Pan’s Labyrinth and from the promising trailers, it was fair to expect del Toro to bring his darkly creative sensibility to the horror genre. The monsters in Pan’s Labyrinth were like nothing we’d seen before; surely del Toro would be able to add something equally as fresh to a ghost story? Then again, if you saw Pacific Rim, you’d be forgiven for worrying Crimson Peak would be another example of del Toro taking another specific subgenre (kaiju movies in Pacific Rim’s case, gothic horror in Crimson Peak’s) and merely making an enjoyable installment to be forgotten in the annals of film history. With del Toro’s checkered filmmaking history, Crimson Peak could have been visionary or merely unremarkable.
Unfortunately, it’s the latter. This is a very serviceable gothic romance/horror movie, but not much more beyond that. We follow Mia Wasikowska’s Edith as she rushes into a marriage with Tom Hiddleston’s Thomas and travels to England to live with him and his sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain), in their magnificently rotted old manor. It doesn’t take long for Edith to begin seeing ghosts, though we see them coming long before she’s even aware anything is amiss. There’s something off about Thomas and Lucille from the beginning, and if you’re familiar with gothic horror, you’ll see it coming a mile away. But that’s okay; the performances are strong enough and the visuals rich enough to make the plot feel merely familiar rather than predictable.
What’s not okay is how rudimentary the horror is in Crimson Peak. The ghosts, while reminiscent in their movements of the Pale Man from Pan’s Labyrinth, are pretty standard. Del Toro makes good use of the color red, with its origins in a special kind of oozy clay into which the manor is sinking. It seeps into every frame, obviously mean to evoke thoughts of blood and murder. It’s a striking visual, but it’s not in service of much. You’d think that if del Toro meant to make a standard gothic horror, he would have written a much more gonzo story, fully giving into his own Lovecraftian impulses. As it is, Crimson Peak’s twists and turns are fairly standard; the old black-and-white gothic horrors are more effectively disturbing.
Maybe I had unfair expectations of true innovation. But the promise of the Hellboy movies and Pan’s Labyrinth (which remains one of the best movies of any genre in this century) suggests the potential for Guillermo del Toro to be the person to take horror into new territory. Before seeing it, it was easy to imagine Crimson Peak having a new take on the ghost story and thus injecting the horror genre with new life. But Crimson Peak ends up being the same old take on death.