Oh, I’d been looking forward to this beautifully gothic horror since it had been announced, since the casting, and then that gorgeous trailer overlaid with that haunting PJ Harvey cover of “Red Right Hand”.
It’s not until the first scare attempts arrive that I realise I’m being let down. How the ghosts will be handled is painfully telegraphed from Mia Wasikowska‘s opening narration. It’s more effective to go in knowing very little, other than Wasikowska’s character Edith, an aspiring horror writer and daughter of a self-made newspaper magnate (Jim Beaver), who goes to live with her new husband Thomas (Tom Hiddleston) and his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) in their crumbling family home.
And I mean literally crumbling, as the two have no caretakers but themselves for the estate. Mould and dust and discoloured wood crop up at every turn, and an ever-increasing hole in the ceiling raining a never-ending waterfall of leaves (later replaced by a Guillermo del Toro staple, snow). Proper props to set designer Thomas E. Sanders for crafting a space in which I simultaneously want to live in and is creepy enough for me to be thankful for the invention of electrical lighting and central heat.
Used to classic New York-state finery and, er, a cleaner, Edith is a trooper at first, unfettered by her excessively puffy dresses and cloaks tracking the autumnal dirt through the house, and even when Lucille’s frosty reception grows colder than the piece of shit house she’s married into living in now. But then she starts to take ill, and begins hallucinating foggy, ghostly figures. Something ain’t quite right, and Edith sets about trying to do some investigating with nobody around to help her.
From there the plot plods. The movie is more creepy than it is scary (and probably the intention, despite how it was marketed), but there are moments that could have been dripping with suspense, or more than an air of mildly confused dread. Jump-scares are predictable enough as a fright gimmick, but even more so when the camera lingers on the setup shots for far too long. Gore is thick and bloody (del Toro doesn’t pull his punches here), and there’s a sinister undercurrent to some of the plot’s developments.
There are some gleeful moments of droll genre humour – Thomas explains the viscous red liquid bubbling up through the floors is just the clay pits, which, in their giant cellar vats and intrusions through the snow-covered walkway, are a character in their own right.
I’m not sure what to make of what I thought of this film. It’s better than “OK” or “just good”, but it’s not as fulfilling as del Toro’s other works. His dark fairytale treatment should have been perfect for old-school gothic, but there’s a disappointing, slight preference for style over substance, and that wastes the superior acting talents of the principal trio, especially Hiddleston, who imbues Thomas’ unsettling demeanour with the same moral ambiguity and inexplicable sympathy (how does he do it??) he’s brought to his other, similarly dark roles.
It’s ultimately a dark, gothic romance with an odd mix of old-fashioned ghostly horror and modern disturbing elements, but it’s never quite more than a better-than-just-good sum of its parts.