Greetings again from the darkness. “It’s not a ghost story. It’s a story with ghosts.” Leave it to writer/director Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, 2006) to make this distinction. The line is spoken by our lead character Edith, who is striving to write like her literary idol, Mary Shelley. She is explaining her most recent writing effort to a publisher, but the line also represents the movie we are watching … ghosts appear (some grisly ones at that), but they certainly aren’t the focus.
The story begins around the turn of the 20th century as young Edith has just experienced her first family tragedy, the passing of her mother. She grows into an independent young woman (played by Mia Wasikowska) being raised by her successful self-made-man father Curtis Cushing (played by Jim Beaver, “Justified”). Tip of the cap to del Toro for his tip of the cap to the horror film great Peter Cushing. Edith has remained steadfast in her independence despite the advances of her lifelong friend, the handsome Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam, “Sons of Anarchy”). Things change when a mysterious stranger sweeps into town. Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) seeks investors for his “clay harvester”, a machine he designed to automate what now takes many men and much hard labor. The elder Cushing senses something is “off” about Sharpe and his sister and travelling companion, Lady Lucille (Jessica Chastain), but the strong-minded Edith soon finds herself waltzing and blushing with Sir Thomas.
It would be pretty easy to recap the balance of the story, but that is actually the film’s weakness. It plays like a re-imagined script from one of those old 1940’s or 50’s movies that I watched on Friday nights as a kid. In other words, it’s not very frightening and the viewer’s enjoyment is totally based on the atmosphere. Fortunately, that’s where del Toro and his team excel. The set design (Tom Sanders) and costumes (Kate Hawley) are truly spectacular and among the best ever seen, especially for a horror movie. Dilapidated Allendale Manor features a hole in its roof allowing the elements to freely enter the colossal entry foyer. The furnishings and fixtures, as well as the layout of the house are perfection as a setting. The costumes for all characters are superb, but pay special attention to the fabrics and frills of Edith and Lucille. Camera work from Cinematographer Dan Lausten ties it all together for the eerie feel.
The film is so stunning and interesting to look at that it’s actually quite easy to forgive a story that has little to offer, and often … and I do mean often … relies on horror film clichés in what should be moments of difference-making. Having five such talented lead actors, who each go “all in” for their characters, help us overlook the script weakness, and it’s really the look and atmosphere of the film that make it worth watching … not words I have written many times over the years. For del Toro fans, you should know that Doug Jones does play the creepy ghost that inspires Edith’s first words (as narrator) … “Ghosts are real, that much I know”.
watch the trailer: