Critics have been unanimous in their praise of how gorgeous the film looks, from its gothicky design to its fabulous frocks and sumptuous colour palette (it also has some nice irises and cunning wipes).
Or they have echoed del Toro’s own point that it is not really a horror movie so much as a gothic romance, full of echoes and allusions, including: Poe’s ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’; the several versions of Jane Eyre and Silence of the Lambs; Du Maurier’s Rebecca; Hitchcock’s Rebecca and Notorious; Medak’s The Changeling; The Haunting, and Wises’s; King’s The Shining, and Kubrick’s; the Coen’s Barton Fink; del Toro’s own Devil’s Backbone; and so on.
All of these critics are right, and yet without exception they overlook del Toro’s major accomplishment.
Somehow, he manages constantly to keep this astonishing overblown confection of evil aristocrats, ghosts, forbidden rooms, gramophone cylinders, automata, letters, keys, ghosts, murder, incest, idiosyncratic grim-up-north grimness, peculiarly hardy Cumberland moths, violent assaults and revolutionary mining technology just this side of hilariously funny. And somehow he makes it a constant delight, grand guignol at its most operatic, all logic subordinated to production design.
But it would take just one person in the auditorium to start laughing, and it could all go disastrously wrong.
It is not the first time del Toro has walked this particular line. Much as I enjoyed them, Hellboy II and Pacific Rim edge along a similar tightrope, and are rather less successful in keeping it together.
Early in the film, protagonist Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) explains of a story she has written that it is not so much a ghost story as a story with ghosts in it, and that her ghosts are actually metaphors for the past. With the kind of New Weird chutzpah that China Miéville once championed, del Toro’s film takes completely the opposite tack. His ghosts are ghosts, not metaphors.
However, the logic of Miéville’s argument meant that while one should be absolutely committed to treating monsters as monsters rather than as metaphors, this should nonetheless leave their metaphorical potential open and even make for more effective metaphoricity. But with del Toro’s pastiche late-Victorian setting lacking the historical resonances of Devil’s and Pan’s Labyrinth‘s (not unproblematic) Spanish Civil War settings, there is nothing really for his ghosts to gain metaphorical purchase, even if they were so inclined. There is some stuff about aristocrats as parasites, and a whole Blut und Boden thing lying around should anyone want to make something of it, but no one does. And del Toro seems utterly uninterested in the gendered restrictions and sexual repression that seem so fundamental to gothic romance.
It is a film of many layers, all of them on the surface.
On the other hand, I loved every deliriously silly minute of it, and you get the impression del Toro did, too.