I’m torn about Guillermo del Toro’s latest film. On the one hand it’s a very slight concoction, a very effective love-letter to the Hammer Films of old, but with very little meat on its bones. On the other it is one of the most beautiful films for a long time, designed within an inch of its life, and one where every scene could be framed and hung on a wall. Whilst I’m leaning towards saying I liked it, it isn’t a film I would go out of my way to see again, although the beauty means that I am glad I saw it on a large screen.
Minor spoilers ahead.
One of the problems for me is that the story is not only slight, but also could easily function without the supernatural element. The ghosts, beautifully realised and genuinely creepy, never frighten (this isn’t a film relying on jump scares – which is welcome in this age of horror) never really interact with the characters – indeed the film could be made stronger by hinting that the principal character is possibly mad and hallucinating what is happening, unfortunately the film plays its card too early with the villains, which whilst appropriate for the melodrama aspect (think Rebecca / Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?) does remove a degree of tension. That the film is immensely watchable comes down to the three leads (respectively restrained, reserved and barking mad) holding the attention, all of whom elicit the right amount of sympathy to make a film like this work.
The direction is superb, as is the editing – considering that very little actually happens, the film never feels as if it drags despite the somewhat leisurely pace (which admittedly ramps up considerably in the last ten minutes or so). Del Toro’s strength remains in visualization, the repeated images of butterflies and moths tie it in nicely with his earlier films, and the ghosts are suitably creepy.
The problem is that whilst it feels more like Pans Labyrinth / The Devils Backbone than his other English language films, it still lacks the depth, feeling somewhat superficial. I don’t always want an immensity of depth and metaphor, but it would be nice to have some, especially in a film like this. It is romantic, not only in terms of plot but also love for the genre, and it’s marketing as a ghost story is perhaps a little misleading.
Generally I’m positive about the film, but I do wish there was a little more substance to it. As it is, it’s a beautifully written but slight ghost story, perfect for Halloween. I just hope his next film has a little more substance.