Friday, October 16, 2015

Spooktacular Savings #13: Guillermo del Toro's CRIMSON PEAK (2015)

"Ghosts are real." - Guillermo del Toro... scuse me, Edith Cushing, right.


First off, to pull a page from Roger Ebert's review of the Coens' Miller's Crossing, I'll gush first in regards to Crimson Peak about the 'haunted' house where 2/3rds of the action takes place.  Allerdale Hall is one of the great places in the movies, modern or, hell, otherwise.  Walking in it's basically a production designer's wet dream (or perhaps a nightmare to pull off, though I imagine with Guillermo del Toro you have a vision to guide you like few others in today's cinema).  The entire place has depth and dimension, as if you're there in such a way that a 3D movie would only mimic or, really, make smaller. 

The staircase is scary, the elevator has its feeling of clustrophobia, there's always a sharp knife that can appear that can really hurt you, and then all of those hidden places like the bottom level with the big cisterns (please correct me if that's what they're not called).  Not to mention that it is constantly snowing inside - the roof has a giant hole, you see, so there's always that sense that the outside world is trying to take over this place, which is grand and majestic but has also rotted with time and, naturally in the case of this story, the ghosts and phantoms of all that have perished.  In large part, we may find out, not by accident. 

I could go on and on about that 'Peak' - called so because of the red matter that is being mined by Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) - but there is a story here, much more in a Gothic tradition of literature (and, frankly, trashy horror-romance novels).  It starts with Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) as the daughter of a businessman who may be able to assist Sharpe with a business proposition he has with a machine to mine, except that he won't and finds something 'off' about him.  But she finds him intriguing, not least of which as he gives her his interest and seems genuine.    And she also meets his sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain), who has her own kind of Gothic ambiance about her - rarely, if ever (not ever, actually now that I think of it) is she dressed in anything but black - and it would appear Thomas would like to ask for Edith's hand.  The father is the main obstacle.  Once that is, erm, well, not to say too much on that for now, Edith does marry Thomas and they head to the Sharpe family home of Allerdale Hall.

Did I mention that the Hall is far away from town (four hours by foot), and is falling apart/slowly sinking?  And that Edith is an author, or trying to be, and has a story with a ghost in it.  Seems peculiar, but as she explains to a reader, "The ghost is a metaphor."  To say that del Toro takes this line as meta for his film is an understatement, but what's fascinating (but also kind of frustrating) about this film is how it actually is as opposed to how it was marketed. 

People - such as the crowd around me seeing it on a Friday night - expect a horror movie, and it is that time of the Halloween season.  While the kids may have their Goosebumps, the adults (or, perhaps, 14 year old 'Bookish' girls) have this film, which is also super violent (more on that in a moment, my patient readers).  But is it horror?  According to that above-linked interview, del Toro claims it's far more in the "Gothic" tradition, where it's not the supernatural beings but the humans, and weird family dynamics, that drive the drama.  In this case, it's an overblown melodrama to the max.

This isn't to say the ghosts aren't effective... Ok, they are and they aren't.  At first, when a young Edith is visited by the ghost of her mother, it is scary and creepy, but in that way where there's almost nothing she can do about it.  But what's so striking here is the same thing as in Pan's Labyrinth: this is a female character who does not fight or grapple much with the ghosts around her - except to the extent that at Crimson Peak (where she was warned not to go to, albeit how could she have known with all that RED around her, maybe a clue, but I digress).  She just knows that ghosts exists, and this comes from a director who believes that monsters and supernatural beings are simply HERE in the world with us (that or he has a helluva celebrity profile he puts on).  At ant rate, these ghosts are here... but they're also CGI ghosts, which is a stark, not totally effective contrast with the fact that everything else, this Hall, everything in it, IS real, and the color palette from del Toro and DP Dan Lausten heightens how dark and grim and RED everything is.

In other words, Crimson Peak has been sold to the American public as a supernatural horror movie, and it's actually something else entirely; this means that a good number of audience members, who might find being rowdy at a horror movie is not only not bad but accepted and in a way encouraged, will have to sit and take in a story that has (shock of shocks) real characters (far as this kind of story goes) and stakes that don't involve screaming teens or the typical worried parents or found-footage jump-scares. 

Sure, there are moments del Toro fucks with his audience, having a spectre running around quickly by in the background - something that deservedly gets a bellow of laughter - but it's almost like the ghosts are an afterthought in the bigger plan of the story, that they're there to warn or give pieces of information to the heroine, but not in a way that feels affecting  This is, at heart, after all, a love triangle, or depending on your point of view (with the Charlie Hunnam character, who comes in and out as a doctor investigating what happened to Edith's father) quadrangle between the Sharpe siblings, Edith and the doctor.

Mostly the Doctor is out of the picture (something I didn't expect, given the third act), so that leaves these three souls in this big old house.  Hiddleston and Chastain soak up these roles to their fullest potential, and while Hiddleston is a handsome, charming man who veers towards being creepy, Chastain embraces being a cold-but-also-hot creature of slow-building death and destruction.  You know the moment you see her on the screen she's bad news, but that's what's fun about a character like this in a story like this, no? 

And the dynamic between Hiddleson and Wasikowska is not to so far removed from Jane Eyre... except that it gets drenched all into the red-coal and blood-soaked world of del Toro.  Of course bad things are happening to Edith, and will continue to do so, and the question for these characters is: can they make the choices to change?  Is that really a question for one or the other?  Hell hath no fury in a del Toro story like someone, especially in these period pieces, that goes against the will of someone so set in their ways.

Chastain, like Captain Vidal in Pan's Labyrinth, is a character who has a point of view, and whether you agree with it or not (most certainly, most of us will not) she expresses it and holds to it and will cut someone's throat - or much, much more - if one gets in her way.  Chastain so commits to it that it's easy to forget just two weeks ago she was the committed, smart leader of the Pegasus ship in Scott's The Martian, and much earlier this year (technically a 2014 release) she was the wife of a questionable businessman in A Most Violent Year

The way Chastain is going, we may indeed have a new Meryl Streep on our hands.  And I'm not sure I can remember the last time I saw Streep do so much with a cup of tea or, especially, a sharp knife to a face or with another guy's face to a sink.  Del Toro's nastiest, most vital villains are the ones who have solid convictions and believe what they're doing is what has to be. 

By the way, this is a brutally violent film.  One may take that for granted from a director who is known by and large in the US for his spectacles - Hellboy 1 & 2 and Pacific Rim - but as the director of bloody films that have that blood and gore soaked from a historical tradition of gruesome carnage from people who just lose grip on, uh, anything, it's not surprising to see where Crimson Peak goes.  It's clear once again that del Toro can't help, as an artist in that perfected auteur-type of mold, to go back to things that just tickle his sense of the tactile and what can genuinely shock us. 

Bugs are one thing, and there are several here (at one point a butterfly is eaten by ants - actually a more effective bit of CGI than many of the ghosts here), and at times they're placed about in such a way that they may be missed, or are part of the framework of parts of the Hall to where we can't not expect them, if that makes sense.  And then the violence is the other thing; something about this man and horrible things in bathrooms, or with flesh torn apart in places that is just 'HERE IT IS'.  How does one explain it?  Why bother to look too deep?  Maybe it's from living in the harshness of Mexico for all those decades. 

To finish off, Crimson Peak is a lush, exciting and original film (and yet acknowledges in many ways the influences it wear on all sleeves) that is in love with how it is lovingly made and presented, and is a ghost story about ghosts and also a (mostly) tawdry incestually-drenched Gothic 'romance' with melodramatic intentions.  I might find something similar in the classic literature section, but I would also find something similar in my wife's section of book's that she knows are trashy historical pieces.  It's also a movie in love with the 'gotcha' moments of suspense that we'd hope and look for with this filmmaker, but it's about so many other things. 

My face whenever someone talked behind me during the movie.
In a way I don't blame the bleating ewes around me at the theater from chatting here and there during the movie... no, that's a lie, I do, but I mean that by how the film IS something that you would not expect from the commercials: it's dark and twisted and says things about human nature that will make us uncomfortable.  Maybe del Toro firmly knows this, to the point where a line is said before a waltz between Edith and Thomas (and forgive me if I'm paraphrasing):

"I like being uncomfortable.  You close your eyes to what you should see."
"I don't like to be uncomfortable.  I want to keep my eyes open."

Once again, Guillermo, not a perfect film, but... I salute you. 

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