Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Halloween 31 For 31: Crimson Peak (2015)

Director: Guillermo del Toro
Screenplay: Guillermo del Toro, Matthew Robbins
Cast: Mia Wasikowska (as Edith Cushing); Jessica Chastain (as Lucille Sharpe); Tom Hiddleston (as Thomas Sharpe); Charlie Hunnam (as Dr. Alan McMichael); Jim Beaver (as Carter Cushing)

Synopsis: At the cusp of the 20th century, aspiring writer Edith Cushing (Wasikowska) falls in love with the mysterious Baron Thomas Sharpe (Hiddleston), whisked away with him and his older sister Lucille (Chastain) to their ancestral home in England. It becomes immediately apparent, especially to the viewer, that something is very wrong with the siblings, and in a home where there's a hole in the roof, the foundations are sinking into the red clay underneath, and the environment is completely oppressive, there's many a secret to be discovered. That Edith has been able to see the dead since she was a child means she becomes immediately suspicious when the dead roam the corridors at night.

The only issue I have with Crimson Peak is that it takes $55 million to make a Gothic melodrama like this now. Del Toro was as clearly indebted to films like from Hammer productions as much as he was by turn-of-the-century literature, the cost of a mid-range blockbuster a hindrance to the virtues of the film in image. It's a sumptuous film that uses its money well in creating a gothic environment, but it's also a film that acts and feels like a small budget production with high artistic standards like Roger Corman's Poe adaptations, ill-fitting its more extravagant clothes and the promotional pressure. This may seem an odd criticism, when I shouldn't concern myself with such costs, but Crimson Peak is a small film to me, an okay one, not the best but worth the time to have seen it, the high budget and the anticipation of it as a saviour of horror cinema a distraction from its small virtues.

Horror is subjective here as its melodrama courses through its veins, the horror in the background and where Crimson Peak is at its most entertaining, more adult than you usually get in horror cinema for mainstream cinemas but not only because of the gore shed. Barring Pacific Rim (2013), del Toro has constantly mixed genres and here the result is closer to the aforementioned Edgar Allen Poe, the nightmarish environment of the Sharpe home befitting for the dark things in its past. The home, which takes centre stage after a brief stint in the USA, is as much a character as in a good supernatural story, the red clay so bright a colour that when it seeps through the dilapidated floorboards it looks like blood. The exaggerated nature of the building evokes fairy tales like many of del Toro films, Edith as much an Alice In Wonderland figure, as she is a headstrong, adult woman in an adult relationship. (Fittingly since Wasikowska starred in the Tim Burton adaptation of Lewis Carol's story).

The dynamic, which mainly consists of an emotional triangle, is also the best part of the film, the melodrama much more part of the narrative than the sinister machinations and blood red ghosts. If there's one thing about this I have to admit some coldness to, it's that while both Wasikowska and Chastain do well in their roles, for a film where the women are the main driving forces they are a little nondescript. Chastain is able to have more range in her seemingly unstable but focused Lucille, the red dress she wears like the rest of the colour coordination of costumes adding to her body language, but Wasikowska does feel bland. The central character, who'd rather die like Mary Shelly than Jane Austin when provoked to answer in a question, should've been a lot more charismatic, especially as the viewer knows what's going on from the start, the real meat of the film anticipation of this character also finding out like we have. As for Tom Hiddleston, he's the most interesting of the trio, though the cog between the two domination forces, because his role has to juggle a conflict which Hiddleston can more than live up to. A film like The Avengers (2012) underserved him immensely with a silly Viking helmet on top of his head, but here and in another film like Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) he has shown himself to be a British actor I have immensely interest in because of his clear talent.

Crimson Peak is very much a drama, but a very violent one. The whole issue with Edith being able to see ghosts is pointless, which could've be written out and replaced with the ghosts being figures who haunt the mansion as a collective memory of its past. The supernatural element does feel like a spare wheel when it should've added a further emotional layer to the real story, that of Edith and Thomas' relationship and the truth of its existence. What's far more unsettling is the general tone of the film that doesn't have the ghosts, the sight of butterflies dying on the ground being eaten by ants or the moths that populate the mansion swarming the walls. The fact that Thomas created toys once and his handiwork populates a room with their unlinking eyes watching the occupants. Details rather than the CGI created ghosts which have a physicality of weariness to them or which lead you to wonder what's in the many other rooms of the central location. What happens instead is that the ending becomes hysterical,  surging into a lot more violence and screaming after the build-up over two hours. It's either going to be a disappointment or fun like a b-movie ending depending on your opinion.

Technical Detail:
The titular peak lives up to its potential. It's worth praising how the scenes in the US beforehand are depicted as well as, alongside building up the characters, the film depicts it with an interesting, rich visual palette, del Toro gorging himself on the period drama as much as everything else. The film lets this material breath for this establishing act, and when it get to Crimson Peak, named after what happens when the red clay bleeds through the snow, the same attitude to building up the detail and filming it with a slow pace is shown in the later acts too. The mansion belongs to a fantasy, not reality, but particularly with the set dressing and aesthetic design it's a sensuous and creepy place at the same time.

The CGI ghosts, seen in the trailer, were an incredible contention for me, but one of the best things about del Toro is that his particular aesthetic style and how he has his creatures, spirits and monsters depicted and designed makes CGI a lot more palatable in his films. Acted out by his mascot Doug Jones, the ghosts have their own unsettling, fully formed visual look that makes them memorable. That the ghosts are ultimately background figures, as mentioned, is another disappointment however, but at least you get to see them in their full glory and no one is going to cringe about their weightlessness.

Abstract Spectrum: Weird
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): None
Nothing to comment on.

Personal Opinion:
At the moment, I liked Crimson Peak but I am being purposely ambivalent, letting it digest more, to see if I like it to the degree I would ever see it again like with the films I care about the most. Even as a film I'd want to rewatch for fun. It depends on whether I become a fan of del Toro as a director. If it connects to my interest in horror and gothic storytelling as a memorable piece.

At the moment it's just alright to me. My only hesitance is that, With my growing love for older movies in this vein which didn't need this level of budget to make them, Crimson Peak doesn't reinvent the wheel in this type of storytelling, and it has plenty of story and production choices that could've been done better. What I do like however are its virtues that balances the problems out. I like that there's a film that for all its violence and CGI ghosts is about woman, as the central character, who is strong and that the film relishes the character dynamics as much as the chills. I like that there's a film that has some teeth to it, a film that despite the only nudity being seen consisting of Hiddleston's bared arse still has an eroticism to it at times. I like that the audience for this film have been fifty percent or more women, thus for the fact said bloody, creepy film for all its flaws is the kind that confounds stereotypes of who watches gothic and horror cinema. The hype surrounding this film as a hope can be as much a dangerous ruse that it can compromise its small, handsome qualities too.

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