Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Clay Achin'

Year: 2015
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston
Run Time: 1 hour 59 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Guillermo del Toro is such a visionary that his name is spoken with hushed tones in optometry circles. His Spanish language films are characterized by a lush etherealism that starkly contrasts with the frequent brutality of the “real” world. The genre he creates in his films like the widely renowned Pan’s Labyrinth and the tremendously underrated The Devil’s Backbone is utterly distinct and can only be described as horror fantasy.

And then he made Pacific Rim. Now, I’m not saying that del Toro’s American films are bad, but they certainly lack that ineffable quality that defines his foreign works. However, this Halloween saw a near perfect marriage of the disparate halves of his career: the gothic ghost romance Crimson Peak combines the best of his Spanish aesthetic and the narrative paucity of his Hollywood flicks.

Generic ghost stories are real. This much I know.

In Crimson Peak, Edith “Not Peter” Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) is a young American writer. She’s penning a novel that’s not a ghost story, but a “story with ghosts,” a dangerous portent for the thrill-seeking teenyboppers in the audience. She falls madly in love with Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), a mysterious stranger who came to her father in search of funding for an invention of his, to be used to plumb the depths of the red clay mine beneath his English manor. 

After her father’s untimely death by murder, she marries Sharpe and is whisked off to live with him in England, along with his hawkish and brooding sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain), much to the consternation of her suitor, Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam, again cruelly forced to adopt a stilted American accent despite the fact that three-quarters of the film tajes place in his native Britain).

The Sharpe manor, Allerdale Hall, is in a startling state of disrepair (much like the Sharpes’ finances). The entire property is sinking into the clay mine, and liquefied red clay bleeds from the walls as leaves and debris cascade continuously from the holes in the ceiling. Pretty much immediately, Edith begins seeing CGI ghosts who warn her of a terrible secret hidden within the house.

[SPOILERS] It doesn’t NOT have something to do with Tom Hiddleston’s bare ass.

If you tossed Jane Eyre, The Haunting, The Devil’s Backbone, Flowers in the Attic, and The Turn of the Screw into a blender, you’d come up with a story that is almost, but not quite, entirely like Crimson Peak. It’s fundamentally predictable, so much so that the dialogue could have been “lorem ipsum, etc…” and be just as effective. It’s just a heap of thinly veiled metaphors delivered in Masterpiece Theatre accents slathered liberally over a routine gothic mystery.

Crimson Peak is just a pile of gently steaming boilerplate. That is, if you’re watching it with your eyes closed. The narrative might be peaky odds and ends, but the storybook environment and pure stylistic enthusiasm blast through the picture like a mighty geyser. After less than a minute, you feel like you’re watching the film while strapped into one of those Clockwork Orange viewing devices, unable and unwilling to peel your eyes away from the screen for even a moment. Handfuls of popcorn are missing your mouth completely and about sixty percent of your fact is slick with misapplied Chapstick, but to look away for even a second would be tantamount to rank betrayal, like Eve biting into the apple.

Crimson Peak is much like 2013’s Stoker in that it takes a well-worn family drama and transforms it into a sumptuous visual feast. And Mia Wasikowska is there. It has its imperfections, like some CGI-laden ghosties that probably have beers after work with the pixelated monstrosity from Mama, wacky transitions that might have impressed at the Johnson Family Annual New Year’s Slideshow Barbecue 1998, and an obnoxious font that announces locations with the garish lettering of a local mini-mart, though thee are but the pettiest of complaints.

Except for that ghost thing. More on that later.

The audacious style of Allerdale Hall and its ensigns is like an architect enduring a bad comedown from his first acid trip. There is beauty and splendor in the manor’s decrepitude, pulling designs, colors, and shapes from a dark place far beyond the human imagination. The walls are slimy, shimmering visions of flowing red clay, a bloody brilliant element that gives the house sickly life and informs the color scheme of every set. Red never dominates a scene, but it punctuates every moment with vivid splashes of color. And the constantly fluttering stream of leaves and snow through the Hall’s blasted-out ceiling completes the property’s impression of constant, surreal, gorgeous motion.

Equally sumptuous is Crimson Peak’s sound design, which begs to be heard in theatrical surround sound. The sense of Allerdale Hall as a living, all-encompassing space owes a great deal to the efforts of its audio technicians, who create a richly textured portrayal of not only what’s in the house, but where it is at all times.

And let me tell you, if I come across this place in real life, I would not be included on that list of what’s inside. Woe to their local milkman.

Guillermo del Toro’s brutal realism also makes its way to Crimson Peak in some gruesome sequences that achieve the difficult ideal of hyperreal fantasy. There are no over-the-top head rippings or de-limbings at play here. Every gory moment is an intimate, personal horror that gets under your skin and flays you from the inside out.

It’s just pity the story containing all these stunning elements is so milquetoast. I wouldn’t say that what Crimson Peak needs is more ghostly action (del Toro has conclusively proven in Devil’s Backbone that he is capable of deftly handling a ghost story where the spooky supernatural presence is far fro villainous.), but there is a certain lack of luster to Edith’s visitations. This is frustrated even more by the fact that the phantasms could be lifted from the plot entirely without making the slightest mark on the film.

Plus, the ghosts themselves, while boasting stupefying designs, are rendered silly by too much FX processing. The buildup to any haunting (when actual physical objects are being manipulated) are far more intense than the cut-and-paste apparitions that follow. The ghosts are far from the only thing to be afraid of, so this isn’t a film-busting flaw, but it’s hard not to feel slightly disappointed by the ghosts’ lukewarm portrayal.

Boo Hoo Hoo…

Speaking of portrayals, Jessica Chastain swallows her role whole, swooping around the manor like a majestic heron. The rest of the cast is also suitable, though a wonky accent yet again unmoors Charlie Hunnam. Oh, when will producers stop being cruel to him?

At the end of the day, Crimson Peak is a film worth experiencing. Is it for teen Halloweeners looking to get their hearts thumped? Certainly not. Is it for haunted house fans looking for their next great classic? Unfortunately, no. but is fit for people who deeply, truly love the art of cinema? That answer would be an emphatic yes.

TL;DR: Crimson Peak is a gothic romance that values style over substance.
Rating: 8/10
Should I Spend Money On This? Don't go in expecting intense scares, but if you see it you absolutely must do so in the theater.
Word Count: 1245


  1. I completely agree with you Brennan. It's extemely predictable but so beautiful to look at and gory too. I loved how hardcore the kills and stabs were. The film was a nice throwback to the Universal Monster days when horror films were about the actors and romance and spooky houses and lush costumes. Mixed with a little Hitchcock domestic tension and Giallo kills and you've got yourself a pretty solid ode to horror.

  2. As you know, I really loved this one. We agree on the flaws (it's predictable and a million miles away from terrifying), as well as agree on its strengths (the best production design since, well, Fury Road, but the best production design in a horror movie maybe ever). Yet somehow I still liked it a bit more. Highlights our respective values.

    Of course, just about everybody seems to have enjoyed Crimson Peak on some level; and still, it's on its way to becoming a pretty big flop. I'm really quite depressed by this, especially in a year where the business raked in by Jurassic World and Avengers: Age of Ultron apparently constituted 20% of world GDP. I usually don't say audiences are bad--critics are, generally, worse--but 2015's certainly been testing me in my populist commitment.

    At least they rejected Terminator: Genisys like the plague it was. There's hope yet.

    1. I'm always a bit cagey giving out 9's or 10's. Movies have gotta EARN it from me and I just didn't adore it quite as much as I wished I did. I am mortified about that box office take though. It got such a big push, too!