Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Beware of "Crimson Peak"

Over and over again I've heard the complaint: the ghosts in "Crimson Peak" aren't scary.  This doesn't surprise me, as the ghosts in Guillermo Del Toro movies aren't usually scary.  Del Toro often uses them to warn the heroes of impending horror, to act as reminders of past depravities.  It's the living human beings who are the really terrifying ones.

And so it is with "Crimson Peak," the gloriously over-the-top Gothic romance that is Del Toro's latest, and perhaps most gorgeous creation.  Set in the late 1800s, the heroine is a young American writer, Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), who is romanced by a mysterious baronet and inventor, Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), despite the misgivings of Edith's father (Jim Beaver) and family friend Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam).  Sir Thomas and his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) share a sinister relationship with a lot of secrets, and act as caretakers of the massive, dilapidated Allerdale Hall.  Edith's arrival to Allerdale sets off a chain of events that threatens to doom them all. 

The opulent, sinking ruins of Allerdale Hall are the source of some of the best visuals that Guillermo Del Toro has ever produced.  Like last summer's "Mad Max," a good chunk of the storytelling comes from the characters exploring and interacting with their environments, which is why it's a shame that it takes so long for Edith to get to Allerdale.  The first part of the film in America focuses on Sir Thomas's efforts to woo her, similar to the way Hitchcock's "Rebecca" was structured with a tense courtship drama up front, leading into the more famous scenes of suspense and terror at Manderley.  It doesn't work nearly so well for "Crimson Peak," because the pacing isn't as tight, and the characters are flatter, less engaging.  Fortunately the actors are strong enough to fill in some of the blanks, particularly Jessica Chastain sinking her teeth into some juicy villainy.

The gloves come off when we do get to Allerdale, sitting on top of a mining operation that seeps blood-red clay into the foundations, the walls, and the very air.  Parts of the roof are missing, so the snow falls unhindered into the cavernous foyer, and even into the subterranean pits below.  Wasikowska, clad in a series of ever more resplendent, diaphanous costumes, makes her way through its dim, endless corridors with growing urgency.  You get the sense that if she tarries too long, the house will simply swallow her whole.  No subtlety here, no restraint, and, no apologies.  Guillermo Del Toro happily sacrifices the niceties of the mystery plotting for more atmosphere, more madness, more passion.   

At times "Crimson Peak" skirts the campy and ridiculous, especially as the reveals pile monstrosity upon monstrosity at the film's climax.  And yet, this feels like the Del Toro film closest to his brutal Spanish language masterpieces, "The Devil's Backbone" and "Pan's Labyrinth," in ages.  Amidst the most ludicrous developments (and they do get ludicrous), he keeps turning up these beautiful, striking images: a ghost in the snow trailing streams of smoky ectoplasm, a killer's private collection of gruesome personal trophies, and Jessica Chastain with her mask off at last, beautifully disheveled and out for blood.  There is so much dread and death in this film, presented so exquisitely.

I love "Crimson Peak" in spite of its many flaws.  I love that it's unabashedly romantic, gratuitously melodramatic, and that at the end we get a great catfight between the two female leads that has them trailing blood and venom all over the frame.  I am a sucker for lavish art direction, for period pieces, and for genre fiction in any combination.  I won't make the argument that this is a great film, but this is the work of a great director in full command of his considerable powers, making something that he clearly loves making.  And Guillermo Del Toro films come rarely enough these days that it's something worth savoring.

I fully expect that some will hate this film for not matching its scare-promising marketing campaign, and some may be confused by its old fashioned intentions.  I, however, have always enjoyed Gothic horror and found Del Toro's contribution to the genre sorely overdue.  He should be making more films like this.

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