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Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Director Report Card: Guillermo del Toro (2015)

9. Crimson Peak

Guillermo del Toro has never been shy about his love of gothic literature. Listen to any of his audio commentaries or watch any of the special features he’s in. His enthusiasm for gothic stories and films is evident. It was only a matter of time before he made a feature length tribute to the genre. He’s dabbled before. “The Devil’s Backbone” and “Pan’s Labyrinth” both have elements of it. If you squint, you can even see traces of it in “Blade II.” With “Crimson Peak,” my most anticipated film of 2015, del Toro endeavored to make a movie which could stand among the most iconic gothic stories.

From a young age, Edith Cushing has seen ghosts. Now as a young adult, she endeavors to write novels about ghosts. Her father, a self-made industrialist, is receiving offers from Thomas Sharpe, a British nobleman seeking investments for his family’s clay mining business. Cushing’s dad turns him down but Thomas still wins Edith’s heart. Soon afterwards, her father is brutally murdered. In her grief, Edith is swept away by Sharpe to his family manor, Allerdale Hall, in the British countryside. A crumbling old mansion, the red clay that seeps in through the floors earns the place the nickname of Crimson Peak. Edith is soon seeing ghosts again, warning her of something awful. Facing a cold reception from Thomas’ sister Lucille, and a sudden sickness, Edith begins to suspect that something sinister may be happening at Crimson Peak.

That “Crimson Peak” has done mediocre business at the box office is disappointing but not surprising. There are few less commercial genres in 2015 then the gothic melodrama. Which “Crimson Peak” unapologetically is. The film freely partakes in the conventions and clichés of that literary genre. There’s the female heroine. Though the film doesn’t commit to it fully, she’s pulled between two suitors, in a classical love triangle. There’s the crumbling old mansion, betrayal, family secrets, murder, and intrigue. “Crimson Peak” is even, to a degree, self-reflective. Edith is a would-be author who writes gothic literature herself, ghost stories with some romance weaved in. The world probably isn’t calling out for new stories in the vein of Bronte or Shelley but “Crimson Peak” is, nevertheless, a loving tribute to those authors and many more.

“Crimson Peak” stars Mia Wasikowska, an Australian actress who has been cast in plenty of period piece costume dramas. Out of all the English waifs we have right now, she is one of the most consistently talented. On this level, Wasikowska is very experienced playing these kinds of characters. Edith is a woman of manners, living a life of privilege at the turn of the century. However, Mia brings a certain rebellious quality to the part. She is good at deflating the stuffed shirts around her with frank, cutting language. This doesn’t exclude her father, who is always slightly humbled by his daughter’s intelligence. As a female writer during the Victorian period, she faces rejections from publisher because her stories don’t have romances in them. As the film becomes darker, Edith has to investigate loose ends and survive a situation that threatens her life. Casting Wasikowska in the part might be a bit on the nose but there’s no doubt that she’s excellent at this.

The biggest flaw of “Crimson Peak” is a slow first act. If it wasn’t for a handful of supernatural scenes, you’d be justify in thinking the film isn’t a horror movie at all. The opening half-hour concerns itself with setting up the rest of the plot. Part of this necessitates focusing on the romance. Thomas Sharpe is immediately smitten with Edith and it doesn’t take long for her to come around. The romance is charming, especially in a sequence where the two dance perfectly through a ballroom. It wouldn’t be a gothic romance without some drama and love triangles. Edith’s father forces Thomas to leave the country, necessitating that he break the girl’s heart. An absolutely brutal scene follows, where he viciously dumps her in front of a whole room. Edith has a back-up love interest in the form of Dr. Alan McMichael. Charlie Hunnam, perhaps in reaction to his stale-as-cardboard turn in “Pacific Rim,” plays the boring secondary male lead. Though it hints at it, “Crimson Peak” makes no attempt to actually pursue a relationship between Edith and Alan. Her romance with Sharpe, despite what happens in the film, is truthful. The two share a passionate love scene, pushing the movie into truly adult territory.

“Crimson Peak” isn’t just a romance though. The film is also deeply entrenched in the rules of the gothic melodrama genre. Betrayal and scheming is an integral part of the story. It turns out the Sharpes have ulterior motives. In a very classical plot turn, Edith is being poisoned by an extra ingredient in the tea. The Sharpes are after her family money, that most archetypal of villainous motivation. There is a trail of dead bodies in the Sharpes’ wake, previous brides bumped off for their fortunes. Naturally, Edith has to discover all of this on her own. Like hundreds of heroines before her, she has to sneak around the mansion at night, peaking into locked rooms, and discover the horrible secrets. It’s not especially difficult to figure out where the plot is going. The joy is in watching the character discover it.

In the lead-up to “Crimson Peak’s” release, I remember hearing someone describe it as a grown-up version of Disney’s Haunted Mansion. del Toro has spoken about his fandom for that attraction before and was even attached to make a movie about it at one point. In general, the director loves sprawling gothic manors. Accordingly, “Crimson Peak” may be the ultimate sprawling gothic manor movie. From the moment Edith enters the house, it’s clear how run-down it has gotten. There’s a hole in the ceiling in the center of the main hall. Leaves or snow drifts inside, rooting the movie strongly to its seasonal settings. The floorboards creak. The elevator sparks and grinds when activated, weaving to life. The house is full of hidden rooms and dark secrets. The production design is gorgeous, as the camera lingers on the mouths, shadows, and dust clinging to the home’s walls.

To say that a location is a character is an overused critical cliché. However, in “Crimson Peak,” the house really is a character. Not long after entering Crimson Peak, Thomas points out that the red clay seeps up through the floorboards. That dripping red clay is present throughout most of the home. It’s as if Allerdale Hall has a life blood all its own, flowing through every wall and board. If the amount of bleeding it does is any indication, Allerdale Hall is dying. When Edith jumps into the elevator, seemingly activated of its own will, she descends into the gory entrails of the home, huge amounts of red liquid collected in small pools. The amount of care put into making the building seem like a real place, full of detail and personality, is one of “Crimson Peak’s” greatest strengths.

Inside the walls of Allerdale Hall, everything is a sickly green or blue colors. It’s not a world where any warmth can grow. The only bright colors there belong to the blood red clay inching into the building. The clay is bright red, like the fake gore in a Hammer horror movie. If the building is an organism, then the blood is the sign that it’s sick. The only other thing of any color is Edith. The character is always dressed in warmly colored gowns. One especially notable dress is bright, autumn yellow. As she sinks into the bowels of the home, surrounding on all sides by a ghostly blue, her earthy coloration stands out. del Toro uses color to established mood and character. The visuals are gorgeous on their own but also further the audience’s understanding of the film’s world.

If there’s one major criticism that can be leveled at “Crimson Peak,” it concerns the ghost. While sold as a ghost story, the actual spirits play a small part in the finished film. They appear in a handful of sequences, warning Edith about the danger to come. Guillermo del Toro is capable of making frightening, intense horror films. He’s done it before. Weirdly, none of the major scare sequence in “Crimson Peak” land. When the ghosts appear, they’re contorting masses of CGI bones. Their skull faces burst through doors and around corners, accompanied by load scares on the soundtrack. All the ghost sequences are a little too heavy on the jump-scares and the CGI to be truly effective. It’s not from a lack of trying. From a design perspective, they work. Portrayed as skeletons, ribbons of smoky debris always float around their bodies. The ghosts as Allerdale Hall are blood red, fitting the Crimson Peak setting. del Toro’s resident monster-man Doug Jones performs all the ghosts in the film, bringing his twitching and miming skills to the part. The ghost should’ve been scary but, for some reason, they just aren’t.

Then again, maybe the ghosts aren’t supposed to be scary. As in “The Devil’s Backbone,” the ghosts aren’t the monsters in “Crimson Peak.” The people are. The film has occasional bursts of intense violence. A head is smashed into the ridge of a sink, repeatedly bashed against the porcelain until it’s concave. A knife is stabbed into a face, right beneath an eye. Even worst then that is when the blade is pulled out. And though the perpetrators of the crimes are undoubtedly monsters, even the human monsters in a del Toro film are somewhat sympathetic. The killers are driven by lust, desire, and fear. Like any good gothic melodrama, there are dark, forbidden family secrets. Either way, the movie is focused on the point that we shouldn’t fear the dead but the living.

Even with smaller parts from Hunnam and Burn Gorman as a shifty P.I., “Crimson Peak” is essentially a three-person movie. Aside from Mia, Tom Hiddleson and Jessica Chastain are the most important players. “Crimson Peak” will surely be a hit with Hiddleson fan girls and not just because he shows his butt. He’s the ideal type of romantic leading man for this sort of story. He’s mysterious and not entirely pure in his motivations. He’s also sensitive, something of a coward pushed around by his older sister. Despite all this, his feelings for Edith are real. It takes a qualified actor to embody so many conflicting attitudes and Hiddleson is more then up to the job. As good as Tom and Mia both are, Chastain is the one who dominates “Crimson Peak.” As Lucille, she is pure wind-up emotion. Under a mask of civility, she hides boiling contempt and anger. In the final act, she’s allowed to really go nuts yet never looses her steely determination.

As a fan of Guillermo del Toro, gothic melodramas, and spooky old buildings, I was probably predisposed to love “Crimson Peak.” In the future, I’ll doubt it will be looked back on as a serious work by its director. It’s ultimately an exercise in imitation, instead of a major achievement on its own. There’s nothing wrong with that though. If you like “The Innocents,” “The Uninvited,” “Jane Eyre,” or “Wuthering Heights,” “Crimson Peak” is likely to be right up your alley. Enjoy it for the fun mystery, the top-shelf performances, and the amazing production design. [Grade: B+]

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