Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The Films of 2015: Crimson Peak

Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak (2015) lacks subtlety and is not scary in the slightest.

Yet the film is beautifully -- nay, lavishly -- made.

Crimson Peak is delightfully and determinedly out-of-step with contemporary box office trends too. 

It’s a big, operatic horror movie for an age wherein audiences forever seek grittier and more naturalistic, immediate fare.

What Crimson Peak lacks in nuance and outright fright, it makes up for with abundant intelligence and sheer zeal. The film is a full-throated, sometimes genuinely “mad” call-back to -- and pastiche of -- literary works by Charlotte Bronte, Henry James, and Daphne du Maurier.

In fact, oddly enough, there’s a comparison one can make here to the original Star Wars (1977).

Just as George Lucas’s space fantasy resurrected all the clichés, tropes, and ingredients of 1930s space serials like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers -- re-painting them with state-of-the-art special effects techniques -- so does Crimson Peak resurrect many of the key settings, themes, and characters of Jane Eyre (1847), The Turn of the Screw (1898), and Rebecca (1938).

But instead of keeping his old-fashioned story cosseted with the mannered language and buttoned-down imagination of the Victorian Age, Del Toro re-paints those old narratives, themes, characters -- and especially “monsters” (or ghosts) -- with state-of-the-art CGI imagery and a Sam Raimi-esque obsession for blood and guts.

But where Star Wars successfully ignited new interest in the old format of the escapist space fantasy, Crimson Peak met with only mild-box office success (earning 74 million dollars, so far, worldwide, against a 55 million dollar budget.) 

So perhaps the experiment wasn't a total success.

Indeed, I suspect that modern audiences may not know precisely what to make of the film.

Star Wars popularized old forms that were easily “translatable” to seventies audiences and their interests, after all. Retooling a Gothic romance for the age of torture porn, remakes, and found-footage horror is a daunting task. So much of Crimson Peak’s success rests on the audience knowing, at least a bit, the type of literary tale being referenced by the filmmakers.

I, for one, am glad del Toro directed Crimson Peak, and brought it to life with such a sense of visceral delight.

The film drags a bit in the middle, and goes way over-the-top before it finishes, but Crimson Peak is  a rare treat; both insanely gorgeous and gorgeously insane.

“You see, where I come from ghosts are not to be taken lightly.”

Young Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) dreams of becoming an author. She has written her first manuscript -- a ghost story -- but is told by an editor that it lacks a “love story” angle.   

Although Edith knows much about ghosts -- since she encountered one when she was ten -- she knows nothing of love.

Soon, Edith meets Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), an English man looking to have her rich, businessman father, Carter (Jim Beaver), invest in his new invention: a mechanical digger that can remove clay from the Earth.

Carter sees through Sharpe as a child of “privilege” not “effort” and refuses to invest in his device. 

But Sharpe and his strange, saturnine sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain) see another opportunity to get at his fortune: Thomas’s marriage to Edith.

After Carter is murdered under mysterious circumstances, Edith accepts Tom’s marriage proposal and moves to England, to crumbling, isolated and ominous Allerdale Hall.

There, ghosts roam the hallways by night…hinting of sinister secrets and tragic pasts.

“Perhaps we only notice things when the time comes to see them.”

Crimson Peak’s DNA comes straight from its parents: Jane Eyre, The Turn of the Screw, and Rebecca. In all those classic tales, a young, relatively naïve woman -- whether as a governess or a new bride -- takes up residence in an English estate of dreadful history and diabolical secrets.

In Jane Eyre, it is Thornfield Hall. 

In The Turn of the Screw, it is Bly. 

And in Rebecca that estate is known as Manderley.  

In Crimson Peak, of course, we get Allerdale Hall, an estate of inhuman dimensions that is slowly sinking beneath a sea of red clay. The roof has shattered at points, and the outside environment has breached the main hall. The architecture itself seems to possess a sense of menace and inhumanity.

All such estates, however, cloak a dark family secret, and are tended to by a man who is both: 1.) haunted or tortured by his choices and history, and 2.) a prospective love interest. 

Jane Eyre's Edward Rochester, for example, keeps the same secret from Jane that Thomas keeps from Edith in Crimson Peak. 

Both men have already been married, and are technically still married. They are, therefore, not available for marriage. Uniquely, Thomas shares a history with Rebecca’s Maxim de Winter as well: he is a murderer.

Lucille, in Crimson Peak, steps into the Mrs. Danvers role, at least in a way. She is not a housekeeper at Allerdale -- as Danvers is at Manderley -- but she fulfills that function in the film; serving Edith her (poisoned) porridge and tea. 

Also, Lucille is the co-conspirator and, in a way, first “love” of Thomas that must be destroyed if Thomas and Edith are to have a chance at happiness. So she’s really both the evil first wife, Rebecca, and Mrs. Danvers too, if that description makes sense. In terms of coloring, Chastain's character certainly resembles Danvers as well.

In much broader terms, Crimson Peak, like the aforementioned tales, concerns a woman of “innocence” gaining -- through first-hand experience -- the terror of knowledge; the terror of what marriage can become if ill-conceived or poorly selected.

In Jane Eyre, Jane learns that Edward’s first wife is mad. In Rebecca, the protagonist learns that Maxim committed murder because his first wife was unfaithful and cruel. If this naïve character -- either Edith or Jane -- cannot ferret out the truth about the family she marries into or works for, she may be doomed to repeat the same tragedies.  

Beautiful things are fragile,” the film suggests, and Crimson Peak involves Edith’s discovery that though she is beautiful, she need not be so fragile after all. This description applies to both her physicality and her emotional state. 

In the case of the former, Edith Cushing -- named after Peter, no doubt -- survives poisoning, and a harrowing fall from a staircase ledge, for example.  In the latter case, Edith learns that she can fight back against those who plot against her, and that she need not be a shrinking violet.

Director del Toro finds unforgettable imagery that suggests how creatures of a fragile nature cannot survive, even though they are beautiful. 

A butterfly is devoured by ants in close-up, and that’s precisely a metaphor for what could happen to Edith, if Tom and Lucille have their way with her. Similarly, the film compares the delicate, golden butterflies of New York with the monstrous black moths of Allerdale. Once more, it is impossible not to consider these creatures as stand-ins for Edith and Lucille. 

It’s tempting to term Lucille a black widow, even, given her manipulations, and lack of a warm heart. When a butterfly is being killed in the aforementioned New York park, for example, Lucille observes to Edith that it is not sad. Instead, it’s just “nature.” 

Just as it is Lucille’s nature to love Tom, and dominate (and kill…) Edith...as she has killed all of Tom’s previous wives. So Lucille is essentially letting herself off the hook when she describes the destruction of beauty as nature's way. She is not a monster, she is just a product of her nature. Or so Lucille tells herself.

Additionally, this description seems a sub-textual reference to On the Origin of the Species (1859), Darwin’s treatise on evolutionary biology. In the 1887 of the del Toro film, Lucille would certainly have been familiar with that controversial work, and applied the kind of “survival of the fittest” paradigm to her attempts to secure financial superiority for herself, her brother, and her family.

By contrast, the symbolism related to Edith is not that of a predator. Rather, her metaphorical journey involves the golden butterflies, as well as her stated belief that “ghosts are a metaphor.”  

Specifically, ghosts are a metaphor for the past, and the dark, tragic histories that haunt many families. The film's ghosts may also be a metaphor for the “love” that Edith comes to learn about, via her experience with Thomas Sharpe. 

The first ghost Edith ever saw was that of her dead mother who -- out of love -- warned her to stay far clear of “Crimson Peak.”  

Her great adult love -- whom she loses -- is Tom, and before the movie is over, he too is a ghost; one undone not by love, but by the familial past that bound him to Lucille and her twisted love.

Crimson Peak debates “monstrous love” and notes that “all the horror was for love,” thus intertwining ghosts and love in an unforgettable and inseparable fashion. That which twists the living towards horror and death, perhaps, is love. That which haunts the living are the ghosts of love; intense feelings of rejection and pain so powerful and long-lasting that they inhabit the dark halls of Allerdale for all its days.

Guillermo del Toro couples his penchant for careful visual and thematic symbolism with extreme gore and violence, and it is bracing juxtaposition. I don’t find the ghosts in the film scary in the slightest, but I do find the brutality of several scenes not just intense, but very disturbing.

Also, I appreciate how the ghosts are visualized. Their wounds (in life) still bleed in death; leaving delicate comet tails and wisps in the air. The ides -- once more -- is of the permanence of history. Even in death, you cannot escape the “wounds” brought about by love. 

They forever bleed.

Crimson Peak is profoundly gory, and if the film doesn’t manage to truly frighten its viewers, it definitely manages to sicken and unsettle them.  One unfortunate soul gets a knife to the face, right below the eye, and then -- at agonizing length -- pulls the blade out. Charlie Hunnam’s character gets stabbed in the arm-pit, and blood fountains out of the wound like he's a kaiju from a Gamera movie.

The film's gore descends into real savagery, until any pretense that Crimson Peak is Downton Abbey -- but with ghosts -- dissipates, much like those blood-laden comet tails. Chastain is marvelous as the film’s villain, and the violence grows so extreme that one is tempted to turn away. The murder of Edith’s father (by porcelain sink…) is one of the most violent and disturbing sequences I have seen in quite a while

I confess, I am a bit surprised that Crimson Peak is more wild and outrageous than it is careful. It doesn’t feature the slow-build towards insanity of a film like Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) nor an ambiguous commitment to the presence of ghosts, like Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1960).

Instead, del Toro chooses a different course and commits to it with bloody dedication. 

Overall, the idea if the film seems to be that ghosts “are real,” but they are a hell of a lot less frightening than people are. They are less frightening than Lucille is. She’s the movie’s real monster -- made so by “love,  The ghosts are really just bit players.

Crimson Peak takes an old format, the Gothic romance, and imbues it with buckets of blood, powerful symbolism, and much beautiful photography and production design.  New York of 1887 is lovingly crafted in hues of gold, suggesting an Aurelian age of progress and wisdom. That world contrasts with the barren, dark world of Allerdale Hall, where the family’s secrets erupt from the ground in that scarlet clay, laying bare a history of deceit and madness.  Everything pure (like snow) becomes corrupted by red.

I’ve written many times that a key rubric for any horror movie must be, first and foremost: does it scare the audience? 

Crimson Peak fails that test, but substitutes other worthwhile pleasures. I realize we have Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016) on the horizon, but Crimson Peak is, instead, Jane Eyre Meets the Evil Dead...and it isn’t a parody. 

It’s a pastiche, and that means that del Toro goes about his art with his painter’s eye for memorable imagery. His intellect informs every scene too. The director can only expand the boundaries of the Gothic romance by understanding the history of the Gothic romance.

It's fair to state del Toro knows his Gothic romances well, and therefore is the perfect artist to take its tropes to a new -- and bloody -- peak.

1 comment:

  1. I really enjoyed this movie but I'd read just enough reviews that I didn't expect to be scared.