Halloween season is upon us once more, and you know what that means!
…well, yes that too but also an influx of new scary movies! This year’s offerings, while fairly light on the emphasis of horror, has some pretty heavy hitters coming to a theater near you, perhaps none heavier than the latest cinematic offering from forever fanboy, Guillermo del Toro.
Now, you put Guillermo del Toro’s name before just about any movie, particularly as a director, and you are guaranteed to have my ass in a seat. No matter the genre. No matter the subject material. I’ll be there and preferably be square, (As if I come in any other form.) ready for my eyes to be fed with some of the best visuals imaginable. Like Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan, del Toro has become a brand. His movies come with the promise of utterly stunning designs, creatures, sets, etc brought to life through a pain staking attention to the man’s eye for detail. No where is this attention to detail expressed more beautifully than when he tackles a genre movie.
Even when he doesn’t hit the mark necessarily, he always delivers a memorable flick and that is really the most I can ever ask of any movie really. Lately though there seems to be an emphasis on the man’s work in the horror genre. While he hasn’t directed many strictly horror movies himself, he has produced quite a few (Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, Mama, The Orphanage, the upcoming Rings). So I suppose to say he is a “horror mastermind” may be a stretch, but who I am I to argue when I literally just said I’d see anything he is involved in, no questions asked.
Crimson Peak has been promised not only as a masterpiece in horror, but as the director’s defining masterpiece (according to the film’s marketing department oddly enough). While it most certainly isn’t either of those, it is one of his most gorgeous films to date that stumbles here and there due to do a problem many a great director has given into: an overwhelming interest in its visuals rather than its story.
“In the aftermath of a family tragedy, an aspiring author is torn between love for her childhood friend and the temptation of a mysterious outsider. Trying to escape the ghosts of her past, she is swept away to a house that breathes, bleeds – and remembers.” – IMDb.com
I think it’s been said in just about every review written about this flick, but Crimson Peak is by no means a straight-up horror movie. Sure, there are horror elements but what it actually is is a Gothic romance. There is a line that basically equates to, “This isn’t a ghost story. It’s a story with ghosts in it.”
One common misconception about Gothic fiction is that it is exclusively horror. The marketing of this film has only exacerbated this misconception, but given that a “non-scary movie with ghosts in it” may be a tough sell to a general audience. Some of the most defining works of Gothic fiction are horror (Dracula, Frankenstein or, The Modern Prometheus, etc) but it really is a genre that goes beyond just being scary. To me, it was always a genre that revealed something that was much more revealing about human nature and used elements like the supernatural or moody atmosphere to get to the bottom of it. Anyway, this isn’t a lecture; this all to serve as a defense against complaints I’m hearing about this movie “not being scary enough.”
See in college I took both an American Gothic literature class AND a survey course over the works of Edgar Allan Poe, so in other words that makes me pretty qualified to talk about the subject of Gothic literature.
Did I say qualified? Shit. I meant like the exact opposite of that. Tyler, you ignorant slut, I can’t take you anywhere. What I meant to say was that I am merely a fan of the genre. (A fandom that was put to the test in school as I was always told I was wrong about any given opinion I seemed to have or interpretation I gave, but that’s being a dumb person who up and decided to pretend to be an English major I suppose.)
By “revealing” my education, I simply want to convey a simple truth about this movie: if you have any familiarity with this specific genre you are probably going to have a blast with this film; picking up on allusions, dissecting the themes, looking for all the homages. Regardless of how snooty you may be, this is going to be a great talking piece for literature lovers ready for a good discussion.
Like with any Gothic novel, del Toro isn’t exactly subtle. We have a house that LITERALLY bleeds here, people. The metaphors aren’t exactly hard to find, and of those metaphors, none of them are exactly fresh. To me this movie is the result of throwing Fall of the House of Usher, Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, the original The Haunting and almost any period film staring Vincent Price and throw them all into a blender, and unsurprisingly this works given the talent behind all involved in the making of the movie as well as the cohesiveness of the genre. To me that’s the film’s biggest strength and its ultimate weakness. It clearly loves what came before to the point of avoiding subverting it all together. While there isn’t inherently wrong with being old, fashioned (Steven Spielberg did it with Bridge of Spies this very weekend with wondrous results.), I guess I was just hopping for something a little more fresh from del Toro here. What I wanted was a movie that floored me both visually and with big, shocking moments of revelation. I, at the very least, got the first. I just prefer a movie that takes me on a ride with its story-telling as opposed to one that I am able to easily stay ahead. (Maybe that speaks more to me as a pretentious asshole…dammit.) The script telegraphs just about every major plot development with overwritten foreshadowing from the get go rather than actually taking us for a ride. It’s a minor nitpick at best and this is still a refresher from the wave of sequels, reboots and “re-imaginings” that have flooded the market concerning anything remotely horror.
Perhaps the best element that shines through here however that del Toro and co-writer Matthew Robbins have cherry picked right from the best works of Gothic fiction is that notion that the ghosts aren’t what we should be afraid of. The ghosts are simply a device used to reveal the true monsters of the story, and that is the people. And those people do some pretty horrible and violent things to one another here. Heads are caved in, babies are murdered and faces are stabbed. While it never goes as big or ridiculous as movies like Brain Dead, this movie contains some of the best gore effects you’re likely to see this year which shouldn’t be at all surprising given its the same director that gave us this…
I need to say this once more just to make it abundantly clear that I don’t view this movie as a horror film: gothic fiction isn’t exclusively a horror genre. I’d certaintly concede that this is a Gothic horror; just not a modern one. I used to make this generalization too, believe me. This movie, while scary at times, is not a “scary movie” in the same way The Grey has several scary scenes, but is not considered a scary movie. Which luckily means I don’t have to give that same, tired, boring rant about the state of modern horror movies. (For said tired and boring rant, head on over to my It Follows review.) It also means I don’t have to go out of my way to defend a fun movie that isn’t scary but it is a lot of fun but if you want to be scared you may be out of luck but it is a fun time but not a scary one that is really fun but not scary with a little bit of fun so see it you want to have fun but not be scared.
First and foremost, this movie is stunning. In terms of visuals (production design, costume, visual effects, etc), Crimson Peak is going to be a pretty heavy contender come awards’ season. The titular “Crimson Peak” (or Allerdale Hall) is a masterwork of set design. I’m already eager for this movie’s BluRay release so I may salivate every nook and cranny. Not fit to just have an elaborate set, practical effects such as leaves and snow appear as the mansion’s roof is in decay and as previously mentioned the walls appear to bleed due to a unique red clay mine upon the estate rests and gets its name. This is a movie haunted house so beautiful and intricate, and shot so decadently by cinematographer Dan Lausten, that you want to spend more than the allotted hour the film gives you.
I must stress: this is a very del Toro house, filled with very del Toro ghosts, meaning each and every detail with some creepy yet beautiful detail that was lovingly thought out and drawn by the director before it was brought to life on the screen. There are visual cues lifted/inspired from past films, some of which del Toro has taken from his own work, particularly The Devil’s Backbone. (One of the final ghosts that appears is what I believe to be a direct allusion given its color palate and the way blood almost floats out of its spectral form.) I’ve grown fairly accustomed to the low-budget stipulations that afforded horror movies (I know I said this wasn’t a horror movie, but it was certainly marketed as one so my argument here still stands, jerks. -holds back insecure tears-) these days so to see one of this scale, with this kind of money to throw around and under the guidance of such talented designers is a real treat. I fully endorse seeing this on the biggest possible screen and just letting your eyes get lost within the production design. To any of you that got to go to Universal Studios’ Halloween Horror Nights this year with the Crimson Peak maze, you have my unbound jealousy.
Mia Wasikowska basically reprises her role as Jane Eyre, playing the smart, quasi-fragile cum unexpected heroine she has made a career out of. Like any good Gothic woman, there is something quite off (contextually) about her. She sees things that others don’t, which of course is important as she begins to deal with the supernatural. Besides the house however, the real scene-stealer here is Jessica Chastain as Lady Lucille Sharpe, who goes full on Hammer-horror in her role as the cold, not-even-remotely-subtle-in-her-ulterior-motives sister to Tom Hiddleston’s character, Sir Thomas Sharpe.
I guess it would go into full on spoiler territory if I were to go into what makes Chastain pop so much as her star really shines in the film’s last 30-40 minutes ranges and some pretty big revelations are made. I’ll just say it comes across as an actress having a shit ton of fun in role that could have otherwise come off as almost too cartoon villain(y). I could easily see someone like Bette Davis playing this part if this movie were made 50 years ago.
Hiddleston is serviceable as the “perfect gentleman” come to whisk Edith away. His nice character gets a few nice moments of inversion to the damsel-in-distress motif. He even gets some standout moments whereas Charlie Hunnam’s friend-zoned doctor sort of just fades into the background, only to reappear in the film’s climax. Also a special shout out to fellow University of Central Oklahoma alum, Jim Beaver as Edith’s father! (Last time I remind readers I actually graduated college before returning to my grammatically-challenged mediocrity, I swear.) He isn’t in the film much, but given its been a while since I’ve seen the man in anything (I miss Deadwood.) and he is always a welcome face.
So as you may have surmised given the unevenness of this review, I was totally in love with more than one aspect of this film (the production design) and a little let down in others (the story). Such is my complaint with most movies. I only wish as much love went into the story as it did into the setting. Maybe when stacked against such visuals, any story would seem inadequate.