Wednesday, October 28, 2015

New movie review: Crimson Peak

Mia Wasikowska stars in director Guillermo del Toro's excellent Gothic romance Crimson Peak.

Most great directors are students of film history, and their movies are littered with references to cinema of the past. Others take it a step further and create whole-film homages to a style or genre. These are the movies really made for cinephiles and obsessives, for people with a deep knowledge of film history and a passion for the medium. They are films such as Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven, Steven Soderbergh’s The Good German, or Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist.

These are all rich, textured works with a deep understanding and abiding love of their forebears, and viewers with that same understanding and love will get much more from these films than the average movie-goer. This is not to say you must be intimately familiar with the melodramas of Douglas Sirk to enjoy Far From Heaven or immersed in the cinematic language of 1940s film noir to get The Good German, but it helps.

I thought about this a lot while watching writer-director Guillermo del Toro’s lush, moody gothic romance Crimson Peak. Both in story and style, it is a film steeped in the past and reverential toward the foundation on which its creepy, haunted-house tale is figuratively built. The movie is riddled with nods to the work of Italian horror masters Mario Bava and Dario Argento, as well as to classic films such as The Haunting (1963) and The Innocents.

The horror genre is clearly a part of del Toro’s DNA, and Crimson Peak will appeal to similarly engaged terror aficionados. I wonder, however, how this faithful tribute to the high-style horror of the 1960s will play for the uninitiated. The numbers so far suggest it is not playing well. It will make back its money worldwide, but no one is going to be happy about $22 million domestic in nearly three weeks of release. If I were to guess, it is not succeeding because most people do not know what it is.

This is a film made for another time. It seems modern horror franchises – and they are all franchises now – are about scary dolls or scary kids or some combination of the two. Consider the Insidious movies, The Conjuring and its spinoff Annabelle, and the Paranormal Activity series. Much as these are enjoyable movies in their own right, they are also cheap, shock-fests. They are about the jump scares and the promise of mayhem.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with thrills-first moviemaking if the movies are good. This is simply the current state of horror. Audiences want the adrenaline rush of fear and the nausea of disgust, and why not? It can be a hell of a lot of fun, but it is not the environment into which a studio can launch a throwback like Crimson Peak.

I saw the movie on opening night in a three-quarters-full IMAX theater, and I can say firsthand the vast majority of the audience could make neither heads nor tales of the film. It is not a story issue but a tone issue. Modern viewers are primed for sarcasm and meta-humor and for the kind of movies that wink at the camera and say, “Hey, isn’t this silly but also a lot of fun?” There may not be a market for a somber, serious romance that prefers to make you shiver rather than shriek.

It is a shame, too, because Crimson Peak is a stunning film. It is absolutely gorgeous to look at, the acting is magnificent, and del Toro strikes a perfect balance between florid direction and straightforward writing. The premise concocted by del Toro and co-writer Matthew Robbins is simple and classical, which leaves plenty of room for del Toro to explore the world of the story.

Jessica Chastain in Crimson Peak.
Edith (Mia Wasikowska) is the daughter of a wealthy American businessman. Thomas (Tom Hiddleston) comes to the U.S. with his sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain), in search of investors in his clay mining operation. Thomas woos Edith, and after her father dies under mysterious circumstances, she is whisked away to England to live with Thomas and Lucille in their family’s decrepit estate, nicknamed Crimson Peak for the red clay soil on which it sits. The mansion is haunted, and the siblings clearly have some nefarious plot they are playing out, so Edith must survive threats from both the living and the dead.

The film opens with Edith speaking in voiceover: “Ghosts are real. That much I know. I’ve seen them all my life.” The first scene is of a young Edith being visited by the spirit of her dead mother, who tells her, “Beware of Crimson Peak.” The effects work on the ghosts is gorgeous in as much as the ghosts are convincingly ghoulish and frightening, but this is just their appearance. Their function in the story is less clear-cut. They are tormented souls, no doubt, but they are not malevolent. Ultimately, they seem to want what Edith wants: release from the pain caused to them by Crimson Peak.

Wasikowska continues to show tremendous range as an actress, and as Edith, she projects the perfect mix of strength and naïveté. Throughout the film, Lucille speaks of Edith’s fragility and youth, which Wasikowska easily taps into, but what makes Edith a great heroine is that her tormentors underestimate the fierceness of her will. Wasikowska is expert at channeling this determination and showing us Edith’s fight, even when she is confined to bed by illness or hobbled by a broken leg.

Chastain and Hiddleston play off each other beautifully as two people at different points on the same path. They are scam artists, of a sort, but Lucille is older and more embittered, while Thomas is slightly younger and more open to other possibilities in life. This is what makes Edith so threatening to Lucille – her youth. Chastain sulks and glowers and spits and injects a degree of humanity into a villain role that would be over the top in less sure hands.

The same could be said for the film as a whole. In less sure hands than del Toro’s or those of his incredible cast, Crimson Peak could be a Grand Guignol exercise in extravagance and eccentricity. It is not because everyone plays it straight with love of the craft and devotion to del Toro’s vision. Most audiences will not share that vision, but for those of us who do, we can be thankful there is a director like del Toro to put it on screen.

See it? Yes.

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