Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Review - Crimson Peak

          Ok, it's finally time to get back in to "the swing of things", so to speak. It has been some time since I have done a film review (since Ant-Man, to be exact), and October was filled with all kinds of things to keep me (and the blog) occupied, from defending the antics of Rebecca Brink to scrambling around the Starbucks Center for Hack Day. October was also the month that saw a handful of movies that, at least initially, seemed interesting; The Last Witch Hunter, Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension, and Crimson Peak, to be specific. I actually hadn't heard much about The Last Witch Hunter until I saw the poster for it when I went to see Ant-Man, and, other than realizing it had Vin Diesel in it, I didn't learn much more about it between then and its release. The Paranormal Activity series, on the other hand, is a series that I am familiar with, and, I will admit, is a series that I actually enjoy, despite the fact that the films consist of little more than strings of jump-scares tied together by a tissue-thin plot. And, like The Last Witch Hunter, Crimson Peak is a movie that I had never heard of until I saw the poster for it when I went to see Ant-Man. What caught my initial attention was the caption "From the director of Pan's Labyrinth and The Others".
          Between those three, it didn't take long for me to decide to do this review on Crimson Peak. The more intriguing part of the decision process is perhaps that fact that I didn't really have to do much to narrow it down; The Last Witch Hunter reportedly bombed, and, though I said that I enjoy the Paranormal Activity series, I have become more and more disenchanted with it as it has dragged on. And then compare these stats against a film by Guillermo Del Toro, a very talented filmmaker, and the choice becomes almost a no-brainer. In any case, this review will be something different for me to write, and hopefully something just as enjoyable to read, insofar as this will be a review of a horror film, in stark contrast to the action and sci-fi films I have reviewed thus far. And I have been wanting to do a review of a horror film for a while now; as a long-time fan of the genre, with a small collection of the classic black-and-whites (i.e. The House on Haunted Hill and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), I believe I at least have an idea of what it means to be a good horror film.
          I must confess that I had a handful of expectations going in to Crimson Peak, most of which were met, though I will say that I was disappointed with regard to others. The expectations I had pretty much stem from the fact that Crimson Peak was made by Guillermo Del Toro, a Mexican filmmaker that has previously showcased a large degree of artistic and fantastic talent. Pan's Labyrinth (El Laberinto del Fauno en espanol), for example, with a pure stroke of genius, somehow managed to blur the lines between a children's fairy tale, a fantastic horror story, and an extremely violent adult war film, all presented in the Spanish language, thus adding a new dimension of fiction to Spanish-language cinema. And by no means is Del Toro's genius confined to the Spanish language. One simply need to look at Pacific Rim to see a recent English-language example of Del Toro's talent. What makes Pacific Rim particularly interesting is the fact that it pays homage to the Japanese "mecha" genre of fiction, a genre that anyone who watched cartoons as a child in the 90s, like myself, should be familiar with (Mobile Suit Gundam: Gundam Wing should ring some bells here). And it seems pretty clear that it was Del Toro's intent to pay homage to the genre, as evidenced by that fact that he casts Rinko Kikuchi, a Japanese actress, in one of the leading roles. Another aspect of Crimson Peak that led me to have the expectations that I did was the fact that Tom Hiddleston was cast into one of the leading roles. While Tom Hiddleston seems to have become one of the latest fangirl heartthrobs, much in the same way that Benedict Cumberbatch did after Star Trek Into Darkness or Joseph Gordon-Levitt after The Dark Knight Rises and Inception (and much in the same way that I predict Adam Driver will be after The Force Awakens), I actually have a degree of respect for him. Hiddleston is certainly one of the better actors in the entirety of the Marvel Cinematic Universe for his portrayal of Loki (a title really only rivaled by Downey Jr.'s portrayal of Tony Stark). Add to this the fact that he has a degree in Classics from Cambridge, a field that, as I have admitted in the past, I have had a long interest in, and he commands a degree of respect from me.
          Given this background information on the "who's who" of Crimson Peak, I was already expecting something with much more depth than the other two choices. Given Del Toro's track record with art and storytelling, I knew that Crimson Peak wouldn't rely on the jump-scare gimmicks that Paranormal Activity relies on. This is not to say that Crimson Peak didn't have its moments of suspense, but, unlike Paranormal Activity, it does not use them as a crutch, so to speak (i.e. Crimson Peak doesn't rely on jump-scares as its primary driving force). And, given Hiddleston's more refined and sophisticated background, as well as Del Toro's attention to story, I also knew that Crimson Peak wasn't going to rely on the drawn-out action sequences that I imagine characterize The Last Witch Hunter, which I expect to be closer to Blade than anything Del Toro has produced. At this point, the question then becomes "what kind of horror movie is Crimson Peak?" Well, Crimson Peak is best described as a dark romance, at times invoking elements of a ghost story told around a campfire in the woods, and at other times invoking elements of suspense and mystery, akin to what you would find in The Bone Collector or Red Dragon. If one wanted to try and set Crimson Peak among literary examples, it is reminiscent of Victorian-era romanticism and the gothic novel, more akin to The Hound of the Baskervilles or The Turn of the Screw or the works of John Keats and Sheridan Le Fanu as opposed to the extreme violence, malice, and weirdness that characterize more modern entries in the horror genre, such as the works of H.P. Lovecraft or Clive Barker's The Hellbound Heart.
          Crimson Peak opens up with one Edith Cushing reminiscing on the funeral of her mother, who had died of illness when she was still a child. One cold night soon thereafter, the ghost of Edith's mother visits the child in the middle of the night and warns her to stay away from a mysterious place called "Crimson Peak", a warning that Edith would not be able to make sense of until years later. Fast forward fourteen years. Edith (Mia Wasikowska) is an aspiring writer in the Victorian period looking to the break the stereotype of female writers at the time by producing a ghost story as opposed to a romance novel, while her father, Carter Cushing (Jim Beaver), is a very wealthy and successful American businessman based in Buffalo, NY. Edith finds herself working reception for her father's business one day when Sir Thomas Sharpe (Hiddleston), a young English baronet, walks in with a business proposal for Mr. Cushing to invest in his invention for a machine that is supposed to revolutionize clay mining for bricks. Sharpe's business proposal is ultimately rejected by Mr. Cushing and he has no other choice but to leave empty handed, but not before catching the attention of, and more or less swooning, Edith. What unfolds after that is a blood-soaked love story between Edith and Thomas, which includes the murder of Edith's father, Edith marrying Thomas and moving to his estate in England, the very ominous demeanor of Thomas' sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain), the disappearance of several women throughout Europe, and Edith's ghostly visions. And it is eventually revealed that, because the thin red clay beneath the Sharpe Estate has a tendency to stain the winter snow red, the hill that the Sharpe Estate is built on is sometimes referred to as "Crimson Peak".
          Again, there is no question that Crimson Peak is something far more sophisticated than most horror films that have been produced lately, and that it does a large number of things well. Perhaps first and foremost, Crimson Peak actually has a pretty compelling story. The references to The Bone Collector and Red Dragon that I made earlier seem pretty accurate for a handful of reasons; Crimson Peak has the elements of mystery and suspense that characterize The Bone Collector and Red Dragon, and keep one intellectually invested in the film. For example, Carter Cushing is murdered fairly early on in the film, but it is not readily apparent who did it and why. What makes this mystery particularly compelling is Del Toro's genius in its implementation; despite the fact that we are unsure who the murderer was, we are actually provided with a handful of potential suspects as well as a number of clues with regard to a motive. This gives Crimson Peak a kind of "whodunit" dimension, slightly mesmerizing in its own right, like a Sherlock Holmes novel or a game of "Clue". Yet another aspect of the film that is done well that complements this mystery element is its great character development, and, while Del Toro's writing of these characters certainly merits praise, virtually all of the actors deserve credit here, from Hiddleston to Charlie Hunnam, who plays Edith's American love interest that ultimately investigates the mysteries surround the Sharpe siblings. For example, only a half-wit would hastily arrive at the conclusion that Thomas murdered Carter Cushing; someone a little more analytical would realize that the character profile for Thomas Sharpe does not lend itself well to the manner of the murder, or even the initial motive given. Meanwhile, one has to wonder who the shady private investigator that Carter Cushing hires to snoop on the Sharpes, Mr. Holly, really is. Beyond the plot and character development, there are, of course, the overall aesthetics and artistic presentation of the set pieces, very much in Del Toro's signature style. The ghosts, for example, have the same crooked and contorted walk that characterized the child-eating "Pale Man" in Pan's Labyrinth. The hill of red clay that the Sharpe Estate is built on occasionally causes the house to ooze bright red from the walls, contrasting the cool, dark blacks and greys of the paint, sometimes even evoking the famous ending scene of The Amityville Horror. And Crimson Peak ties all of this together nicely with its own share of blood and violence, unafraid to showcase the grim circumstances driving the plot.
          However, despite all of these things that Crimson Peak does well, I would hesitate to put it in the same category as Del Toro's greater works. There are two primary things that I think the film misses the mark on, so to speak. First, even though Crimson Peak has a far more sophisticated plot than any other recent horror film, its plot is still pretty generic: a haunted house in Victorian England. Don't get me wrong; I have been a long time fan of Victorian poetry and literature (I do have an Edgar Allan Poe tattoo and Dracula still remains one of my all time favorite novels), and Victorian Britain has served as the setting of some of the most classic ghost stories. But that's the very point that works against Crimson Peak; we have plenty of Victorian ghost stories already. And while adding more of a good thing doesn't hurt, one must compare Crimson Peak to Del Toro's previous work. Perhaps this is just a kind of "artsy snobbishness" on my part, but Crimson Peak seems to lack the imagination or innovation of Pan's Labyrinth; El Laberinto del Fauno situated a very graphic children's fairly tale in the middle of the Spanish Civil War, and did it all in the Spanish language, almost single-handedly jump-starting Spanish-language horror and fantasy cinema (perhaps the biggest title in Spanish-language horror cinema at the time was [REC], and this was still a fairly obscure title until its English-language remake in Quarantine, which is still a relatively obscure title even for English-speaking audiences). Pan's Labyrinth was more or less something unheard of before, unlike Crimson Peak, which feels as if it has been done dozens of times. Even among Del Toro's English-language works, Crimson Peak lacks the innovation of Pacific Rim, which brought English-speaking audiences a live-action iteration of the Japanese "mecha" genre, which hadn't really been done before (at least, not done well). The second big point of criticism that I think can be aimed at Crimson Peak has to do with its implementation of the actual ghosts in the film. Quite frankly, it's not clear to me whether the ghosts were even a necessary part of the film. The plot could have been carried out without them and more or less have achieved the same effect. For example, as mentioned, Edith's mother's ghost makes an appearance in the first five minutes of the film and warns her to stay away from Crimson Peak, but when the time actually comes for adult Edith to heed that warning, she actually does nothing; Edith learns she is at Crimson Peak, but merely reflects on the warning for a brief moment before resuming her day to day activities. In another scene towards the end of the film, when Edith has a better understanding of who these ghosts are, she runs in to one of them in the hallway of the Sharpe Estate and asks it where she should go in order to get to the bottom of this mystery (in an almost "Scooby Doo" fashion), at which point the ghost just promptly points her down another hallway, more or less rendering the ghost as nothing more than a supernatural sign post. It is also particularly interesting that Edith seems to be the only person that can interact with them for the overwhelming majority of the film; one would imagine that an angry, vengeful ghost would seek to haunt and torment his or her murderer, but in this case the ghosts simply seem to relegate themselves to sign post status. And if one were to try and make the argument that perhaps the ghosts are figments of Edith's imagination, then such an interpretation would quickly fail; the ghosts bring about tangible effects in the world, such as slamming doors and throwing balls, things that cannot be experienced by one person alone. Yet despite this, every other character in the movie seems to be more or less oblivious to the ghosts, nor do the ghosts try to bring about anything more substantial than slamming doors.
          Overall, Crimson Peak certainly gets my recommendation, and it is, by far, one of the better horror films I have seen in a long time, but it is also not Guillermo Del Toro's best work. It is your pretty typical ghost story, set against the tried and true backdrop of Victorian England, augmented by elements of mystery and romance. However, if one is looking for something more innovative or imaginative,  a little more avant-garde than classic, then I would refer him or her elsewhere. The problem with that is that Crimson Peak is more or less the apex of horror films right now, much to my great dismay.

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