Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Crimson Peak


I was encouraged by the trailers and advertisements for last fall's CRIMSON PEAK; here was, in an age of one crappy (and crappy looking) horror film after another, what appeared to be a good old fashioned ghost story, beautifully photographed (by Dan Laustsen), and directed by Guillermo del Toro, one of the few maestros in the genre these days.  And appearances were not deceptive: this is a visually rich, relatively restrained contemporary chiller that emphasizes story over spectacle.  Del Toro lends a sure, stylish hand to the action.

But I'm not applauding.  Not loudly, anyway.  I found CRIMSON PEAK to be a laborious, overlong attempt rather than a crackling good time. It's disheartening.  A promising idea that sinks into murk and boredom.  The main culprit? The script by the director and Matthew Robbins.  Said maestro del Toro can only do so much with a lackluster blueprint, even his own. Aren't ghost stories such as this supposed to be spooky? Compelling?  There has to be a more interesting tale to tell if indeed ghosts are "metaphors for the past" as one character explains.  The dashes of Emily Bronte and Daphne du Maurier are intriguing starting points but don't really gel.

I was expecting to at least praise the atmosphere of the film, but even it is lacking, despite some tasty sets and props (that elevator gets a lot of mileage).  Atmosphere is everything in films like this, but it matches the screenplay in half-heartedness.  How is it that del Toro, who cites THE SHINING as an influence for CRIMSON PEAK, fell so short?

Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska, appropriately sullen) is a feminist author in 19th century America. Her writings favor the supernatural rather than paper thin romances.  This may be due in part to the visits from her dead mother during childhood.   Edith confuses and irritates her contemporaries and potential suitors, though for the same reasons delights her strong-willed, wealthy businessman father Carter (Jim Beaver, strangely reminiscent of Gene Hackman).  Dad smells something rotten in Denmark when Englishman Sir Thomas Sharp (Tom Hiddleston) comes a courting.  Cushing is even less sure (with good reason) about Sharp's sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain, easily stealing the movie).  Edith receives another visit from her deceased mother, with warnings about a place called "Crimson Peak".

The rest is for my dear invisible audience to discover.  Suffice it to say that loved ones die and a rotting mansion surrounded by red clay will be the setting for the later scenes. More computer generated ghosts will hover and scream.  The screams are the only convincing and eerie things about them, really.  Would it have been more convincing to have actors running about in sheets? Dunno, but the visuals here inspire no dread, fear, or emotional reaction, the very things that make ghost stories - whether around a campfire or otherwise - so fascinating. 

Until the very end - big spoiler alert - when brother and sister become apparitions themselves, doomed to remain in their ancient domecile.  Lucille, a conniving, Lady Macbeth-like conspirator who likes to play the piano in the parlor and is insanely jealous of Edith (also with good reason), is left in death to forever play those ivories.  It's the final image we see in CRIMSON PEAK, and would be a hell of a starting point for a powerful ghost tale.

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