October 26, 2015

Crimson Peak

Crimson Peak is a perfectly serviceable ghost picture, and yet it feels like a disappointment coming from director Guillermo del Toro. It's overly conventional when it needed to be bonkers. In 2006, Del Toro galvanized us with Pan’s Labyrinth, a film that so elegantly encompassed both the magical and the macabre. He has the eye of a painter, like most if not all of the great horror maestros, and he imbues Crimson Peak with the same visually striking aesthetic we’ve come to expect from him. The film is beautiful, especially the first half, where we are more free to notice every little detail: the patterned wallpaper in the heroine’s bedroom, the fringe on a brown-orange floor rug, the way the mourners in a funeral scene look like crows in their black suits and dresses, the moment when Edith (played by Mia Wasikowska) is writing in pen and accidentally rubs ink all over her forehead. Something about the first half feels utterly alive, even as this part of the film is a bit stagey.

In terms of structure, the first half is all set-up, and as such it feels confined. You would expect del Toro to let his freak flag fly in the second half, when we finally get to the haunted mansion, but then he gets caught up in the details of the story and we never get to that fever pitch, the kind of histrionic perversity you might see in a film by Dario Argento. Gradually, the film trades its hypnotic effect for something more dreary and gruesome. But del Toro grinds us through the familiars of the haunted-house routine—a routine rife with creepy noises and dark passageways and translucent specters—better than just about anyone else, so the movie is still pleasurable. But in Pan’s Labyrinth, del Toro created a narrative as surprising and strange as its milieu. After that, it’s hard to be satisfied with the more conventional story of Crimson Peak, which requires nothing of the viewer. And, while it’s admittedly fun to see old tropes given new and ever more grotesque facades, it feels like a wasted opportunity from such an elegant craftsman.

Crimson Peak does have some things going for it. Namely: Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain. Hiddleston seems like a natural successor to all the British leading men who led their unsuspecting young wives to creaking old mansions full of secrets. And this is where del Toro smartly introduces some complexity into the story. We know early on that Thomas Sharp (Hiddleston’s character) is up to no good, that he has enticed the bland nymph Edith to his isolated, moorish estate for ignoble purposes. But Thomas begins truly to fall in love with Edith, ruffling the demoniac feathers of his clinging, hateful sister Lucille, played to such chilly perfection by Jessica Chastain. (There’s a great moment when Thomas and Edith return to the estate after a night of carnal pleasure to find Lucille distraught with closeted rage: She spills hot food all over the kitchen counter, and then runs her fingers through the burning mess with a reserve and numbness only a psychotic can muster.)

Jessica Chastain has always seemed burdened with the weight of great acting skills. That weight has been a deficit in the past, but in Crimson Peak she gets to play an icy bitch to perfection. She doesn’t have to hold back in case it becomes important that we like her. It is Lucille’s delicious wickedness that makes Crimson Peak interesting. Lucille is the spawn of Mrs. Danvers and Rebecca from Daphne du Maurier’s novel Rebecca (or more likely the Alfred Hitchcock film version). She’s calculating and obsessive but also desirable. It’s ironic that both of these actresses, while very talented, are resolutely bland performers. They flower when given the right material, and this material suits Chastain’s id just right.

It doesn’t serve Mia Wasikowska as well. She somehow doesn’t work for the movie. I liked her better as the spoiled-party-monster vampire in Only Lovers Left Alive (which also featured Tom Hiddleston, incidentally). Here, Wasikowska resorts to the same ethereal-angelicism she employed as Jane Eyre. It makes her seem weak and inconsequential, which isn’t entirely her fault: The movie spends about 45 minutes establishing her character as a semi-liberated New Woman—choosing to stay at home working on her writing rather than go to the ball, taking charge of her own life—and then deactivates her power. She does finally regain some agency in the end, but Wasikowska doesn’t carry the film well. The movie truly belongs to Hiddleston—so good at playing the tortured aristocrat—and Chastain.

There is an admittedly twisted and amusing joke running through Crimson Peak: that the brother-and-sister duo have been targeting wealthy young women in order to maintain their fledgling estate. It’s a canny idea full of promise, especially since there’s been such a resurgence of interest in pop culture about English aristocrats who usually squander their fortunes, but del Toro doesn’t pursue it with enough vigor. He’s too interested in paying homage to every ghostie that ever graced the screen. His ghosties are legitimately creepy, but Crimson Peak never captures that spine-tingling feeling you want from a good mystery-in-the-haunted-house thriller. But you could do worse at Halloween.

With Charlie Hunnam, Jim Beaver, Burn Gorman, Leslie Hope, and Jonathan Hyde. The gorgeous music is by Fernando Velásquez.

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