Saturday, October 17, 2015

In Theaters: CRIMSON PEAK (2015)

(US - 2015)

Directed by Guillermo del Toro. Written by Guillermo del Toro and Matthew Robbins. Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston, Charlie Hunnam, Jim Beaver, Burn Gorman, Leslie Hope, Doug Jones, Bruce Grey, Jonathan Hyde, Sofia Wells, Emily Coutts. (R, 119 mins)

It seems as if all of Guillermo del Toro's films are long-gestating dream projects he's had toiling in the deepest recesses of his mind since he was a child. He announces more projects that he can possibly make (face it, kids--PACIFIC RIM 2 ain't happening) and there's seemingly no end to his boundless imagination and love for what he does. Del Toro's latest, CRIMSON PEAK, is an absolute triumph of style, set design, costuming, and an almost choking Gothic aura. Among the most ambitious of throwback homages, it plays like a never-made film where Alfred Hitchcock chose Mario Bava to be his cinematographer. It's the realization of what might've happened if Merchant-Ivory remade THE SHINING and moved it to Victorian-era England. Owing as much to Henry James, Daphne du Maurier, Charlotte Bronte, and Edith Wharton as it does to THE HAUNTING THE CHANGELING, and del Toro's own back catalog, CRIMSON PEAK is more of a supernatural Gothic tragedy than a non-stop frightfest, which isn't to imply that it skimps on the shocks and the gore. The jolting scares and the shocking violence are sporadic enough that del Toro makes them count. The found-footage and the digital splatter crowd will probably be bored senseless by CRIMSON PEAK--like the Wachowskis, del Toro is a visionary who still somehow manages to get studios to spend exorbitant amounts of money on his wildly inventive and very personal passion projects. CRIMSON PEAK is probably the best-looking film of the year, and it's a rare case where the surface beauty and visuals are stunning enough to give its writing and structural weaknesses a pass. The script, by del Toro and Matthew Robbins (his writing collaborator on MIMIC and the del Toro-produced DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK), with uncredited contributions from British playwright Lucinda Coxon, hinges on too many predictable plot twists and familiar elements you've seen in a hundred other Gothic dramas and ghost stories. Had the plot been a little more inventive and up to del Toro's standards of production design, he would've had a legitimate classic instead of the year's best-looking retread. The layout, the decor, the architecture--del Toro's attention to even the most minute aesthetic detail is obviously obsessive on a Stanley Kubrick level. As exquisitely and hypnotically jaw-dropping as CRIMSON PEAKS looks, it's obvious where del Toro's priorities lied.

Just after the turn of the 20th century in Buffalo, shy Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) has aspirations of being the next Mary Shelley. A headstrong, independent young woman forced to grow up early upon the death of her mother, Edith had an early supernatural experience as a child when she was visited by the ghost of her mother (played by del Toro's go-to guy Doug Jones) and warned to "Beware of Crimson Peak!" A bit of a loner with no interest in being a snobbish society matron, Edith lives with her loving, protective industrialist father Carter (Jim Beaver) and keeps ophthalmologist and potential suitor Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam) in the friend zone, but her comfortable upper-class life is upended with the arrival of Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and his sister Lady Lucille Sharpe (a delightfully scowling Jessica Chastain) from England. Sir Thomas is hoping to convince Carter to invest in a machine that mines clay from the earth, but Carter is unconvinced of the worth of the machine and dismisses Sir Thomas and his "soft hands" as indicative of a life of too much privilege. After Sir Thomas begins courting Edith in an attempt to prove his worth, Carter has a private investigator (Burn Gorman) look into the Sharpe's background and is so perturbed by what he finds that he pays Sir Thomas to break Edith's heart and leave Buffalo at once. When Carter is brutally murdered, Edith finds solace and comfort in the loving arms of Sir Thomas and the two are quickly married, much to Alan's suspicion and Lady Lucille's apparent seething jealousy.

When the newlyweds and Lady Lucille relocate to the Sharpe ancestral home at Allerdale Hall, a decrepit mansion so far out in rural England that it's four hours to the nearest town, the truth becomes clear: the Sharpes are penniless, and Allerdale Hall is in almost complete ruins, with a hole in the roof that allows leaves , rain, and snow to pour down directly into the main living room. It also rests on a large deposit of natural clay into which it's been very slowly sinking for decades. While it's clear the Sharpes are running a con game of sorts in an attempt to get Edith's money, it's also obvious that Allerdale Hall is haunted by the vengeful ghosts of those who have died within its walls. Edith encounters these ghosts but can't convince Sir Thomas or Lady Lucille that they're real, and Edith grows even more alarmed when she learns that, because of the red clay surrounding Allerdale Hall, the home is referred to by some as "Crimson Peak," the very place the ghostly spectre of her mother warned her about years earlier.

While reminiscent of Rebecca and The Turn of the Screw, CRIMSON PEAK has a long stretch of being a Victorian take on THE SHINING. From her childhood, Edith has had a "shining" of sorts that she blocked and let manifest in her writing of ghost stories. The Kubrickian design and layout of Allerdale Hall, with its endless corridors, a bathtub scene that's a blatant riff on Jack's encounter in room 237, a ball that enters the frame and rolls to Edith but there's no one there who could've rolled it to her, and warnings from Lady Lucille to stay out of certain areas, all owe a debt to at least Kubrick's (perhaps not Stephen King's) vision of the Overlook Hotel. There's even a Dick Hallorann surrogate in Alan, who journeys overseas from Buffalo to England and travels a great distance in a blinding blizzard to the snowed-in Allerdale Hall in an attempt to rescue Edith once he realizes the Sharpes' true intent. All of this looks incredible, but in terms of story and theme, del Toro's a bit on autopilot. His efforts were unquestionably concentrated in the visual aspects of the film, and to that respect, it works beautifully. If you want an impossibly gorgeous piece of Gothic eye candy, you can't beat CRIMSON PEAK, which demands to be seen on as big of a screen as possible. Del Toro has said, in envisioning Edith as his heroine, that CRIMSON PEAK is for his "inner 14-year-old bookish girl." That's a telling statement, because in terms of content, CRIMSON PEAK isn't really for 14-year-old bookish girls, but its character arcs and story progression could've very well been concocted by a 14-year-old del Toro. There's a lot to love here, especially if you're a fan of Gothic chillers, haunted mansions, and the garish lighting of Roger Corman's AIP Poe adaptations and when Mario Bava started making movies in color with 1964's BLACK SABBATH. But del Toro the screenwriter just isn't working at the same level as del Toro the director.

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