Thursday, 29 October 2015

Movie Review: Crimson Peak (2015)



With the established horror classics of The Amityville Horror, The Shining and Poltergeist, the haunted house sub-genre transformed into one of the foremost horror film premises. True, much like most peoples’ assumptions concerning Halloween and slasher films, haunted house fare existed long before these three films, but this was the period where it truly entered the Hollywood zeitgeist. Just look at the most prominent horror film series of today with Paranormal Activity which, while starting to drift in quality, also makes for one of the better examples of doing the premise right since the inception of the idea. From the old-school revivalism of James Wan to the annoying failure at parody of Michael Tiddes, it’s quite clear that this isn’t going to go out of fashion any time soon… even if the idea itself is beginning to grow stale. Well, here comes Gothic horror devotee Guillermo Del Toro to give his own take on the idea; with any luck, this will fare better than last time he attempted this with Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark. This is Crimson Peak.

The plot: Edith (Mia Wasikowska), a writer with a preference for ghost stories, has been able to see the dead ever since she was a little girl. When dashing aristocrat Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) arrives, sparks begin to fly and they are eventually wed with him bringing her to his stately manor nicknamed ‘Crimson Peak’. This is the same place that Edith’s mother has been warning her about for most of her life. As things begin to go bump in the night and Thomas’ sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) continues to act cold towards Edith, she begins to think that she might not be safe within those walls after all.

With as much praise as I’ve given Del Toro’s body of work, I’ve always felt that the man is at his best when he’s indulging in his poppier side like with Pacific Rim and his comic book adaptations. He lets his surprisingly fun dialogue shine through and his ability to create memorable characters gets put to better use. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not taking anything away from The Devil’s Backbone or Pan’s Labyrinth; I am not so blind as to ignore the clear effort that went into those works. I just bring this up to present my own bias going into this, since I believe in transparency in critical opinion. That, and the casting of Hiddleston and Wasikowska made me think that this was going to be another vampire film much like Only Lovers Left Alive. That said, Del Toro’s definite affinity for all things dark and gloomy probably serves him best here than it ever has before, as he makes the titular character worthy of being labelled as such. Every crack in the foundation, every preternatural creak heard as the eastern winds pass through, every insect that hugs the walls as a means for Guillermo to fulfil his insectoid fetish quota; they all give atmosphere and a form of character to the house. Trust me, I say this with far more sincerity than the majority of dodgy real estate agents who regularly do so.

What makes this even better is that the reasons why it has this atmosphere is kept on this side of the realms of reality… which actually makes things even creepier. The thought of all that liquid clay seeping through the walls and turning the snow blood-red, the winds that make the house sound like it’s breathing; this is yet another case of realism creating greater scares. This is greatly helped by the effects work, which follows Del Toro’s intuition concerning the ratio of practical/computer-generated effects and when to use them. The violence, while incredibly gory in places, is well done with some of the most realistic-looking seeping wounds I’ve seen in a film in a long while, something bolstered by the neat idea to make it as vivid a red as found in most old-school Hammer Horror productions; among other things, like most great directors, Del Toro is a classics nerd. The ghosts that appear frequently throughout the film, all expertly portrayed by regular Guillermo collaborator Doug Jones, shift around on camera like The Faun’s more fleshy cousins and makes for one of the more interesting visual ideas concerning ghosts, creating an effect that looks like their skin has rotted away and left all the red muscle sinew behind. Gruesome done right.

The film, admittedly, starts out on a rough footing. The meet-cute between Edith and Thomas is riddled with some unnatural romantic clich├ęs, like the father trying to bribe the love interest to stay away from his daughter and Thomas’ advances start to enter the realm of creepy stalker which, given the jokes that are still being made about Edward Cullen, kept making me think back to vampires. However, once they reach the titular locale, the film begins to improve at breakneck speeds… and also seems to defy its own genre classifications. Now, as someone who regularly goes on about expectations when going into a film, I freely admit that superficial labels attached to films ultimately end up doing more harm than good. This is why I bring up umbrage with the two main labels that are attached to this film, and while I will try and keep things minimal here’s a *SPOILER* tag just in case. As a ‘ghost story’, the film seems to refute that on its own with the words of its own female lead: “It’s not a ghost story, it’s a love story that just happens to have ghosts in it.” Basically, for anyone who has seen The Devil’s Backbone (which I honestly hope is most of you), you’ll be familiar with how Del Toro and company treat ghost stories. As for the romantic side of things, it’s a little disappointing because of how straight the relationship between Edith and Thomas is played, but it helps that the film at least seems self-aware about how unhealthy it is for both of them. However, what really makes this film is another romantic connection that I won’t spoil here, but it ends up weirdly paying off in terms of delivering a true romance story for the production. It may be a little obvious what direction it will take, but points on the execution and effect all the same.

The cast list is surprisingly small, especially for a rather high-profile production such as this, but who we get are very good for the most part. Wasikowska, who has never really impressed too much save for the aforementioned Only Lovers Left Alive, does a good job as the assertive and strong Edith; Tom Hiddleston, in a role/performance destined to make the dreams of Hiddlestoners everywhere, takes a more morally ambiguous role than his work in the MCU and creates a rather charming and kind of sexy aristocrat; Chastain is rather unnerving from the offset and only gets worse as the film progresses, helped by some choice characterization; and Charlie Hunnam and Burn Gorman, both carryovers from Pacific Rim, honestly carry about the same amount of impact to the film as each other, which kind of sucks considering the latter was brought on as a cameo appearance. They’re still okay in their roles, just that they pale in comparison to our main three.

All in all, this is probably the best haunted house movie of the last several years, thanks to the locale, its concrete-thick atmosphere and the surprisingly compelling mystery that it presents. This is all bolstered by a great cast, primarily Wasikowska, Hiddleston and Chastain who form a great triple act that tie the production together and create a breath of clay-infused air that horror films of late sincerely needed. Guillermo Del Toro got a chance to let out his ever-prevalent Gothic influence at full force and what we get is easily among the better of his more artistic efforts. It’s better than Irrational Man, which was mostly good for its script whereas this has a lot more going for it overall. However, out of respect for a film involved in several things that I hold very dear (or, in layman’s terms, for the most subjective reasons possible), Top Five ranks just above this.

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