Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Movies You Already Should've Seen: CRIMSON PEAK

at 2:00 PM
Our Halloween "Spook-tacular" this year is now underway! We'll be checking out three movies loosely premised on the Dracula model (foreigner in a haunted castle preys on society people of the late 19th century), starting with the brand new CRIMSON PEAK (2015), ending on DRACULA (1931), and stopping midway in between for THE HAUNTED PALACE (1963). Along the way we'll be menaced by two of the most popular horror actors of all time along with a third who has a chance of entering those ranks.


Directed by: Guillermo del Toro
Written by: Guillermo del Toro, Matthew Robbins

CRIMSON PEAK in one sentence:
Yourself: BEAUTY AND THE BEAST for goth babies. (hey, that was a real description!)

Golem: The story of a crush on Tom Hiddleston.

Here's a story about me and CRIMSON PEAK:
Yourself: For an outright not-fan, I've seen most of del Toro's films. Okay IMO, the only strong opinion I have about the guy is I wish I had a stronger opinion.

Golem: Tom Hiddleston seemed okay in THOR, but I blame that on THOR itself. I went in curious how he'd fit in a serious film.

Get the plot bitching out of your system:
Yourself: God I'm having a cerebral infarction just trying to decide where to start. Which is as good a signal as any that there is way too much plot here - not in the sense of being broad and unfocused, but in complexly tripling down on every single thematic point. It's the kind of plot that feels bloated with fanservice for the nonexistent novel or comic book origin.

The turgid plotting doesn't bother me so much as the busy feel it gives the movie. For instance, Edith listening to three disjointed recordings while looking at pictures is a really rough way to deliver information and creates a huge off-screen movie that my brain doesn't have space to dramatize. If you're finding the best vehicle to deliver information is the most compressed medium short of a Post-It (TM) note, you might ask yourself how critical that information can be. Especially when getting that delivery mechanism into the narrative necessitated ghosts. It's kinda the silly criticism I throw at TNG for its resident "empath" Deanna Troi: if you reduce her to shouting "something's wrong here!", everyone else still has to do their job.

I'm fine with Edith being bland as hell, allowing that she's a weather vane for the movie to spin around with other characters' passions ("ghosts"), but under romantic pressure that soullessness gets leaky. Thomas plays fantastically against his twister sister Lucille, but I didn't follow how Edith melts his heart of clay, except for "something something America is great". The dude has killed like eight wives already, so we're left to our own devices to conclude what's so special about Edith. She's a snazzy dresser I suppose.

Also, if Cumberland doesn't have butterflies, but it has black moths, and black moths live off butterflies, then do the black moths also take a boat to America to collect their prey? While we're at it, the night isn't really darkest just before the dawn. It's darkest in the middle. C'mon screenwriters, they don't grow cheese on the moon for nothing!

Golem: The prologue feels prologuey and not act 1-y (am I splitting hairs here?) because the film takes so long to explain what its supernatural deal is. By the time I realized what the ghosts were up to (nothing at all), the film had long been in its stride. On reflection, the opening drama of the film in America makes perfect sense now that I realize it's a weirdo grosso fake love story.

CRIMSON PEAK's pseudo-horror angle also confuses me with its use of jump scares. Creepy things come out and lurch towards and grasp at poor Edith, and naturally we're scared. After the first few times, I began to wonder what the point was. When a film frightens you into thinking something bad might happen, there's usually a payoff where that fear is justified. Instead, the plot takes us on a journey to learn that ghosts are on Edith's side, subverting our expectation. While not flawed in theory, I just didn't follow the film here. It felt more like I accidentally tripped over the plot rather than discovering a twist. Sometimes I get the feeling I watch movies wrong.

Which is a shame, because there is an alright plot at work here.

Oh yeah, and the climax has like a million stabbings. But I thought that was an homage to melodramatic 19th century novels. Taken seriously it gets silly.

The aesthetic is basically:
Yourself: Drippy. Color bleeds from the atrophying mansion and its cannibalizing inhabitants, moths sluggishly beat their wings, leaves and snow drift in through the roof. From the walls of the mansion oozes scarlet clay; the deadest existence sinks into a mire of brilliant raw material. The almost-glowing clay is fucking gorgeous. For all the film's ornate style, it is that simple blood-red play-doh that is ultimately most attractive. I want a vat of clay in my basement just so I can go swirl it around with a stick!

The decrepit manor perched atop great depths of material follows from the openly endorsed "not a ghost story, a story with ghosts in it", but like Allerdale Hall, del Toro's movie needs that fantastical foundation to stand, and he too is a little bit consumed by it. Or, put in less douchey terms, the movie tries to have its cake and eat it too. Scenes where ghosts chase down Edith or jump-scare the audience switch the movie into full-bore horror, betraying the emotional core even when they are technically progressing the mystery. The creatures are brilliantly designed, their arresting color and material schemes elevating their fundamental emotional nature over human detail, but they work better sprawled in a bathtub or hovering in a stairwell than jumping out of closets. The scare scenes contribute to the busy information blasting I just whined about - they're so dedicatedly horror that it's hard to grasp any substance until the next morning when the events can be rehashed.

Golem: It's easy to groan at modern movies. The monochrome shtick gets old very quickly, and CRIMSON PEAK isn't afraid to keep itself to one or two colors onscreen at a time. But then, I can't help but feeling that this is what everything else wants to be. I wish I had words for it, but there's just something to color in CRIMSON PEAK that works.

I can say this: the color choice draws on the weather. Hanging out in the park at noon, you're bathed in light; saying goodbye to Edith's father in the late afternoon, it's deep orange; in the snow at Allerdale Hall, color is absent.

Performances to speak of?
Yourself: Loki is pretty memorable yeah. Golem asked me before the movie if Tom Hiddleston was the Vincent Price of our age, and I said that's an unbelievable stretch, but he's a real creepy charmer, so you gotta give him that. He's got that kind of broad gleeful smile where you think his eyeballs might fall out on the end of springs (?). I'd probably like to not have seen him in a sex scene, and taken with his final appearance I'm convinced he could never play anything but a villain, but hey, redemption doesn't mean he's not a villain. I will murder the next person that assaults me with the word "antihero".

Jessica Chastain as Lucille is really fucking menacing and a well-earned counterpoint, soaking up all the charm to be the coldest cold-hearted bitch this side of Jack Frost. Her spilled breakfast scene lands. Yet she aims her villainy so well and grounds it so personally that Lucille is perhaps the tragickest goth of all (in a world where Bauhaus would look like ZZ Top).

Golem: Oops! I wish I could talk about anyone but Hiddleston or Chastain. But if you're gonna focus your movie on two cold-blooded villains, you would have a hard time pulling off something better.

Tom Hiddleston nails Thomas Sharpe better than the script. His charm and elegance in the role makes it all too easy for Thomas to slip densely layered lies under a veneer of romantic promises. And you can watch Thomas' blood gradually thaw under Edith's influence, as he hesitantly lets the dog in and less hesitantly agrees to stay at the post office place whatever that was. I'll give Yourself that I don't get Thomas' transformation, but Hiddleston steps into the role and makes it happen.

And Jessica Chastain, oh my god. She spends the entire time with an impenetrable demeanor. Is she just pissed off at everyone? Or is she a robot? Do they have emotions in Europe? But then she flips out in the much-touted Spilled Breakfast Scene, and I was ready for Edith's block to get knocked off. Out of all the ghosts and creepy stuff, Lucille's raw fury in that scene is the most likely to make you pee your pants.

A really cool shot or scene:
Yourself: The violent climax in the white-out has an otherworldly sensibility, a realization without ghosts of the heightened Romantic atmosphere of the movie. With the simplest possible chase scenario and an ostensibly tiny arena, the POV shooting and dread pace create the tension of a labyrinthine... uh... labyrinth.

Golem: Thomas Sharpe faces Edith on her house's staircase: him below her, her father at the bottom of the stairs, and the crowd from their dinner party gawking (presumably popcorn in hand). Thomas tells her off, lets her have it about how her writing is dreadful and how she'll never understand love and how he's read fan fiction better than her trash.

Thomas is surrounded, forced to throw away love he doesn't want (Edith) to win a check that he doesn't want. Thomas plays such a long game in that scene, it's crazy, and your head will spin if you try to list all of the lies that he's juggling. Maybe the best one, though, is his fake criticism for Edith, which culminates in accusing her of never knowing love. In retrospect, that's what he comes to learn of himself.

What does it all really mean?
Yourself: CRIMSON PEAK grounds itself in a sort of Brontë-sisters feminist romance and then Dracula called and he said he's comin' over tonight and I said okay. I mean, Edith* can say "the ghosts are a metaphor" all she wants, but lemme break it down for you: vampires are a metaphor too. So it's not really outside the box, but lampshading the box does set the table for hardcore symbol-fixation, which is where the movie comes back to reap the fruit of its overripe plot. The clay, the mining machine, the butterflies/moths, the hole in the roof, the winter, etc. etc. All there so del Toro can do every metaphor fifty ways.

There's some kind of theme of passion vs. aristocracy, but I gotta say that is a theme I don't care about and that feels more like an aping of not so timeless literature from 100 years ago. I mean I'm not saying it's not a good thought and all but there is a reason that high school kids get into Heart of Darkness and not Wuthering Heights - and I doubt it's the gender of the author (as this film jests!) (although it probably is that HoD is like a hundred pages!).

But honing in on Lucille and Thomas and snipping out Edith and Dr. Name Not Worth Remembering (let's say "Seward"), there's also a core of moral decay, that Catholic note that always gets thrown at del Toro. The Sharpes stray closer to demons than sociopaths with their lustful lifestyle and nebulous descent, not to mention the "real" ghosts their deeds have summoned. Once again, the manor in ruins (death of aristocracy) is just the tip of the iceberg, an elevator to ride down into the depths of crimson clay mines of sin.

The jar of scarlet clay Dracula brings to his business meetings in America reminds me literally and figuratively of the canister of green Satan-juice from PRINCE OF DARKNESS, but welcome to my personal hell of no one wanting to talk about the second most awesome John Carpenter movie.

*Edith Cushing = Edith Wharton + Peter Cushing (Van Helsing in the old Hammer Draculas)

Golem: CRIMSON PEAK definitely feels at home with Henry James' Europe: a world that is one giant Lying Contest, and whoever can stack the most lies on top of each other is the winner. And just like in Henry James, there's a poor American who Jengas the lies and ends up in a pile of lie-bricks. Or, put into English (ha), the heartless aristocrat uses lies and romance to ensnare someone naive in the name of a perverse conquest. In particular, I think of The Portrait of a Lady, but James wrote tons of stories on this idea. Granted, Mr. James doesn't go so far as to put that perversion at the level of incest, but hey, whatever you're into.

The idea being that it's not about where you end up, but how you get there.

Note to future self on watching CRIMSON PEAK:
Yourself: Real-talk: I was in a pissy mood when I saw this and I no longer trust my initially "meh" exit opinion. We were in a "dang homeboy don't go in dere!" theater and my neighbors were a.) using both armrests b.) particularly squirrely and c.) at least one of them had bad breath. The movie adds up a lot better in my memory than it did at the time, and if I could just care about the prologue (that I didn't even care about enough to mention, but that is 20+ minutes long!) I might get behind it.

Golem: If the overstuffed plot pays off with symbolism, you might wonder what meaning that symbolism has. CRIMSON PEAK is a pretty movie, and its plot structure works better in retrospect, but I'm going to need a compelling argument to watch this again.

Come back later this week to find out what Greg and Greg think of THE HAUNTED PALACE, an older take on the same story starring none other than Vincent Price.

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