Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Crimson Peak

By s. Tuesday, October 27, 2015 , , , , , , ,

Before I discuss the many problems Crimson Peak unfortunately has, let's just get this out of the way - this is the finest haunted house in cinema since Alejandro Amenabar directed The Others, back in 2001. The house in Crimson Peak is a true marvel - beautifully designed, meticulously planned and definitely worth seeing on the big screen. As advertised, this is the house that breathes and bleeds - the wind sounds like wailing, the red clay spilling through wooden boards looks like blood. This house is truly magnificent and one of the strongest things in the movie.

The film is very good in its beginning - we meet Edith (Mia Wasikowska, delivering her best work since Stoker), a spirited young woman who wants to be a writer. She lives with her wealthy father (Jim Beaver) and is more interested in books and supernatural phenomena than social duties - when Edith was a little girl her mother's ghost came to her telling her to "beware of Crimson Peak". One day a handsome and dashing stranger comes to town, Thomas Sharpe (perfectly cast Tom Hiddleston) along with his slightly odd sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain). Edith soon falls in love with Thomas and after her father's violent death she comes to Allerdale Hall, Sharpe's family estate, built on red clay mine. Very soon Edith starts seeing ghosts in the place and the siblings' intentions towards her seem more and more sinister.
The film's beginning set in America when we get to get to know Edith and see her slowly fall into Sharpes' trap is very strong. That is mostly thanks to wonderful work from Jim Beaver, known to younger audience from his role in Supernatural and to those of us who were lucky and saw Deadwood from his wonderful performance there. In fact it is the bond between father and daughter that is the best portrayed relationship in the movie - it is genuine and lovely and Wasikowska and Beaver are fantastic in their roles. The moment when Edith starts collapsing into grief provoked madness when she is standing over her dead father's body is hands down the best scene of Wasikowska's career so far.

There is also a sense of whimsy in that part of the film - multiple iris wipes (where a circular shape surrounded by blackness homes in on one small image), the sass Edith shows to other women, the mocking and curious gazes Lucille throws around. This, right before Edith is snatched to Crimson Peak, is where the film is at its best because it is so promising - unfortunately later we find out that promise is all we got.
Another point the film deserves - and that is in a later part of the film  - is for the refreshingly joyful and lovely sex scene del Toro featured here - you really feel the joy of two characters engaging in the act. Another thing is that it is male nudity we see here, not female so that is del Toro breaking another tiresome pattern. And then in grand finale it is the women facing each other. The sheer brutality of that showdown was so much fun to watch and the entire sequence was truly very well done.

There are some truly brilliant things here - the very idea to have the house built on a red clay that makes the ground look like its bleeding is fantastic. There are some inspired visual maneuvers here and very clever, albeit heavy handed moment with moths devouring butterfly - a fitting metaphor for the Sharpes feeding on Edith. The reveal of incest plot is really fantastic with Lucille's face not visible and her whispering into Thomas ear, showing so clearly that she is the one driving him towards his horrible actions. And that dance scene with Thomas and Edith? That was just heavenly.
The gore feels realistic - the cuts, the blood, the brutality. The film opens with a stunning shot of Wasikowska, all in white and with her hand and half of face covered in blood and it just looks like what I imagine so much dried up blood looks like.

In fact the best things in Crimson Peak are the subtle moments and tricks - Lucille has scars on her face that aren't particularly visible but they are there, hinting at violent and painful past, long before the details of it are revealed to the audience. As good as ghost design is - and it's not jarring at all, in fact it adds to the unique style of the film - there is just a terrific moment of the silhouette of a ghost being formed out of light and dust over a wheelchair which I simply loved:
Unfortunately for every good idea Guillermo del Toro has, a bad idea follows.  Why insist on the presence of the ghosts? Wouldn't the story be far better if Edith was in fact the Sharpes first victim? It would make Thomas changing his mind so much more plausible. And wouldn't if be better if there was only one ghost - the mother - taunting Edith and leading her towards the reveal of Lucille and Thomas true relationship? As chilling and suspenseful all the ghosts moments in the movie are, this is the time that could have been better spent on developing the characters and the emotions the film only describes to us.

It's funny because there is one scene where Thomas is telling Edith she doesn't understand love, she only writes about it. It's the case with the script here - it tells us of things but it doesn't explore them in depth. The problem with Crimson Peak is that it lacks the most important thing in any movie - strong script. The script doesn't need to be rich or have many themes but it should make you feel like the themes it does have are well developed. And in spite of 2 hour long running time not a single one of many rich themes of Crimson Peak feels like it reached its potential.
It's really not the issue that the movie is predictable - you know from Lucille's first scenes she is not normal. For the love of God, she rubs a dying butterfly on her face. You know very quickly that there is something seriously wrong with that tea she is giving Edith. The real problem is that even though the big plot points are filled with darkness, del Toro doesn't spend enough time exploring that darkness.

The film touches on so many subjects - the women's struggle in Victorian times, the guilt over what was done to be with the person you love, the grief that lingers on after the death occurs, the missing of a beloved parent, the first love, the devotion for someone who has been through so many same things. Sadly, not one of those things is given the proper depth and attention in the film.
Take for instance the baby - at one point of the movie we find out that Lucille had a child. But the film doesn't show us Lucille's grief after she lost something that was just hers and Thomas. It doesn't even try to somehow use the opportunity to transfer Lucille's feelings of grief and lost connection onto the house so that we truly understand why she wants to remain there. No. The sole thing that del Toro uses it for is to have a one quick scene with a ghost and a ghost baby - it feels so cheap. A betrayal to the committed actors, the story and most of all, the audience watching the film.

The unclear intentions and desires of movie's villains is another big problem - why do they want to remain in this house so badly that they kill for it? What exactly happened between them and their mother? What has Lucille and Thomas been through together? It's all explained in merely few lines and that is not enough. It would be far better if the film opened with some sort of flashback to Sharpes' horrible childhood.
If there was ever a film in dire need of flashbacks it is this one. They should have shown us things Lucille was talking about, especially that, amazingly, given the run time, it really doesn't feel like the movie gave her and Thomas enough time to really make the audience familiar with them. Amusingly the one flashback the film has was absolutely not needed at all.

The most damning thing about del Toro's lack of abilities as writer and director is that there actually is a fantastic backstory for Thomas and Lucille, which you can read in the novelization of the movie. So del Toro had this story and instead of showing us the series of flashbacks which would add so much to the movie, he chose to play around with the ghosts of women Lucille killed.

This is not a good director or a writer we are dealing with here. We are dealing with a child who is enamored with the filmmakers's shiny, precious toys - effects. CGI - though I believe here it is largely practical effects - these days have became the equivalent of the ring from The Lord of the Rings - many filmmakers are no longer interested in what would be the most challenging and interesting story for the audience, no, they are just interested in having their fantasies come to life with the help of technology. They are obsessed. It's not the story that matters anymore, it's what they can show on screen these days thanks to gimmickry that matters to them the most.

After becoming familiar with the backstory and seeing what was actually in the film - and how much of  the great story wasn't - I'm confident that the way del Toro comes up with his scripts is this - let's make a movie about robots! let's make a movie about whatever-the-fuck was fighting robots in Pacific Rim! Ghosts! Let's make a ghost movie! And then he builds a story around it, instead of first coming up with the story and then asking himself if fantasy and supernatural elements are truly needed there. He throws everything that will kinda sorta stick onto that script and the effect is far from a good movie.
You're supposed to be making movies, Guillermo. Not cinematic gumbo from poor writing hell.

Thankfully the casting is impeccable here. Tom Hiddleston was probably the best choice in the cast - there is this line spoken by Lucille that as a little boy Thomas was "perfect". And so many times in the movie Hiddleston doesn't play his character as some sinister monster, just as a deeply wounded, sad young man, who is tormented by his existence in the trap that life had in store for him. Thanks to Hiddleston being so well cast and finding nuance in his character his actions in the movie don't seem preposterous and make sense.
Charlie Hunnam is surprisingly impressive as Edith's childhood friend - he had more charisma and character in his scenes here than he did throughout the entire Pacific Rim. And Wasikowska is so well suited for this type of role - her Edith is the complete opposite of Lucille, both physically and mentally. You could tell how much fun everyone had dressing Wasikowska in those white dresses and handling her a candelabra to hold and and run around this house.

But it is Chastain who steals the show as the unhinged Lucille. It's truly a shame she wasn't given more scenes and her character's past wasn't better explained and revealed to the audience - Chastain clearly has a lot of fun with her role and it's easily her best performance since The Help. She really becomes her character and you don't know whether you should fear her or pity her.
But all of those doubts perish in the chilling finale which sees the culmination of Lucille's madness. I have not seen such pure rage and ferocity from a female character in a long time - Chastain simply grabs a blade and starts chasing Wasikowska all over the house, hacking at her. It's an insane sequence which she totally sells. This isn't the first horror for Chastain, but the less that is said about Mama - for which by the way del Toro was also kinda responsible for - the better, so I was totally surprised at her delivering such a performance - filled with rage and so much sinister energy.

The finest moment in the movie, both for her performance and the writing, comes when Lucille is feeding bed ridden Edith. She tells her a story of how she used to take care of her mother after her father beat her up. It is the only time in the whole movie when there is ambiguity - when Lucille tells Edith that she will make sure she leaves that bed we wonder for a second if maybe we misjudged her and she is actually just a lonely person trying to reach out to Edith. But that ambiguity sadly lasts only for few moments.
Still even with all those story flaws, there is so much to enjoy here. In addition to the amazing production design the beautiful costumes are so detailed and clever - the people associated with ghosts often have something red on them. And Edith wears dresses with gigantic, puffy shoulder part that make her look like butterfly.

The cinematography takes your breath away. Certain shots like Lucille's dress flying after her as she runs down the stairs or the moment Edith opens the door and the snowstorm comes inside the house are truly wondrous. The score is very fitting and intense and the ghost design - especially the second to final ghost we see - is wonderful. That ghost's appearance felt so tragic.

While Crimson Peak could have been better it's still worth seeing - there are so few Victorian times-set horror films these days which is a real shame. Hell, there are very few classic haunted house horrors anymore. So if you love squeaky doors, long hallways and flights of stairs with the fragile heroine in peril running all around the creepy house, this is the film for you.

Crimson Peak (USA, 120 min)
Plot: In the aftermath of a family tragedy, an aspiring author is torn between love for her childhood friend and the temptation of a mysterious outsider. Trying to escape the ghosts of her past, she is swept away to a house that breathes, bleeds - and remembers.
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Writers: Guillermo del Toro, Matthew Robbins
Stars: Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston


  1. Is there a place online you can read the novelization of the script? Because I'd like too. That's one thing this film was severely lacking. I'm really bummed del Toro chose not to focus on the writing. Pan's Labyrinth is one of my favorite films and I think he did wonders with Hellboy too. But you have a point, he's more interested in art direction than he is on actually executing the script.

    I still had a good time with this, and I loved that knife fight so much. You're right about Charlie Hunnam too. I actually liked him here, I certainly didn't in Pacific Rim or those few episodes of Sons of Anarchy I tried to watch.

    1. I'm not sure, I just saw some scans of it on tumblr that were linked on the movie's imdb board.

      He was bland as fuck in Pacific Rim but here he actually had charisma, I was stunned :)

  2. FYC: Jessica Chastain for Best Supporting Actress. Man, I had a lot of fun watching her in this film. I enjoyed the hell out of it for its cast, art direction, photography, visual effects, music, and sound. It is Chastain that fucking stole the show for me. She looked like she was having a ball.

    1. Yeah she really gave her all in this performance! I very much enjoyed her energetic work, hope she gets to play more evil parts, she is so good in those

  3. A+++ review! You perfectly summarized everything that I couldn't get out with my writer's block on this one. Underdeveloped is an understatement, but it kept my attention! Great graphics too.

    1. Thank you! Yeah I wish it had a better story :/

  4. Fantastic review and wonderful pictures! I can't wait to see this.

    1. Thank you! I'll be interested to read what you thought of it!

  5. I'm getting anxious to see this one since reviews are all over the place. Opinions seem to be splitting down the middle in the blogosphere. Great review.

    1. Well I supposed that people who loved it just loved it for what it was but the wasted potential really soured the film for me

  6. Beautiful review Sati-- I think you really captured what I felt about the film, but couldn't quite put into words. I was enchanted, but at the same time disappointed. I wish Chastain's role had been expanded on. This was her best work in years.

    1. Thank you! Yeah Chastain's effort really deserved better from Del Toro :/

  7. Great review! I want to see this solely for the sets and costumes, which look delicious! del Toro has basically fallen on his face, storytelling-wise, since Pan's.

    1. Thank you! Well if you want to see it just for that you will definitely not be disappointed, I even recommend a trip to cinema because it did look beautiful

  8. Glad you liked it. The film definitely has its problems, but I enjoyed it. LOVE that you mentioned The Others, which is also a brilliantly designed film. The gore, sets, and costumes were great, and the casting was solid, even Hunnam. Fingers crossed for an Oscar nom or two.

    1. I really hope it gets some love for production design, it was really the most amazing element of the film