Thursday, November 5, 2015

Crimson Peak

Alternate Title:  Alice in Jotunheim

One sentence synopsis:     An American writer who can see ghosts marries an impoverished British Baronet, and comes to live with him and his sister in their ancestral manor.

Things Havoc liked: I just don't know what to do with Guillermo del Toro anymore. Frankly, I don't think I ever did. He's a talented, truly original director who is also frustrating as hell to me as a moviegoer because I simply don't know what I'm going to get from him for any given film. Will I be seeing a movie from the visionary, fantastical, brilliant action-fantasy director who brought me Pan's Labyrinth and Hellboy? Or will I be seeing a movie from the cheap, low-concept genre hack who brought me Mimic, Blade II, and Pacific Rim. Admittedly, a director who gives me great and bad movies in alternating sequence normally represents a worthwhile investment, but we exist in a movie landscape that suddenly seems to be replete with visionary Mexican directors such as Alfonso Cuarón or Alejandro González Iñárritu, and inconsistency like del Toro's really begins to mar the experience. I rely on trailers, history, and my own native good sense (pause for laughter), to make my weekly selections, and when the trailer promises a horror film livened only by the promise of a director who in his last picture failed to make giant robots awesome, well... you can see why I put this one off.

And yet del Toro is a talented director, a very talented director even, and while I'm beginning to tire of the old excuse for bad movies that "at least they have good visuals", the fact remains that there's good visuals, and then there's del Toro's visuals. Even in crap like Pacific Rim, del Toro has always had a masterful eye for dressing a camera shot, and that remains the case in Crimson Peak. We've all seen haunted old mansions before, but del Toro's version gives us a mansion that, rather paradoxically for a horror film, is all big, open areas, be they the towering central atrium of the mansion's ground floor, to the barren, snow-swept fields of the surrounding region, sparsely-studded with arcane machinery. Even when the film descends into haunted cellars and spooky corridors, the lighting is ample and the spaces large, ensuring that the area never feels claustrophobic. This is a particularly weird choice for what is ostensibly a horror film, but del Toro seems to want his imagery to provide the necessary thrills by itself, rather than through penning the audience in. Some of the more evocative shots involve the malformed ghosts standing or floating openly in broad daylight, with plenty of room around them to highlight their alien-ness. Forget letting your imagination do all the work, del Toro has created a visually rich panorama, and you are going to look at it dammit, drink in every last drop, and let those images scare or impress you.

Indeed, I'm not even sure that the intention is to be scary, as del Toro seems to go out of his way to replace fright with atmosphere. Elaborate explanations, often established in advance, greet every manifestation of strangeness, from a rich blood-red clay that stains the ground around the manor and bleeds from the very walls, to the arcane sounds and groans that permeate the house. The characters, inured to strangeness like this as they are, consequently pay the presence of such disquieting images very little mind, even when it comes to ghosts clawing their way out of the floorboards or dripping bloody clay down the atrium as they float and moan. In a strange way, this makes sense for a del Toro picture. Pan's Labyrinth had a similar sort of spooky-but-not-scary atmosphere to it, a dark fantasy/magical realism approach completely at odds with the state of most horror films (Evil Dead comes to mind). Indeed that was one of the reasons I loved Pan's Labyrinth as much as I did, for rather than forcing the audience to cringe for jump scares all the time, it let us drink up the world that was being presented, dark though it might be. There's a subtlety to Crimson Peak, for all the haunting and mystery, and it's something I can appreciate.

As with most of del Toro's movies (though not all), the cast is something of an afterthought, but that doesn't mean they're bad at what they do. I love Tom Hiddleston, for instance, even when he's not playing Loki, and this role (a tall, austere, elegantly-charming British aristocrat with a troubled dark past) is the sort of thing that Hiddleston was born to play. As with his turn as Loki, we are never quite sure just what the hell his game is, is he a good guy, a bad guy, or merely troubled and dark (hint, hint). Jim Beaver, of Deadwood (a show you should be watching now), does a fine turn as the concerned father of our heroine, making an actual character out of something that could have been nothing more than a pastiche of an overbearing dolt. But the big surprise for me in the cast was Jessica Chastain, who continues to confound me by following up every boring, acting-free role of hers (Zero Dark Thirty, The Martian, Interstellar), with one that actually showcases some skill (A Most Violent Year, and now this). Nobody's going to confuse her with Meryl Streep or anything, but her role, as the disturbed sister of our favorite Trickster-god, is certainly animated, and involves a good bit of horror-trope acting before it's over.

Things Havoc disliked: So then with all those things, why didn't I like this movie more? Because this is a Guillermo del Toro film, perhaps one of the most del-Toroesque movies I've ever seen. And that means we don't just get visionary-del-Toro, we get the schlocky fanboy-del-Toro too. How else to explain the tone of this movie, which is the most fragmented thing I've seen since the last half hour of Django Unchained? The movie builds atmosphere relentlessly, stacking up visual images left and right, and then... all of a sudden at the drop of a hat, we're in Eli Roth territory, where horrific, violent shit is happening to characters nearby in a manner so over-the-top as to be grotesque.

I mean, I know what del Toro is going for here, and I'm not a prude. There's certainly a place for over-the-top gorey violence in film. I composed a pangyric to Mad Max for nastier stuff than this. And I understand that the intention here is to contrast the reserved, visual world with scenes of shocking horror, the way Pan's Labyrinth intercut all the magical realism and creativity with brutal sequences involving fascists and torture. Unfortunately, this time it doesn't work at all. Pan's Labyrinth maintained a stark division between the realistic scenes of awful horror and the mystical scenes of childlike fantasy, using the two of them as mirrors for one another. Crimson Peak is all visual magic and set-piece imagery, until all of a sudden we're hit with body horror and jump scares for a moment or two, and then back to the magical realism we go. This sort of tonal shift is a terrible mistake, as it drags the audience out of the world by shocking them into a completely different movie every time the film has built a bit of momentum. We simply can't let ourselves sit back and drink up the details of del Toro's world the way he wants us to, because he's already established that at the drop of a hat he's going to pull some hideous jump scare or gore-pile on us, and run off giggling about how he "got" us to let our guards down.

And none of this is helped by the fact that the camera is focused far, far too much on the weakest elements of the cast, among them Australian actress Mia Wasikowska, whom I last saw last year, pairing up with Tom Hiddleston in the far superior dark fantasy/horror film Only Lovers Left Alive. Wasikowska was perfectly good in that film, but this time she's gone full Tim Burton protagonist on us, playing a shrinking violet of a character who insists against all appearances that she's tough enough to deal with what's going on. Her acting is wooden and stilted, as it was in Alice in Wonderland and as I expect it will be in that film's misbegotten sequel, which we shall almost certainly not be considering when it comes out next year. Her character takes an agonizingly long time to recognize that there is anything even slightly odd about living in a house with no roof that bleeds from the walls, and reacts to truly worrisome events or mortal peril like she is being horribly inconvenienced and may have to actually raise her voice. Nor are things improved via the addition of Charlie Hunnam, last seen as the lead in Pacific Rim, where he played a character so boring that I remember nothing whatsoever about him. If nothing else, this film proves that Hunnam is consistent, for I continue to remember nothing whatsoever about him, which is a problem given the amount of time his character is afforded to prat around uselessly. Indeed that description can be thrown at most of the cast, who are so clueless that it takes the better part of a year and the consistent efforts of a concerned party to get anyone to realize that someone whose face was beaten in by multiple blunt force traumas may have experienced foul play.

Final thoughts:    Crimson Peak has some good shots in it, but a collection of good shots does not a good movie make. Bereft of a cohesive tone, and riven with jump scares or body horror shock moments as a substitute for a plot that would serve to amuse any moviegoer for more than a few minutes, the film is disjointed and lackluster. I have certainly seen far worse horror movies in my tenure as the Internet's foremost film expert (pause for laughter), but it does not serve as the return to form for Guillermo del Toro that I was hoping it might, and I doubt that after another couple of weeks, I will remember it at all.

Final Score:  5/10

Next Time:  Stop me if you've heard this one:  Tom Hanks confronts the enemies of the United States in a Steven Spielberg film set in war-ravaged Europe...

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