Saturday, October 8, 2016

HubrisWeen 2016, Day 3: Crimson Peak (2015)

Horror fans seem to have taken a few too many lessons from the films we watch, because we have a bad habit of killing our darlings. I won't pretend I'm innocent of it, but whenever a movie or a director comes along who becomes beloved among devourers of genre cinema, it tends to suddenly attract a swarm of detractors eager to tear it down because they didn't like it that much.

It's rather like a butterfly being swarmed by ants, fittingly enough.

In many cases, this hatred of a film tends to be based on the feeling that the praise for the film promised something other than what the film actually is or was too hyperbolic. Some are honest and say, "Well, if I hadn't been told that It Follows was the most terrifying movie of the year, maybe I would have enjoyed it more." However, a distressing amount of horror fans decide it is somehow the film's fault that it didn't deliver exactly what they expected based on the critical hype or even the marketing.

This brings us to Crimson Peak. Whereas a lot of the backlash I see to genre darlings tends to be based on feeling the praise was unearned, sometimes a film suffers because the marketing people took the wrong approach. Guillermo del Toro, despite making films that cross into multiple genres, tends to be thought of as a horror director first--and in most modern films, if ghosts are a part of the story that means they're the whole point. So, hey, if Guillermo del Toro is making a film about ghosts in a Victorian mansion, it must be a haunted house horror film!

That's how it was sold, and apparently a lot of people did not listen to del Toro himself when he warned that the marketing was misleading and the film is not what we typically think of as a horror movie. In fact, del Toro had crafted a loving homage to the genre of Gothic romance. Crimson Peak is not The Woman in Black: it's Wuthering Heights with slightly more ghosts and bloodletting.

And I saw a distressing amount of horror fans who declared it was horrible because it wasn't the horror film they expected. This, to me, is like complaining to the chef that the delicious brisket you ordered is not a T-Bone steak.

We begin at the end, as an exhausted Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), bleeding from a cut on her face, holds a knife out defensively in a white winter storm that she is in no way dressed for. "Ghosts are real," she tells us in voiceover, "this much I know." Well, we need a bit more of an explanation before we come to why she's wandering a snow storm in a night gown.

Edith quickly takes us back to how she first discovered the reality of ghosts. When she was a young girl (Sofia Wells), her mother passed away from black cholera. Her father, Carter Cushing (Jim Beaver) insisted on a closed casket to spare her the sight of her mother's diseased corpse. However, the night of the funeral, she saw it anyway. Appearing as a blackened, skeletal specter, Edith's mother delivered a cryptic warning out of time, "My child, when the time comes--beware of Crimson Peak!"

Damn ghosts with your vague warnings: you're already dead--would it kill you to be specific?

"Look, my child, you're going to want to stay home sick on Tuesday, April 15th. And I mean twenty years from now, so you may want to write this down.."
Well, fourteen years later, in Buffalo, New York, we see the grown Edith carrying a manuscript to her father's office. She's written a gothic romance, you see, with ghosts and everything. However, she's been having some trouble getting it published even with her privileged position in society as the daughter of a wealthy businessman. As she climbs the stairs to her father's office, she runs into an old friend, Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam), who has just returned from abroad along with his mother (Leslie Hope) and sisters. While abroad they met a baronet, whom they rave of--but Edith dismisses such a man as "a parasite with a title."

Well, as Edith borrows one of her father's typewriters, convinced that her manuscripts keep getting rejected because her writing is too feminine, she makes the acquaintance of the fetching Baronet himself, Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston). The two almost immediately hit it off, even though he apparently takes her to be just a secretary in the office at first. Thomas expresses an interest in her manuscript after glancing through it, and she explains that too many people have written off the novel as a ghost story when the ghosts are symbolic.

Yes, the movie is rather answering its own critics. What of it?

Thomas is rather surprised to learn who she really is, as he is there to petition her father and his associates for capital to help build a mining machine of his own design. He has a fancy working model to show it off, and explains that his family estate sits atop a mine of red clay that is of an ideal consistency for making bricks. He feels that the machine he has in mind would rapidly speed up their production. However, something about Thomas puts Carter off. It's not merely that the man has soft hands and has probably never done hard work in his life, but also that Carter made sure to look into Thomas's business history--and he's tried, unsuccessfully, to raise his capital in many other cities across Europe including Edinburgh and Milan. So his petition is denied.

Though Edith won't realize it until much later, it surely isn't a coincidence that her mother visits her again that evening after Edith sees her father off to a society shindig that the McMichaels are hosting. The ghost lunches through a door to warn her again about staying away from Crimson Peak, but once again fails to elaborate on what Crimson Peak is. One of the servants finds Edith in quite a state, then, when she comes to announce that Thomas has arrived at the house.

In fact, Thomas has come because he wants her to go with him to the ball. So as his sister, Lucille Sharpe (Jessica Chastain) entertains everyone on piano, Thomas makes an entrance with Edith. He also proceeds to make an even bigger show by announcing to the entire room that the best measure of a true European waltz is that you can hold a candle while doing it, and the flame will not go out, but you need the perfect partner to do that. So he bypasses the McMichael daughters and chooses Edith to do a waltz with. It's already clear what his intentions toward Edith are.

Edith visits Alan the next day, where he shows her the newest addition to his collection of ghost photography. He claims that with standard photos it's easy to fake a ghost, but the glass plates he bought from England cannot be faked. The two exchange some significant yet vague dialogue about a past relationship between them that fizzled before it could develop, in case we thought they were completely platonic friends. Meanwhile, Carter hires a private detective, Mr. Holly (Burn Gorman) to find out more on the Sharpes.

Edith, Lucille, and Thomas go walking in the park later. They stop to admire all the dying butterflies, succumbing to the cold. Lucille mentions that all they have back in their family home are dreadful black moths, which even feed on butterflies just to be even more repellent. Lucille strokes her own cheek and then Edith's with a butterfly wing and then drops it to the ground, where it is swarmed by ants and devoured. Edith does not overhear the ominous conversation between Lucille and Thomas a short while later, as Lucille presses him to not give up now even as he expresses doubts about choosing Edith.

If this didn't inspire at least twenty fanfics, then I'm a professional ballerina.
Well, I suppose what Mr. Holly delivers to Carter ought to take care of that. Indeed, upon reading the history of the Sharpes, Carter confronts both of them at home and writes Thomas a check to leave and tells him he better thoroughly break Edith's heart on the way out. Thomas puts in a fine show of that at their farewell dinner that same evening, making sure to take time to insult Edith's manuscript as his greatest knife in the heart.

Unfortunately, two things occur the following morning. The first is that Edith receives a note from Thomas that explains he only broke her heart at the behest of her father. The second is that, while he is alone in the bathroom of the fancy club he frequents, Carter is surprised by a figure wearing black gloves. He barely has time to recognize his assailant before his skull is brutally bashed into the sink. The sink was already overflowing at the time and the wet floor makes it look like an accident.

So Edith barely has time for a romantic reunion with Thomas, catching him at his hotel just after he was supposed to have already left, when she gets the news of her father's death. Thomas goes with her to identify the body, though Alan joins them and declares it is not necessary to make her do it as he can surely do it for her. However, the family lawyer insists that Edith must identify the body. Seeing her father's corpse leaves Edith in a state of shock, and when Alan notices something off about the wounds and tries to investigate, she stops him--babbling about her father as though he were still alive, through heavy tears.

Her father is barely in the ground before Edith and Thomas have married, and then they're off to England to Allerdale Hall, the Sharpe family estate. And what a sorry estate it is, really. There's a massive hole in the ceiling where dead leaves are constantly streaming in, despite there bing no trees that close to the house. The inside is cold and often damp, and the red clay seeps into everything so that the house is gradually sinking into it.

"Well, it's...homey."
Edith gets several red flags almost right away but doesn't know what to make of them. First, when Thomas introduces her to the groundskeeper, the old man says that Thomas has been married for a long time now. Second, a papillon appears at the front door that Thomas clearly states doe snot belong to them, nor could it have come from a neighboring house as they are alone for miles--and even stranger, the dog will shortly bring her a ball that is perfectly sized for it. Third, Edith hears a voice calling her name and swears she sees a woman that is not Lucille using the house's elevator.

Thomas writes it off as a fault of the wiring, which has a mind of its own from all the damp and clay. They find Lucille in the kitchen, making tea for Edith. When Edith asks for a copy of the keys, Lucille stiffly tells her she won't need them since there are some places she cannot go in the house. Lucille does soften a bit, however, and gives Edith a tour during which she reveals a book with a dirty illustration hidden on its pages. Lucille seems somewhat surprised to discover that Thomas and Edith have not yet consummated their marriage, but she also seems oddly relieved.

Naturally, it isn't long before Edith is finding herself confronted by ghosts. Oh, there's more than one, you see. Almost all of them are red, twisted creatures. One is a woman in a bathtub with a meat cleaver in her skull, one a skeleton with its skull caved in, and then there's the woman with a ghostly baby in her arms. While at first the ghosts seem hostile and just want to terrify Edith, it's clear that they're actually trying to direct her towards important information.

One ghost leads her to a closet that contains wax cylinder recordings for a gramophone, even though there doesn't seem to be a gramophone in the house. And then another ghost appears out of the floor and chases her to the elevator, which takes her to the basement where pits of clay are kept--the basement that Thomas expressly warned her away from. Isn't it odd, then, that there is a trunk down there that seems to have belonged to someone named "Enola"? Edith would have foun dit even more peculiar if she had seen the body with a caved-in skull float to the top of the clay she had just been stirring.

"Psst! Hey! Check out my mixtape!"
Edith also begins to become sick and weak frequently. Lucille just insists that she needs to drink more of that special tea she made for her...

Winter comes upon Allerdale Hall, and Edith accompanies Thomas to the local post office when he goes to get supplies. Edith notices she has received a letter for Mrs. E. Sharpe, but it was sent from Milan and she knows no one there. It then turns out the part they need won't arrive until the next day due to a storm, and when they are offered a room for the night Edith suggests they stay. Indeed they do, and indeed they finally consummate their marriage.

Oh, about that marriage. Back in the states, Alan has been increasingly concerned over the way Edith is trying to hurry along the transfer of her assets to her new husband and he also finds out that her late father had hired Mr. Holly to investigate the Sharpes. Holly is happy to share what he found with Alan--like the tragic and mysterious murder of Lucille and Thomas's mother when they were children, and the fact that Thomas is already married.

Lucille is furious when the couple returns the next day, irrationally angry at realizing what they must have done. Edith tries to calm her sister-in-law, but also notices during this fit of rage that Lucille has a key on her ring of dozens that is labeled "Enola." And then, after getting his mining machine up and running briefly, Thomas manages to burn his hand on the machine's engine. As Edith treats his wound, Thomas tells her that with all the snow she'll soon see why the locals call Allerdale Hall by a strange nickname. During the winter, the red clay stains the snow, which inspired them to call the place "Crimson Peak."

Well, shit. Thanks for being specific, mom!

"Hello! It's very important that I terrify the hell out of you before telling you vital information!"
It's easy to see why many folks inexplicably hate this film. For one thing, like most of Guillermo del Toro's output honestly, it is not just a typical, straight up horror film. Its focus is not on the ghosts, because they are not the actual threat to Edith's safety. I've even seen some horror fans deride the film for its climax devolving into a slasher film, but I don't think that's remotely accurate.

Firstly, horror movies should not be squeezed into a category so narrow that only a very specific set of criteria should be met for the film to be considered "good." Secondly, the horror fans who decry this film are deliberately ignoring a much broader history of the genre.

Del Toro has said he took inspiration from Mario Bava when making this film, and it shows. Not only that, but aside from the obvious modern touches like CGI to augment the ghosts, this film could easily have been a part of the Roger Corman cycle of Poe films, like The Fall of The House of Usher or The Haunted Palace. This is a sumptuous, Technicolor visual treat even in the halls of cold, dreary Allerdale Hall.

This film also draws upon the rich history of works from the very era it's set in: countless gothic romances where an unsuspecting heroine marries into a family with a terrible dark secret, with only the cryptic ghosts to try and warn her of impending doom. Sure, as I've already made note of, it's a rather annoying cliche that ghosts in fiction can never just be clear in their warnings. However, this whole film is intended to draw on cliche and I think it does it beautifully.

The family secret is dark, indeed. The male hero who rushes to our heroine's aid is ultimately as useless as if he'd done nothing at all. And the wicked get theirs in the end. The only cliche it leaves unfulfilled involves the red clay in a way I'm not going to spoil, but I expected a very different ending based on that set up.

The cast is also excellent, from our heroes to our villains. Jessica Chastain in particular brings a lot to her wicked character, infusing her with a lot of menace both quiet and howling mad, and even gives her a certain sympathy.

My advice, if you have failed to see this already? Ignore the detractors and just go in without the expectation that this is designed to terrify you when that is only a small portion of what this film wants to do. Enjoy the beautiful sights and excellent performances, don't get bogged down in whether the ghosts deserved more screen time.

This is a simply delightful film and I wish it had been appreciated in its initial release, but I am sure it will find a loyal cult before you know it. I definitely count myself proudly among their number.

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1 comment:

  1. My big problem with the movie was that, for me at least, it was too obvious what was going on, partly because everything seemed so cliched.

    But now that I think about it, plot has never been del Toro's strength anyway--he is a master of visuals and moods.

    Your review inspires me to watch it again, this time just indulging in the gothic atmosphere.