Crimson Peak (2015) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Crimson Peak (2015)

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Edith knows ghosts are real, she's known from the moment her mother came to her bedside to warn her of the crimson peaks.  Now older, she remembers her mother's warning, but it does not override her desire for the fetching gentleman who comes asking for her father's money to dig red clay on the mountaintop.  Guillermo del Toro directs Crimson Peaks from a screenplay written by del Toro and Matthew Robbins and stars Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, and Jessica Chastain.

I'm just trying to love youPity we don't have access to a cloning device, because the number of films and other projects bearing Guillermo del Toro's creative stamp far outweigh the films he has actually directed.  There have been a number of projects I wanted to see, high among them his attempt at directing H.P. Lovecraft and a foray into video games with Silent Hills, all but smothered at birth.  It's a fate which seems all at once befitting a project with his name, and a sign at the unfortunate crossroads Crimson Peak finds him.

It's a wonder we have Crimson Peak at all considering the difficulty he's had getting his projects off the ground. Del Toro has been outspoken on his desire to return to smaller-budget films, especially since Pacific Rim did its best business overseas versus the domestic grosses which ease the minds of most producers.  But Crimson Peak, with its lush production design and ability to attract the likes of Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain, is only possible because of the success of those larger-budgeted films.  So Crimson Peak, much like del Toro, is at an awkward crossroads between the lower-budgeted chills of The Devil's Backbone and the larger-scale spectacle of Hellboy.

Which explains why Crimson Peak is such an odd bird.  The opening scenes with the ghostly mother and treacherous legal maneuvers recalls the earlier del Toro, and the later scenes with the vast gothic mansion and dramatic showdowns bring to mind the multiple fight scenes of his later films.  For long time fans of del Toro it's the opening scenes which will pack the most punch as sympathy for the dead and a willingness to embrace the unknown dominate any interpersonal shenanigans which are going on.  But the physical confrontations of the latter half, with their swelling orchestral soundtrack and decaying sets, give the illusion of a grand showdown but not the emotional stakes.  Disappointment will be found on either ends, but for me it's the lack of staying power in the former, and less the bombast of the latter, which makes Crimson Peak so disappointing.

The exaggerated lighting and sets of Crimson Peak outshine the performances and screenplay which form the foundation.

The exaggerated lighting and sets of Crimson Peak outshine the performances and screenplay which form the foundation.

The sympathy toward those with a sensitivity to the unknown is what attracted me to the opening acts of Crimson Peak.  Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) lets us know that ghosts are real in the opening monologue, and then del Toro follows up with a scene where Edith's ghastly mother visits her for one last goodbye.  This is a moment which could be played for grotesque horror or as a jump scare, but del Toro approaches it with sensitivity.  Instead of trying to further scare her obviously frightened daughter, mother Cushing curls her wisp of a skeleton up to Edith and whispers one warning about a crimson peak.

This is the best scene in Crimson Peak, and a shame it comes so early, but provides a guidebook to what will and won't work throughout the rest of the film.  When del Toro summons up ghosts Crimson Peak finds itself in the grips of the macabre.  There's a sadness to mother Cushing's caress, because she wants so desperately to hug her daughter one last time but is trapped in the form of a black skeletal monstrosity.  This is beautiful to me, as both mother and daughter reach beyond their comfort zones to show affection for one another.

When Crimson Peak transitions from the macabre to the gothic it loses a lot of its punch.  Del Toro's films have always been sympathetic to the macabre without necessarily embracing any romantic inclinations, which is necessary for the gothic to succeed.  The production design of Crimson Peak there is no room for the intermingling of private desires which fuel the best of gothic fiction.  Crimson Peak becomes unmoored the exact moment Edith and Sir Thomas Sharpe (Hiddleston) take residence in the home where Sir Sharpe produces his red clay.  The mansion is too vast, the cold too bracing to face the devilish fires of the gothic.  But the ghosts become too distant to bring Crimson Peak back to the macabre either.

Hiddleston flounders while Chastain shows her horror credentials from Mama are not forgotten.

Hiddleston flounders while Chastain shows her horror credentials from Mama are not forgotten.

Considering a full half of Crimson Peak takes place in the Sharpe estate, where does del Toro's film go wrong?  The obvious blame lies with Hiddleston.  He is a charming man who has secured a prolific status because of his work as Loki in the multiple Marvel productions he's stuck in.  But his Loki is dull, less a conniving trickster and more a smug villain, and Crimson Peak demands he be two men at once while not convincing as either.  The first enthralled in a lust which dare not reveal itself, the second a passion which overrides the sinful desire.  Hiddleston is too reserved in his presentation of Sir Sharpe to suggest the former, and his reluctance to dig deep into the depravity of Sir Sharpe hampers the latter.

But the other characters reveal the screenwriting issues at the center of Crimson Peak.  Wasikowska has been superb in similar gothic dramas like Stoker, but the wilting flower she portrays grows into a fiery presence with such a sudden late-film twist it's a wonder she ever found herself in such a dilemma to begin with.  The only one who is up to the task of navigating the tricky terrain is Chastain, who as Sir Sharpe's sister is working with a script which sometimes changes the gothic / macabre between words but she manages the transition wonderfully.  There's one mid-film confrontation between her and Wasikowska which could have ended in unfortunate humor, but concludes on bristling aggression and far away from the camp which Crimson Peak does not play to.

The performances, uneven as they are, are only served as well as the screenplay del Toro and Matthew Robbins provide.  Crimson Peak is the definition of an uneven film but should not be taken as a sign of where del Toro's career will end up.  After all, Steven Soderbergh went from winning Best Director for Traffic to experimenting in digital cinema with Bubble and The Girlfriend Experience.  If this is where del Toro hopes to start his descent back into the low-budget woods which made him famous, then I hope for the best.

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Tail - Crimson PeakCrimson Peak (2015)

Directed by Guillermo del Toro.
Screenplay written by Guillermo del Toro and Matthew Robbins.
Starring Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, and Jessica Chastain.

Posted by Andrew

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