Wednesday, January 27, 2016

A Lovely Gothic Steampunk Dollhouse, Or Thoughts on Crimson Peak

Guillermo del Toro has been on my radar since Mimic (1997) and I'm always eager to see what he does next.  He manufactures memorable worlds that are both horrific and whimsical and still remains an outsider, much like Tim Burton before he got a hold of that Breaking Bad-sized pallet of Disney money.  Every movie he makes is stamped with his unique personal style and his obvious affection for HP Lovecraft, steampunk and exquisitely rendered models.
Which brings us to his latest movie, Crimson Peak (2015), a lovely Gothic steampunk dollhouse filled with gorgeous costumes and sets.  The film is a joy to view; every frame echoes an oil painting and Mia Wasikowska roaming the haunted hallways in a white nightdress holding a candelabra is such a classic image straight out of a paperback romance cover.
There’s a first rate cast to match the sets with Mia Wasikowska playing Edith Cushing, a nod to the great Peter Cushing, who you probably know as Grand Moff Tarkin but also hopefully remember as Van Helsing and Dr. Frankenstein.  Jessica Chastain and Tom Hiddleston portray Sir Thomas Sharpe and Lady Lucille Sharpe, a pair of creepy shabby gentility siblings straight out of an Edgar Allan Poe story.  And then there’s Jim Beaver from Supernatural as Carter Cushing, Edith’s father. (I’m gonna go ahead and say that’s a reference to Randolph Carter, a Lovecraft allusion).
“Ghosts are just a metaphor for the past,” Edith keeps insisting, and at its heart, all ghost stories are murder mysteries as the spirits clamor for justice or to be avenged.  I wouldn’t say that this is a particularly scary movie but it is wonderfully atmospheric with the rattling doorknobs and creaky floorboards.  It becomes more surreal and dreamlike as the film progresses, especially when Lucy arrives at Allerdale Hall, the gothic dollhouse full of oblique angles and slanting floors, sinking into the crimson clay in glorious decay.  The walls, when not bleeding red, pulse with butterfly wings like living wallpaper.
The aforementioned ghosts are CGI enhanced with smoky tendrils that trail behind them as they haunt the halls and torment Lucy.   Guillermo Del Toro prefers to use his CGI in small doses, like a drop of hot sauce to spice things up, a sentiment I heartily endorse.  So much of the story is told through makeup, costume and mood, and the subtle CGI is used sparingly to punch up colors or add a snowstorm.
The violence is sudden, bloody and brutal in a very modern way that is ultimately distracting from a stylistic point of view.  I understand that people were violent in the olden days, they were run through with swords and their heads were chopped off and they often found themselves impaled by Eastern European warlords.  But Guillermo Del Toro goes to a great effort to reproduce the tone, style and mood of the 70’s Hammer Films, and the level of violence only succeeds in reminding the viewer that this is actually a modern movie.
I did enjoy Crimson Peak because it was completely different than Pacific Rim (2013), original, and an emphatic love letter to the great haunted house movies like The Shining (1980), The Innocents (1961) and The Haunting (1961).  However while this movie is undeniably beautiful, it has none of the tension or terror of those previous films.  Without horror Crimson Peak becomes an experiment in aesthetics, a showcase of a director’s favorite actors, scenes and paintings.  It reminded me of Bram Stoker’s Dracula by Francis Ford Coppola (1992), another gorgeous fiasco made by a modern genius, full of sound and beauty but unfortunately, signifying nothing.

my first novel? thanks for asking:) I wrote a 4 book supernatural martial arts series concerning the ongoing feud between a group of kung-fu killer witches in san francsico’s chinatown.