Friday, October 16, 2015

10 Off My Head: Come Meet Me On Crimson Peak

I got home from seeing Guillermo Del Toro's Crimson Peak last night in quite a state - I wanted to sing my love for it from the rooftops! I wanted to go right back to the theater and see it again! I wanted to find Guillermo Del Toro and hand him a medal of some sort, something big and bold and shiny, and then maybe lick him. I was so satisfied with the film - as you might know I've been looking forward to this thing for quite literal years of my life, and my expectations were yay high to a gigantic fucking robot. He blasted right on past. 

Naturally I got online after the screening and looked around and the internet did what the internet's good for -- it stomped on my happiness. Listen, criticism is a lovely thing! I have done loads of it myself, you may find! I just happen to think all of the criticism of Crimson Peak is terrible and foolish, see? And yes, I am talking to you. YOU! So here in the spirit of expressing my violent adoration of the film, are 10 things off the top of my head that I loved about it in no particular order. (There are some spoilers herein.)


Okay they're not really in no particular order because this is the most egregious complaint, one I'm seeing everywhere, and I couldn't be more vehement in my disagreement. I didn't like the glimpses of the ghosts that we saw in the trailer, but in context? In context the ghosts in Crimson Peak are some of the most breathtaking computer-generated effects work I have ever seen. Heartrending, gorgeous, strange and otherworldly - the textures that they manage to tease out, the smoke and flesh undulating all at once over each other, it is like nothing I have ever seen before. It's as luxurious as anything else in the film, but also stands outside of the film -- as the ghosts should do! They should feel separate, different, UNREAL -- they are ghosts! They should feel like someone put a scrim over the movie screen and are projecting them onto a second film-stock; they should be governed by their own logic. 

There's an entire scene in the film (and Del Toro does this a couple of times for a couple of reasons -- think of Mia Wasikowska repeatedly saying that it's not a "ghost story" but "a story with a ghost in it" and repeatedly drilling in about the ghost being a metaphor, a metaphor for the past, on and on) where Charlie Hunnam shows us a series of photographs that have captured the images of spirits and he and Mia talk about the way the image itself should be viewed and perceived -- they are talking to us, the viewer, and telling us how to take in and accept the otherworldly weirdness of the ghosts. They shouldn't seem real, and you're not wrong for thinking they don't but you're also missing the point.


Mia can do innocence and kindness in her sleep so bless her for also being addicted to balls-deep strangeness - to scarred hands under leather gloves with Cronenberg and shotgun romances with Park Chan-wook. She is our straight lady in Crimson Peak though and as such, she's got a lot to sell - not just furiously scribbling in a sudden out-of-character romance but also sleeves, so many gigantic sleeves! I think she's a marvelous heroine - smart but knows a proper piece of ass worth grabbing when she finds one; interestingly haunted and emotional, and consistently proactive. She has to straddle a lot of the conventions and make this woman more than a jumble, it's the hardest role in the film, and I was with her every minute of it. And she pulls of those sleeves.


Seriously, if I believed in god I'd say "God Bless Guillermo Del Toro" right now - it'd be for alliteration's sake but it does express how thankful I am to have this sickly funny man getting to make movies. This movie is a blast, with vamps vamping and creaking floorboards and monsters popping out of doorways - he's tickling the genre conventions until they're gasping for air at laughing so hard.


It's a remake of Alfred Hitchcock's film Notorious that makes the absurd idea of a remake of Alfred Hitchcock's film Notorious seem like the most glorious and batty thing to be -- entire portions of the plot are lifted willy-nilly, from the deal with the strand of keys to the poisoned tea to the White Knight showing up to carry the poisoned girl down the staircase - complaining that you could see the plot coming from a mile away is the same nonsense as whining about Dressed To Kill aping Hitch too - it's all in how De Palma plays the same notes his way there, and it's all about watching Del Toro decide you know what, no, I'm gonna stab Cary Grant in the fucking armpit. I'd have given my kingdom to see Jessica Chastain light her cigarette like Leopoldine Konstantin does! Speaking of...


I've seen people complaining she goes too far, I've seen people complain she doesn't go far enough -- dudes, she is juuuuuuuuust right. She chews the gorgeous scenery only when the moment's right, and otherwise she just nibbles at the edges, giving us a twitch or two to do ya. I loved her, and I felt for her, and I loved hating her guts. She's a Hammer vision and a Hitchcock villainess - she's Mrs. Danvers with dirty books and a bosom fully prepared to heave at any moment. She's fangs and finesse.


Pretty much everybody, even the film's haters, single out this stuff for praise ("Style over substance! Style over substance!" As if there's no room for such a thing in this world) and I could probably give this subject its own top ten list there is such a sumptuous feast on display. The clay bleeding through the snow! The black knots of fabric like festering tumors on all of Jessica Chastains outfits! The way the entire house sometimes feels like that spot on a velvet seat where the fabric's been worn down to a flat patch. 

But what's also interesting to me on this subject is the way some of it doesn't work, and seems chosen to not work purposefully some of Mia Wasikowska's dresses are like child's drawings and they fit her weird - when she dresses up for the ball she seems anachronistic. Like the ghosts. Like Tom Hiddleston's old suit and worn shoes. ("Mr. Funny Shoes" as that annoying kid in Mimic was fond of saying. Never trust a Mr. Funny Shoes!) As delicious a world it is that Del Toro creates he is fond of opening it up to weirdness, to ill fits, to throwing open the windows doors and the ceiling if need be and letting in some air, whether it be humor or weirdly incongruent character choices -- this place, for all it's claustrophobia, is never stuffy. It pulses with oozing red life.


There's that scene early on in the park where Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska look at the dying butterflies, and Jessica presses one's fluttering wing against her cheek (and then Mia's too), luxuriating in its death-throes (and people complain they saw her villainy coming from a mile away - you're kidding me! Really? You're so clever!). Jessica then lays the butterfly on the ground, where we cut in closer and watch a pack of black ants descend upon the poor thing. And then we cut in closer and we see a few ants climbing on top of the butterfly in close-up. And then WE CUT IN EVEN CLOSER and we watch one ant eat and burrow its way into the butterfly's eyes. And that is why I love Guillermo Del Toro. Honestly it's as meaningful a sequence, in its cuts and zooms and CG, to Del Toro's world-building as the shot from the opening of David Lynch's Blue Velvet with the descent beneath the grass to the insects was. Infinitesimal aggressions, the autumns of all of us, the collapse of order and a descent into madness and a picking picking picking... it's a fine and gorgeously rendered mini-statement of horror itself.


I'd have to get especially spoilery here to go into depth on this and I'll save it for some other date -- get me drunk and I'll go on about it easy-peasy, I'm sure. But Crimson Peak is really All About The Ladies, their wants and needs, from what mothers instill in their little girls (and what little girls instill inside their mothers skulls, in Jessica Chastain's sake) on down. I feel as if some inspired college student out there will have written a thesis about the final sequence, full as it is with tampon dresses in a bloodied maxi-pad world, before classes start on Monday. The men sidelined-victimized, girls doing it for themselves et cetera. ("Sisters doing it" has an especially interesting connotation here, too!) And Mia Wasikowska going full-force quip-dropping Schwarzenegger? Who doesn't want that in their life???


I have loved Charlie Hunnam for a very long time, decades really, but that doesn't blind me to the fact that a certain sort of woodenness has crept into his last few performances. Well let me focus that in a bit - there is a woodenness that Guillermo Del Toro seems intent on using him for. Del Toro keeps casting him as The Hero, the Solid Blond Sort, and here as The Practical Doctor it's on full display. His character felt the most dropped in straight from a Hammer movie to me, in that he maintains an old-fashioned flatness. I just don't really see this as a bad thing!

Tom Hiddleston couldn't be more Tom Hiddleston in this role - it's like the Platonic Ideal of Tom Hiddleston, with the swaying curls and watery pooling eyes and all the swooning but dangerous and ripe romantic intentions. His mouth always seems very moist, ya know? He's Edgar Allen Poe played by Lord Byron. Another complaint I've seen bandied about is the quick progression of his romance with Mia's character - as if no movie has ever used gorgeous movie stars as shorthand to get the romance moving along quickly! 

Crimson Peak actually tries harder at this than a million old movies I could name here, where the characters decide they are in love and should get immediately married (i.e. fuck) in half a scene. And it plays that old scenario out in interesting ways - I found the sweet little build up to their wintry in-town boink-fest surprisingly effective. Anyway I think if you look at Tom Hiddleston looking at Mia Wasikowska you understand very fast why they fall for each other. Speaking of...


Ending on a perky note!


Roark said...

Thanks for writing this - I went home in a happy daze from this movie, and reading negative reviews (or even positive but unenthusiastic reviews) this morning has really bummed me out. The ghost criticism is especially baffling - as you say, he lays out the role of the ghosts in the story really clearly. So people either aren't paying attention, or they're so invested in what they think the movie should be that they can't see it for what it is. Either way, it's annoying - you just know the internet nitpick crowd is going to win this one and the "it's not scary" criticism is going to be repeated EVERYWHERE.

JA said...

Thanks, Roark! That really was my foremost intention with this list (and why it's got an admittedly defensive, if winkingly so, stance from the start) - to combat the nitpicks head on with the ways I think they're reading the movie and its intentions incorrectly.

Because you're right, the narrative is gonna stick, and we're gonna have to defend this one like crazy people for a good long while. I wanted to get a head-start! ;)

Roark said...

Yes, I'm getting ready for the long haul on this one! Though I might just refer folks to this article, 'cause it really is a perfect defense of the film.

Such-Fun said...

Thanks for this - I too am disappointed at the reviews. Such a beautiful, well thought out film. He really is the master of details.

Chastain is giving me life here, everything was perfect. Mia should be a superstar already, she's far quieter than Lawrence and less loved than Ronan but i think she's up there with them in terms of skill and commitment.

On another note, how do you get such excellent high quality gifs? Not that I'm complaining, once again you're giving me everything my hangover needs :D

JA said...

I use a Mac app called GifBrewery, Such-Fun - it's great!

sissy in hwd said...

I loved loved loved it. I knew I was in good hands at the start with the crimson tinted Universal logo intro. It was so lush I wish it had been even more saturated such as the Technicolor in a Powell/Pressburger film. And for some reason I kept thinking of GONE WITH THE WIND too. The red clay earth, Chastain's black dress similar to Scarlett's mourning duds, Hiddleston looking a bit like Leslie Howard, the dark interiors.

Have you seen Chastain in Pacino's SALOME? The film of the play not the film of the making of the play. Both are interesting but especially SALOME. Everyone is great in the film, Pacino, Roxanne Hart, but Chastain is stunning and absolutely vicious. I love the Wilde play and this is a memorable version.

drewthemoviefan said...

Did you stay through the credits? I loved the reveal that Edith wrote the book Crimson Peak.

mangrove said...

I think a lot of what is wrong with the movie's reception is due to the way it was marketed as others have said elsewhere but also the way Del Toro spoke of it during production: yes it is a "gothic romance" but he also foolishly called it "erotic".

I liked the way he teased us with the repressed American society but I really thought things were going to get freaky once they got to Europe. Alas, not a bodice was ever ripped in any nook or cranny of the manor, not a torso was splattered with that red clay, no hair was pulled in the throes of passion or a catfight (such a letdown that no strand of hair was ever caught in that elevator).

So many missed opportunities to make the sex more startling than the ghosts or the violence (and it would have fit the metaphor in a way). Not asking for full-on penetration but it seriously lacked any real erotic frisson I felt.

Anonymous said...

At the risk of incurring your wrath, I'm gonna go ahead and say that I'm one of those people who kinda liked but didn't love Crimson Peak. Gorgeous and impeccably designed but I didn't find the story particularly compelling. I had no problems with the ghosts and I'm surprised there are people complaining about Chastain's performance. I thought she was great. I also think the "style over substance" criticism is lazy and unfair. I loved Stoker. Sometimes style is the substance.
Am I the only one who noticed the film's similarities to The Devil's Backbone? Not plotwise, of course, as CP is a gothic romance while the latter was more political. But both used ghosts as metaphors about being haunted by a traumatic past and both had the prologue/epilogue about how ghosts exist. Though I would say the storytelling was much more spottier and uneven in CP and it lacked the aching poignancy that I liked so much in The Devil's Backbone.

Mark Alexander said...

After seeing this film, I wanted so much to dislike it, but I just couldn't. I felt a little cheated, because the trailers gave the impression it would be one type of story, and it turned out being something totally different. And yet, I'm fine with that. I happened to rent Del Toro's The Devil's Backbone about a week earlier, and as a friend pointed out, the stories are parallel, if not similar in theme. The real monsters/ghosts are the humans...