Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Crimson Peak / **½ (R)

Edith Cushing: Mia Wasikowska
Thomas Sharpe: Tom Hiddleston
Lucille Sharpe: Jessica Chastain
Dr. Alan McMichael: Charlie Hunnam
Carter Cushing: Jim Beaver

Universal Pictures presents a film directed by Guillermo del Toro. Written by del Toro & Matthew Robbins. Running time: 119 min. Rated R (for bloody violence, some sexual content and brief strong language).

After “Pacific Rim”, which played as a minor improvement over a “Transformers” movie, I couldn’t wait for director/writer Guillermo del Toro to return to his horror fantasy roots with “Crimson Peak”, a gothic horror romance that has del Toro reminiscing about horror traditions of the past. Del Toro has a grand palette, especially in horror environments, making “Crimson Peak” a film that plays to his strengths as a director. The beautiful images are there, in a script that feels a little stilted, making this one a disappointment on some levels, but exactly what it should be on others.

The story centers on Edith Cushing. Notice the last name, a reference among many to the films of Hammer Studios. As a little girl, she learned that ghosts were real when she was visited by her dead mother and given a cryptic warning. I’ve always had an issue with this element of ghost stories. Why are ghosts so cryptic? If something is so important that it ties them to this world after death, you’d think they’d be a little more plain in their warnings.

Anyway, skip to adulthood, when Edith aspires to be a writer of horror fiction, while her father has become a self-made Buffalo industrialist. Del Toro wonderfully balances visual contrast with the muck and grime of a 19th Century industrial town against the beauty of Victorian Era architecture and fashion. Into this cold landscape comes Thomas Sharpe, an inventor looking for funding for a mining machine. His sister, Lady Lucille, who may be colder than the Buffalo winter, accompanies him. While appealing to Edith’s father for funding, Thomas catches Edith’s eye. Although her father is against the pairing, Edith and Thomas build a friendship and more. This development is also a disappointment for Dr. Alan McMichael, a childhood friend of Edith’s who appears to have unreciprocated feelings for her.

Mia Wasikowska is well cast as Edith. She has the ability to emote the hope necessary for a character to carry such a heavy atmosphere as del Toro presents with his bleak winter landscapes. She looks like she belongs in the beautiful costuming by Kate Hawley. Charlie Hunnam makes for a good nice guy stuck in the friend zone. It is Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain who seem to provide the first missteps for the film as the Sharpes. They again look great in Hawley’s costumes. They fit the gothic nature visually, but they lack the charms they need for the roles. Chastain in particular seems to have been directed to be cold and distant when she would be more effective were she warm and inviting. Hiddleston isn’t as far off the mark as it is important that he seem not quite right to McMichael and Edith’s father. He is the only person who praises Edith’s writing, which makes it a little more believable that Edith would fall for his wiles. They need to appear to have more depth than they do for this set up to work.

After the sudden death of Edith’s father, Thomas convinces Edith of his intensions and they quickly marry and return to the Sharpe estate in the highlands of England. Once there, the Sharpe’s schemes begin to seem more sinister. It is once we get to England that del Toro’s vision, Dan Laustsen’s cinematography and Thomas E. Sanders’ production design really take over the film. Allerdale Hall provides yet another character for the story, as any good haunted house should. Unlike today’s grim and dimly lit cinematic horror tales, del Toro’s color palate broadens once he reaches his sinister location. I can’t imagine why even the owners of such a house wouldn’t want to burn it down, but its presence is felt as surely as if it were a living, breathing entity.

“Crimson Peak” can be enjoyed for its beautiful cinematography and art direction. It is creepy and breathtaking. It is even admirably a little shock light, as del Toro focuses more on the romantic angle of the horror than he does on shock and awe. Unfortunately, his screenplay with co-writer Matthew Robbins is a little stiff and even didactic at times, feeling the need to point out themes and tropes of gothic horror to the audience unnecessarily. It is perhaps not as bad as to deserve a negative review, but I expect more from a master filmmaker like del Toro. His direction is impeccable. His script needs a trim down and a fresh perspective.

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