Sunday, November 01, 2015

Deeper Red

Mia Wasikowska in Crimson Peak

The heroine of Crimson Peak (2015), Guillermo Del Toro's return to horror filmmaking, is named "Edith Cushing," a name with a double dose of allusion. "Cushing" signifies the film's debt to Hammer Studios and the great Peter Cushing, a debt that seems relatively small to my mind. "Edith," on the other hand suggests Edith Wharton, whose savagely genteel melodramas of the turn of the 20th Century the film takes as primary texts for its first act. Wharton, it should also be said, was a crackerjack author of ghost stories which, germane to this particular film, are rife with repressed sexual desires and economic anxiety. Like Wharton, Crimson Peak's heroine is a patrician writer of ghost stories, though from Buffalo, New York rather than the big apple. The allusion is on point. This is a very self-aware movie.

The story, such as it is, finds Edith falling for dashing fortune hunter Sir Thomas Sharpe when Sharpe comes to Buffalo seeking financing for an invention to revitalize the mine on his ancestral lands. The mine dredges a blood-red clay for unique brick and tile applications. Edith is smitten with the dashing Sharpe, but her father is not so taken. Nor is young Dr. Allan McMichael, Edith's optometrist, who moons after Edith in unrequited love. After Sharpe brings Edith to a local ball (one originally intended to introduce Thomas to another potential bride), the elder Cushing begins an investigation into Sharpe and his sister, Lucille, and doesn't like what he finds. He buys Sharpe off with the information his detective provides, and with a check contingent on the man breaking Edith's heart. He complies. The next day, as the Sharpes prepare to leave, Cushing is murdered by a mysterious figure who bashes his brains in against the sink of his club's bathroom. Sharpe himself consoles Edith and their romance resumes without impediment. Soon they are married, and Edith is spirited away to Allerdale Hall, a foreboding gothic ruin set atop the red clay mine. The red clay seeps into the landscape and stains the snow as it falls and seeps from the very floorboards of the manor, as if the house bleeds. Allerdale Hall has ghosts, too, which Edith begins to see. She's no stranger to ghosts. The ghost of her mother visited her as a child and warned her to beware of Crimson Peak. Soon enough, she discovers that Crimson Peak is the very manor into which she has moved. And the Sharpes have a secret, one the ghosts of Allerdale Hall are keen to reveal to Edith. She soon finds evidence of the previous Ladies Sharpe. Meanwhile, Dr. McMichael begins his own inquiries into the death of Carter Cushing, and soon enough discovers that Edith is in great danger. He follows her to England, arriving just as a a massive snow storm hits, and just as Lucille reveals what really happens at Crimson Peak...

Tom Hiddleston and Mia Wasikowska in Crimson Peak

The story in Crimson Peak is a conglomeration of Gothic tropes gleaned from centuries of Gothic literature and filmmaking. As a result, a longtime fan of horror movies or Gothic lit is likely to view Crimson Peak through a lens of "been there, done that." That's a perfectly valid way to read the movie, too. It plays a bit like a "greatest hits" compilation. It's a perfectly respectable conglomeration of elements: the sexual deviance is the engine of the plot, the doomed romance between plucky heroine and Byronic bad boy is right out of the Brontes, and the film's structure is constructed like the layers of an onion peeled away bit by bit before revealing the horror beneath. This is not a film whose narrative is innovative. It's a pastiche, most notably of "Bluebeard," but of dozens of other sources as well. Its most daring narrative trick is appending its Gothic elements to a first act that plays more like a drama of manners the likes of which might have been written by Henry James or Booth Tarkington or, indeed, Edith Wharton. Although the film's initial visual signatures during its prologue announce that its lineage derives mostly from Italian filmmakers like Mario Bava, its opening act filters it through Scorsese's version of The Age of Innocence. The world it builds before it embraces full-on Gothic is the world one sees in paintings by John Singer Sargent or Thomas Eakins. It's very much about social mores and the place of women in society. The Gothic elements aside, this is a women's picture, in which matrimony is as much a means of survival as it is a means for fulfillment (or lack thereof). There are social niceties involved, and you sense that Edith Cushing tramples over them. Her literary ambitions, for example, are patronized by her would-be editor, and by her society acquaintances. When they suggest that she'll end up as Jane Austen--a spinster--she quips that she'd rather end up as Mary Shelley, a widow. The role of men in this world is in the background, but is ever present as a deeply embedded and calcified patriarchy. Carter Cushing means well by his daughter, but he acts without her knowledge and against her agency. Dr. McMichael views himself as a white knight. The film deftly overturns all of this. The prime movers in the plot are Edith and Lucille. It's Lucille who thwarts Cushing's intervention while Edith herself becomes the white knight defending the damselled McMichaels. Thomas is very much a pawn in a game between Edith and Lucille, and the movie is contingent on which of them holds sway over him.

Mia Wasikowska in Crimson Peak

For the most part, none of that really matters all that much, though. The central appeal of Crimson Peak is visual and cinematic. This film is eye-searingly gorgeous, a film so rich with textures, moods, and surfaces that whatever it may be about is almost entirely inconsequential. All of Del Toro's films pay close attention to production design, and this one is no different. If Pan's Labyrinth or the Hellboy films are baroque, then this film is an ornate rococo. The costumes--period accurate and richly designed and tailored--provide an almost tactile pleasure. Tom Hiddleston, even though it's not his movie by any means, cuts an amazingly beautiful figure in the dark period suits the movie dresses him in, while the costumes worn by the women are intricately detailed. Del Toro has some fun with these fashions, too, in a couple of shots that place them in the elements: Edith's lovely day dress above the mud streets of Buffalo, for instance, or the rain from which Sharpe emerges to sweep her to the ball.

This is almost as much a film about texture as it is about color. And color is its primary concern, particularly red. I mentioned Mario Bava earlier. I should expand on that. This is a film that mixes and projects unexpected colors onto surfaces where they have no business being. The film's opening prelude, in which Edith is first visited by her mother's ghost, is lit like the corridors in Bava's Kill, Baby, Kill, while the way it places red elements into the frame in the very textured blacks of Allerdale Hall recall the technicolor glories of The Whip and the Body (a film with some thematic elements in common with Crimson Peak on top of the visual elements). The closing scenes in the basement of the house, where the walls weep red clay that looks like blood go beyond Bava to his great disciple, Dario Argento, and perhaps to Ingmar Bergman's famously red Cries and Whispers for inspiration. It's a vivid set. This film has an unusual approach to ghosts, who are color coded to match the environs of Allerdale Hall, either black or red. This is not a place where white or spectral blue ghosts haunt. These ghosts are vivid nightmare creatures the likes of which the screen has never seen before. Allerdale Hall itself is a vivid nightmare, too, seemingly wrought out of every other haunted house you can remember. Richard Matheson once described his Hell House as "the Everest of haunted houses," but I think maybe that term is better applied to Allerdale Hall.

Mia Wasikowska in Crimson Peak

This is a film with better actors than usual for a horror movie. Mia Wasikowska gets the plucky heroine role and plays it with aplomb. It's her movie and she's up for it. Jessica Chastain gets the meaty part of Lucille, the film's ostensible villain. Del Toro lets her cut loose and chew the scenery in the kind of role that might have gone to Barbara Steele in past years, or even to Vincent Price. She's a right monster, and boy howdy does she embrace the batshit lunacy of her character. Among the men, Hiddleston gets the conflicted Thomas Sharpe, a man torn between his forbidden, mutually parasitic relationship with his sister and the realization that he might actually be in love with his victim. He's good at these kinds of roles, and, as I've said, he wears the costumes magnificently. Hiddleston, too, could play the Vincent Price part, which is part of his performance here. Of the supporting characters, Charlie Hunnam is saddled with the David Manners part. He's not lost among the other actors, but he's not a standout, either. Jim Beaver fares better with Carter Cushing, whose ruthlessness is balanced by a clear affection for and indulgence of his daughter.

Jessica Chastain and Tom Hiddleston in Crimson Peak

Many of Del Toro's pet obsessions mark this film as his: the emphasis on insects, the role of ghosts as memories of trauma (it's not a ghost story, as Edith tells her editor about her story, but a story that happens to have ghosts in it), the confinement with enemies. Crimson Peak has a structure similar to Del Toro's great ghost story, The Devil's Backbone. which also begins and ends with the appearance of a ghost and a voice over explaining their role in the movie. The past is always with us in Del Toro's movies. So, too, are the echoes of his previous films. In this, he's a true auteur.

Crimson Peak is a film I wallowed in while I was watching it. In truth, I didn't care that the screenplay wasn't as deep or as meaningful as the one in The Devil's Backbone, or that the second half of the film takes place in horrormovieland, because story isn't the only reason I watch films or even the most important one. Sometimes, I want to luxuriate in the image, in the rhythm of the editing, in the craft of the production. This is a film that invites that kind of immersion. On those terms, at least, it's a masterpiece.

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