Monday, October 26, 2015

Crimson Peak: the oldest new release ever

Guillermo del Toro's "Crimson Peak" is a film out of its time. It's a contemporary film from the late 1930s and '40s. Tom Hiddleston's Sir Thomas Sharpe could have been played by Laurence Olivier or Vincent Price. Alfred Hitchcock might have directed this instead of his award-winning 1940 film "Rebecca."

These are among the best qualities of the film and exactly why it hasn't achieved mainstream box office numbers.

It's a shame that del Toro can't reach wider audience but it is also validation for him as an artist. "Pacific Rim" felt like much more of a grab for a mainstream audience than "Crimson Peak" but with a large ad campaign, an October release and the casting of two of the hottest actors today (Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain), one would have thought del Toro hit a box office formula that would be unbeatable. He got beat, by "Goosebumps" (which I'm OK with to an extent), and then beat again as part of a down week for other new releases.

And you know what? I'm OK with that. The negative from is that many studios will again shy away from bigger budgeted horror films or from original films and go back to low budgets, remakes and sequels. Fans will lose on the second two but the history of low budget horror successes is a staple of the genre. Horror writers and directors can do more with less than anyone in Hollywood.

What you might not hear based on the numbers is that "Crimson Peak" is worth your money. It is a beautifully filmed and acted work that begs for you to indulge in it. It is a costume drama, a true gothic romance that doesn't belong in the 21st century yet benefits not only from modern technology but also the influence of films such as "The Haunting" (1963) and "The Changling" (1980).

Hiddleston, Chastain and Mia Wasikowska look like they belong in early 20th century America and England (only supporting actor Charlie Hunnam looks out of place). Wasikowska has a rare trait in which she simultaneously looks younger and older than she is. It fits her character, Edith, perfectly. She's a writer who claims to want to be more like Mary Shelley than Jane Austen and comes to the attention of the beleaguered Sir Thomas. Sir Thomas is in Buffalo, New York seeking investments for his clay mining operation on his property in Cumberland, England. When Edith's father dies, she marries Sir Thomas and the action moves to Allerdale Hall -- soon to be revealed as the Crimson Peak of Edith's childhood nightmares.

Edith sees ghosts. She tells us they are real from the first line of the film. Del Toro's ghosts are mangled and some are faceless, which is a del Toro trademark. They don't look like any ghosts you've seen before. They are magnificent and frightening.

And, to the detriment of many movie goers, secondary to the plot of the film. As Edith herself says of her own novel, it is a story with ghosts in it, not a ghost story. But this is exactly the mood and modus operandi of early Hollywood gothic romances. Those filmmakers didn't need ghosts to be real to cause scares. Del Toro uses them here because he can and they are worth seeing, but there isn't a fight from the ghosts to propel Edith. As we are after reminded, the real monsters are other people.

But again, it's beautiful. Like Clive Barker, del Toro doesn't so much tell horror stories as he does twisted fairy tales. And like Barker, del Toro has the ability to make the disgusting and garish gorgeous. Del Toro's use of old school iris fades and swipe cuts are part of the beauty of the film. If it wasn't for the vibrance of the reds, yellows, and blues (del Toro and primary colors go together like bread and butter), this would be great to see in black and white.

Which, unfortunately, would only kill an already dead profit margin.

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