Skip to main content

I put the poison in her porridge.

Crimson Peak
(2015)

(SPOILERS) Oh, Guillermo, Guillermo, whate’er has become of you? Perhaps Pan’s Labyrinth, with its resounding critical acclaim, was del Toro’s creative (rather than crimson) peak, and he decided he didn’t need to strive so manfully any more. Or perhaps the debacle of bumping himself off The Hobbit knocked the wind out of his sails, so struggling to regain his previous form after all that lost time. Whatever the root of his malaise, del Toro’s most recent two pictures have been disappointments, ones unfortunately redolent of his early Hollywood ordeal Mimic. They’re examples of well-made emptiness rather than rich with texture and resonance. Crimson Peak is better than Pacific Rim, but that’s more down to performance than screenplay, and del Toro must take (at least half of) the blame in both instances.


He co-wrote Peak with Matthew Robbins, a contemporary of the Hollywood movie brats whose best known and most ignominious directorial credit is the sub-Spielberg slop *batteries not included. Crimson Peak couldn’t be accused of falling into schmaltz, far from it, but it continually overplays its hand in a manner del Toro might argue is merely representative of the tropes of gothic romance (a genre he was continually at pains to state it belonged to, rather than horror, putting the picture’s financial failure at the door of what he saw as misleading marketing, which conveniently skirts its more fundamental shortcomings). Really, it just highlights a certain crudity of plot and characterisation that will come as a shock to anyone only familiar with the nuance of his Spanish language outings.


The ghost is just a metaphor, for the past” announces Mia Wasikowska’s budding writer, and the subsequent movie becomes a barrage of too self-conscious displays of fictioneering, as del Toro sets out his stall of text and genre within the text and genre itself. He runs through the expected compendium of precisely devised patent del Toro gadgets, and clumsily attempts to evoke era by dropping in references to Conan Doyle, spirit photography, and assorted over-elaborate anecdotes and factoids that call this out as otherwise unanchored in time and period.


I mentioned the Peak in my Carol review, as del Toro is going for something similar to Hitchcock and Scorsese in his emphasis on touch and sensation, but he ends up nose-diving into unhinged melodrama and tonally excessive Grand Guignol (the skull-splitting in a men’s room). It’s over-studied, and unconvincing in its lavishness. You can see what he’s trying for, but there’s emptiness at Crimson Peak’s core.


One only has to compare it to the archetype of motion picture gothic romance, Rebecca, where the house is imbued with a sense of character no veneer of modern production design can muster, where there’s a genuine sense of the uncanny and a haunting atmosphere the actual spooks in Peak can’t begin to match, and where the characters betray palpable passions, fears and simmering emotions that render del Toro’s cock-riding and incestuous liaisons flagrantly attention-seeking.


And yet, del Toro has assembled three-quarters of a fine cast. In the principal roles, as the mysterious siblings who lure Edith Cushing (I know; alas, Cushing is about as understated a nod as this gets) to the unreal edifice, are Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain, as Thomas and Lucille Sharpe. Or, more accurately, Mia Wasikowska is playing Mrs de Winter, Hiddleston is Maxim, and Chastain illustrates a particularly berserk incarnation of Mrs Danvers, with Allerdale Hall substituting for Manderlay.


The secrets, over-exerted, are much less effective, and thus so are the characters. While the trio of leads are top-notch performers, they’re left inhabiting caricatures. Edith seems to do what she does purely because she’s a piece on del Toro’s chess table, while Thomas is suitably raffish but his essential unreadability never translates as intriguing. Lucille, meanwhile, is plain insane, and Chastain is clearly having absurdly camp fun, particularly when it comes to running around, stabbing and slicing willy-nilly, in the blood-spurting third act, but the overriding effect is rather pedestrian, as if del Toro has missed the wood for the pastiche.


He’s even borrowing for the miscast Charlie Hunnam, as Edith’s forlorn suitor. McMichael is essentially Arbogast from Psycho, something evident as soon as he arrives in England to set the Sharpes to rights. Except del Toro and Robbins know we know this, and know Kubrick also copied Hitch with the similarly haunted mansion and Scatman Crothers’ doomed knight in shining armour in The Shining. So instead, McMichael survives, just about. Hunnam’s face is far too contemporary for this kind of fare, which is probably why he’s also been cluelessly given lead duties in The Lost City of Z and Knights of the Round Table: King Arthur.


Talking of clueless, I’m guessing del Toro will claim it was intentional that Allderdale Hall and its environs fail to look or feel remotely like England; after all, Manderlay was achieved entirely in Hollywood and the surrounding Californian countryside. Unfortunately, the decision leaves Peak further adrift, and with ghost designs we’re assured weren’t CG rendered, but look it thanks to post-production processes, the whole tends to the mechanically undemanding. Much has been made of the bodice-ripping sex scenes, but they aren’t anything all that eyebrow raising, unless you happen to be taking tea with the vicar while watching.


If I make it sound as if I didn’t enjoy the film, that’s not exactly the case; it’s just disappointing that a director so talented should make something so middling for the second time in a row. Crimson Peak ought to have played a blinder. It can be a bad sign when a filmmaker opts to up the ante of bloodshed, no matter how much he may adore it anyway, because it may be in service of hiding a story that isn’t working. The picture’s third act is really little more than an elaborate display of dismemberment and mutilation, which is all very well, but Guillermo can do so much more. And, to an impartial observer, it does make the movie read as horror rather than gothic romance.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

You’re never the same man twice.

The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970)
(SPOILERS) Roger Moore playing dual roles? It sounds like an unintentionally amusing prospect for audiences accustomed to the actor’s “Raise an eyebrow” method of acting. Consequently, this post-Saint pre-Bond role (in which he does offer some notable eyebrow acting) is more of a curiosity for the quality of Sir Rog’s performance than the out-there premise that can’t quite sustain the picture’s running time. It is telling that the same story was adapted for an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents 15 years earlier, since the uncanny idea at its core feels like a much better fit for a trim 50 minute anthology series.

Basil Dearden directs, and co-adapted the screenplay from Anthony Armstrong’s novel The Strange Case of Mr Pelham. Dearden started out with Ealing, helming several Will Hay pictures and a segment of Dead of Night (one might imagine a shortened version of this tale ending up there, or in any of the portmanteau horrors that arrived in the year…

‘Cos I’m the gringo who always delivers.

American Made (2017)
(SPOILERS) This is definitely more the sort of thing Tom Cruise should be doing, a movie that relies both on his boyish™ charm and at least has pretensions of ever so slightly pushing the envelope of standard multiplex fare, rather than desperately attaching himself to an impersonal franchise (The Mummy) or flailingly attempting to kick start one (Jack Reacher: Never Go Back); remember when Cruise wouldn’t even go near sequels (for about 20 years, The Color of Money aside, and then only the one series)? American Made is still victim to the tendency of his movies to feel superstar-fitted rather than remaining as punchy as they might be on paper (Made’s never quite as satirically sharp as it wants to be), but it at least doesn’t lead its audience by the nose.

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

Two hundred thousand pounds, for this outstanding example of British pulchritude and learning.

The Avengers 4.18: The Girl From Auntie
I’ve mentioned that a few of these episodes have changed in my appreciation since I last watched the series, and The Girl from Auntie constitutes a very pronounced uptick. Indeed, I don’t know how I failed to rate highly the estimable Liz Fraser filling in for Diana Rigg – mostly absent, on holiday –for the proceedings (taking a not dissimilar amateur impostor-cum-sidekick role to Fenella Fielding in the earlier The Charmers). I could watch Fraser all day, and it’s only a shame this was her single appearance in the show.

By Jove, the natives are restless tonight.

The Avengers 4.17: Small Game for Big Hunters
I wonder if Death at Bargain Prices’ camping scene, suggestive of an exotic clime but based in a department store, was an inspiration for Small Game For Big Hunters’ more protracted excursion to the African country of Kalaya… in Hertfordshire. Gerry O’Hara, in his second of two episodes for the show again delivers on the atmosphere, making the most of Philip Levene’s teleplay.

Romulan ale should be illegal.

Star Trek: Nemesis (2002)
(SPOILERS) Out of the ST:NG movies, Star Trek: Nemesis seems to provoke the most outrage among fans, the reasons mostly appearing to boil down to continuity and character work. In the case of the former, while I can appreciate the beef, I’m not enough of an aficionado to get too worked up. In the case of the latter, well, the less of the strained inter-relationships between this bunch that make it to the screen, the better (director Stuart Baird reportedly cut more than fifty minutes from the picture, most of it relating to underscoring the crew, leading to a quip by Stewart that while an Actor’s Cut would include the excised footage, a Director’s one would probably be even shorter). Even being largely unswayed by such concerns, though, Nemesis isn’t very good. It wants to hit the same kind of dramatic high notes as The Wrath of Khan (naturally, it’s always bloody Khan) but repeatedly drifts into an out-of-tune dirge.

Old Boggy walks on Lammas Eve.

Jeeves and Wooster 2.5: Kidnapped  (aka The Mysterious Stranger)
Kidnapped continues the saga of Chuffnell Hall. Having said of 2.4 that the best Wodehouse adaptations tend to stick closely to the text, this one is an exception that proves the rule, diverging significantly yet still scoring with its highly preposterous additions.

Jeeves: Tis old boggy. He be abroad tonight. He be heading for the railway station.
Gone are many of the imbroglios involving Stoker and Glossop (the estimable Roger Brierley), including the contesting of the former’s uncle’s will. Also gone, sadly, is the inebriated Brinkley throwing potatoes at Stoker, which surely would have been enormous fun. Instead, we concentrate on Bertie being locked aboard Stoker’s yacht in order to secure his marriage to Pauline (as per the novel), Chuffy tailing Pauline in disguise (so there’s a different/additional reason for Stoker to believe Bertie and she spent the night together, this time at a pub en route to Chufnell Hall) and …

Cally. Help us, Cally. Help Auron.

Blake's 7 3.7: Children of Auron

Roger Parkes goes a considerable way towards redeeming himself for the slop that was Voice from the Past with his second script for the series, and newcomer Andrew Morgan shows promise as a director that never really fulfilled itself in his work on Doctor Who (but was evident in Knights of God, the 1987 TV series featuring Gareth Thomas).

I think we’ve returned to Eden. Surely this is how the World once was in the beginning of time.

1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992)
Ridley Scott’s first historical epic (The Duellists was his first historical, and his first feature, but hardly an epic) is also one of his least remembered films. It bombed at the box office (as did the year’s other attempted cash-ins on the discovery of America, including Superman: The Movie producers the Salkinds’ Christopher Columbus: The Discovery) and met with a less than rapturous response from critics. Such shunning is undeserved, as 1492: Conquest of Paradise is a richer and more thought-provoking experience than both the avowedly lowbrow Gladiator and the re-evaluated-but-still-so-so director’s cut of Kingdom of Heaven. It may stand guilty of presenting an overly sympathetic portrait of Columbus, but it isn’t shy about pressing a critical stance on his legacy.

Sanchez: The truth is, that he now presides over a state of chaos, of degradation, and of madness. From the beginning, Columbus proved himself completely incapable of ruling these islands…