Sunday, October 30, 2016

30 Days of Nightmares #30: CRIMSON PEAK (2015)

The Story: Virginal heroine Edith (Mia Wasikowska; Alice from from Tim Burton's ALICE IN WONDERLAND) marries the wrong man (Tom Hiddleston; Loki from THE AVENGERS) and ends up living in a haunted mansion in some mythic corner of England where the soil is blood red.

Expectations: At the end of my last horror movie marathon, I found myself yearning for a classic monster movie to offset the inundation of “modern horror.”  This year, I picked CRIMSON PEAK as the final film because it sounded like a Universal monster movie crossed with Alfred Hitchcock’s REBECCA or maybe a touch of Val Lewton’s Jane Eyre (I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE).  So what does "classic horror" look like in the 21st century?

Reaction: There’s no question that Guillermo del Toro has a style all his own.  (Check out LACMA’s recent exhibit.)  Watching his films--especially the mythic horror films THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE, PAN’S LABYRINTH, and MAMA--it's clear that you’re surfing through a brilliant visual storyteller's imagination.  Del Toro's work is as distinctive as Tim Burton’s, and the two are comparable in my mind not only because of their mutual interest in dark fairy tales but also because they both seem to  trapped in their own imaginations.

Many critics have suggested that Burton’s newer films are derivative of his older films… which is no surprise, given that his older films were so boldly original.  At some point, the Tim Burton “style” became a brand, and I'd wager that the filmmaker feels a certain amount of pressure to deliver what audiences now consider “a Tim Burton movie.”  CRIMSON PEAK makes me wonder if Del Toro is struggling with the same beast of burden.  Is it possible for a visionary filmmaker to maintain their originality once their vision has been popularly branded?

CRIMSON PEAK is a crowd-pleasing Guillermo Del Toro movie, frequently brilliant in the way that Del Toro's other films are brilliant.  Visually, it’s a marvel—like a variation on THE HAUNTING made by Mario Bava, filled with bold, rich colors and wildly elaborate sets and costumes.  It has an operatic quality that is rare for horror films—especially 21st century horror films.  Every frame screams “classic monster movie," as the film tells a classical ghost story.

This is where things get tricky.  The ghosts in the film are alternately wispy and organic, alternately human and mythic--because CRIMSON PEAK wants to be both intimate and spectacular.  It achieves both, in isolated moments.  But as a whole, it never quite gels for me.  Maybe it’s because the Victorian ghost story feels too simple and straightforward for such a lush, ornate production.   Maybe it’s because Guillermo del Toro’s brand of horror is too hauntingly familiar at this point.  Whatever the case, I found myself wishing for a narrative that was as rich as the visuals.   

But, hey, let's not end on a sour note.  CRIMSON PEAK was still a welcome change from so many of the modern horror films I've been watching this month.  I believe that the horror genre thrives because it allows for so many subgenres and so many variations on a theme.  Del Toro’s vision only strengthens my affection for the genre.  

Most Nightmare-Worthy Moment: The final ten minutes or so get dicey in a way I had not anticipated, but probably should have.  CRIMSON PEAK pointedly echoes Mario Bava—who was, in addition to being something of a classicist, also the father of giallo.  Beauty and brutality go hand in hand. 

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