Monday, March 28, 2016

Peak Performance

The first question Guillermo del Toro's Crimson Peak (2015) must answer is, what genre is this? Is it horror, thriller, old dark house? The first word in the script gives the answer, "Ghosts" - "Ghosts are real."

It is set in Edith Wharton/Henry James territory: late 19th-century society. Mia Wasikowska is the bookish young daughter of a wealthy publisher. Although she doesn't have much use for the social whirl, she meets Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and his sinister sister (Jessica Chastain). They are minor members British nobility, looking for money to invest in their ancestral clayworks. Although they don't get the money, he does get Wasikowska, and takes her to their home, a ruined mansion in the misty moors.

When she was a child, Wasikowska saw a ghost who warned her to stay away from Crimson Peak, so what do you think is the name of the mansion? It is really the most interesting character in the movie, with the four-story foyer open to the snowy skies, ruined galleries, creaky plumbing delivering water stained crimson by the clay, and a dangerous looking elevator running down to the clay mines below the house. It is also haunted, but that's the last of Wasikowska's problems.

The story borrows a lot from Henry James, especially Portrait of a Lady - turned up to 11! The dialog consists of those stilted, finely turned periods favored by James and his contemporaries. It also has the color scheme of an Italian giallo, with the color drained out of everything except the blood-red clay, which seeps up into the clay, staining it crimson. Some people have complained that there aren't enough scares and gory murders, others feel like the gore and scares it does have are out of place. I think both are fine, especially in the 21st century, where special effects are an important part of genre pictures.

There were a number of sources and homages other than Portrait of a Lady, for example, Henry James' Turn of the Screw and the movie version The Innocents. The land-poor Sharpes may or may not be named after the unscrupulous social climber Becky Sharpe from Vanity Fair. I'll bet there were lots of influences from horror cinema that we missed, because we just haven't studied enough. But in the end, it's the old house, the script. and the performances that really delivered. Ms. Spenser particularly loved Tom Hiddleston, and wants to see this on a double bill with Only Lovers Left Alive. Most gothic.

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