Filmgoer’s Flamethrower #22 – Crimson Peak

Posted: July 5, 2019 in Uncategorized

© 2019 G.N. Jacobs

Romantic ghost story, so the DVD label said. Guillermo del Toro’s recent entry into the Gothic Romance genre, Crimson Peak, was on the face of things romantic and had ghosts in it…so no need to call the FTC. But, still only a movie to define the middle of the pack instead of me either really hating it or really loving it.

Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) gets set to present her latest ghost story novel to an editor. The editor, perhaps expressing a mix of the sexism of the late Victorian Age and that Edith is still young and hasn’t been beaten around as an author yet, sends her packing. Undeterred, Edith arranges to borrow one of the newfangled typewriters in her father’s construction office to create an even better manuscript.

Father, Carter Cushing (Jim Beaver), leads a new business acquaintance, Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), into the office for a discussion about an investment opportunity. The English Baronet takes a moment to look over Edith’s shoulder and recognizes her work for what it is immediately. And then Meet Cute style is only clued into her being the boss’ daughter afterwards.

Carter and his partners hear Sir Thomas out concerning his need for funding new machinery to harvest the red clay on his moldering estate back in England in order to make bricks. The American businessmen in the room, including Mr. Carter, all got there Horatio Alger style and don’t trust softie-pants English gentlemen with privilege. But, there’s something else about Sir Thomas and his sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain), that doesn’t sit well with Mr. Carter. Something likely to show up in the kind of Trans-Atlantic background checks possible in 1901, if you hire a detective.

Meanwhile, Sir Thomas goes around Mr. Carter in seeking Edith’s companionship waiting until everyone else attends a party that Edith didn’t care for. Edith and Sir Thomas show up fashionably late and dance a waltz. The detective brings back the fruits of the background check at the party causing Mr. Cushing to bribe Sir Thomas away from his only daughter. Schemes that only backfire leading to murder, marriage, more murder and you guessed it many ghosts in Sir Thomas’s crumbling estate on which only red clay is likely to grow.

The movie trades on the fantastic production design inherent in director Guillermo del Toro’s vision applied to literally everything he does. Need a house with a hole in the roof to let in both the fall leaves and later white snow? Need a physical darkness to go with the darkness in the characters? Need certain chromatic juxtapositions like white snow and the red clay into which the house will one day sink? Then the right director was at the helm.

But, Mr. del Toro’s usual instincts for storytelling that go beyond what things look like on screen didn’t fully show up. We are treated to a movie that works a little more like Rebecca than Dracula. In the former, the female protagonist gets into a battle with another woman associated with her new husband and his creepy estate and ends on good terms with her husband. In the latter, the new husband/lover is straight up the problem and doesn’t survive the story killed by the protagonist.

The checklist aspects of a plot putting Edith, Lucille and Sir Thomas in the same house with competing agendas unfolds more or less as expected. Sir Thomas despite a lifetime of being creepy with his even creepier older sister grows in affection for his new wife. The sister won’t have any of that and soon out pop the axes, knives and other tools of blunt and stabby force trauma. And we spend more time waiting for skeletons to float up out of vats of red clay.

But, the moment we need to see where Sir Thomas changes sides in the ongoing program to wed available rich heiresses with no other family, poison their tea and take the inheritances, really seems almost nonexistent on screen. Yes, structurally the movie contrives to get Edith and Sir Thomas snowed in alone in the village pub which results in sex that he’d promised Lucille would never happen.

But, what’s on screen is the “we need this scene because Blake Snyder says we need it, but we’re putting our money elsewhere” version of this admittedly union-mandated moment. This is me in the wilderness pleading for a little more than “you’re different than all the others.”

Which brings to mind that perhaps there were more things to use in getting Edith out through the story alive. She is a writer currently specializing in ghost stories largely due to her mother’s ghost earlier appearance right after dying of TB warning her – “beware of Crimson Peak” – the nickname of the house due to the white snow and red clay. Edith sees Dead People…I buried the lead in the setup. Deal. However, we don’t see a single action by Edith attributable to her writing.

No moments where the things going bump in the house are analyzed by Edith doing a cross between Velma and Stephen King (but only at certain snowbound hotels). Any newly rich woman being slowly poisoned by her new sister in law would do the same things Edith does.

I just had a thought. Tom Hiddleston gave Sir Thomas an air of being truly concerned that his new machine would save the family by resuming the brickworks enterprise. He spends much time outside firing up the steam engine, not oblivious to the women chasing each other inside with stabby things and poisoned teacups, but certain this is less important than getting the machine working. Could this be a motive for Sir Thomas to change sides, believing Edith to be better for his long term goals than his sister? We won’t know, no one wrote this script.

So far I haven’t said much about the ghosts. The spirits of the three previous ex-wives killed in this old house; they serve more as warnings and clues for Edith to solve than actual parts of the story. They lead her to wax cylinders made by the last dead wife and advance the plot until Lucille’s treachery is revealed. It means you could dump the ghosts and find other ways for Edith to discover the plot against her and still have almost the same movie.

That said the swirling blacks and reds of the various ghosts in this movie are almost worth the price of admission by themselves. I just wish these dead ladies did more to intrude into the plot instead of existing slightly outside. Well, there’s always the next ghost story.

The production also did very well in casting. I might not have liked very much about the writing between the three characters that matter: Sir Thomas, Lucille and Edith. But, for the imaginary well-written version of this movie I still want Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain. Each actor was so well chosen that I can’t really see anyone else playing these parts.

Tom Hiddleston may have needed a few better scenes to create a more believable setup for his character’s big moments, but he did get what he could out his face in the moments in between. And of course, he brings every bit of Loki to the part where he’s the overtly charming prom date soon to expose his dark side. It helps to hire Loki.

Jessica Chastain just went for it with the creepy, crazy Lucille that clearly emulates the housekeeper in Rebecca. Crazy. Violent. Incestuous (been dancing around this saying creepy a lot). And totally convincing. In a “please, Dear God, Ms. Chastain, don’t tell us about your research process” sort of way.

Mia Wasikowska tears it up as Edith. A warm and engaging presence similar to her performance as Alice. We care as she explores the house led by the ghosts only she sees. And…

All in all, Crimson Peak served as a decent video renter where we get to spend a pleasant few hours in a house that really should be allowed to sink into the mud. And now we get back to our regularly scheduled programming.

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