Crimson Peak (2015)

★★★★

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Crimson Peak PosterDirector: Guillermo del Toro

Release Date: October 16th, 2015 (UK & US)

Genre: Drama; Fantasy; Horror

Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, Jessica Chastain

The fact that Guillermo del Toro’s latest offering is a carnival of visual ebullience probably won’t come as a shock to anybody out there. A 19th century Gothic nightmare with lots of frothy verbiage, every last word enunciated to the nth degree, Crimson Peak delivers in most of the areas we would expect but not all of the areas we would like. Granted, this is not a horror movie nor does it try to be anything of the sort, but its fleeting moments of fright never quite amount to the haunted atmosphere del Toro covets. The narrative also takes some time to explode into life, eventually doing so with menace. At least until then we have a bedazzling aesthetic to keep us company.

Mia Wasikowska plays Edith Cushing, a young woman who seeks to carve her own way in the world without relying on her father’s (Jim Beaver) wealth. She writes (stories with ghosts, not ghost stories), though Edith’s professional hopes are initially dashed under the guise of superfluous reasoning when a superior decries her “feminine handwriting” and the lack of romance in her tale. Crafty and stubborn, she swaps pen strokes for typing but remains steadfast on narrative content. Matthew Robbins co-wrote the film with del Toro and, in Edith, the pair have concocted a female character whose determination to evade tradition is at odds with the prevailing social structure.

She meets Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) when the latter shows up looking for funds to support his clay processing invention, and the duo fall in love. From dad to would-be muse Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam), everybody is wary of Thomas’ intentions: “There’s something about him that I don’t like”. Everybody except Edith, who really should have taken the hint upon seeing Thomas converse with his mischievous sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) in the shadow beneath a large, looming tree.

Crimson Peak’s technical prowess is there for all to see, its rich texture and engrossing visuality arguably on a par with del Toro’s masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth. But it lacks that film’s beating heart, perhaps because it is tougher to empathise with Edith here than it was Ofelia there. Pinpointing exactly why the Edith’s plight doesn’t translate as well is difficult; Wasikowska is perfectly fine in the role and her character is not disagreeably construed. It is true that her words are often quite gushy, certainly more so than those spoken by Lucille, and at best on a par with Thomas’ dialogue.

The film isn’t excessively melodramatic but its swirling air of grandiosity can hinder the credibility of characters’ actions — from where, for instance, is Edith’s insurmountable trust in Thomas born? To align grand romantic gestures and sap-filled exchanges with Gothic fiction would be a fair assessment, though I’d argue the genre itself is in that case flawed. Or, at the very least, the aforementioned traits don’t meet the screen with enough grounded authenticity in Crimson Peak, and definitely don’t fit a character who is trying to break free from cultural the norm.

Edith’s mother appears in ghost form, an apparition cut from the same ocular cloth as the spectre in another Jessica Chastain outing, Mama. Chastain has more to sink her teeth into here; as Lucille she is very mysterious, her movements icy and her stare searing. She often dawns extravagant gowns but unlike the bright, undiluted garments worn by her sister-in-law, Lucille’s attire often reflects her dark interior (deep rose-coloured and sharply defined). Her undulating poise sets a tone of torment and, as it transpires, Chastain is a terrific passive-aggressive tormentor. But Lucille is also on the verge of mental collapse — her composure, fake, could come unstuck at any moment.

Tom Hiddleston is also very good, though his role commands a different shade of mystery. He must be both a schemer and a sympathiser, and the actor finds the correct balance between the two. You feel his conflicted plight, yet you still can’t fully trust his crow-esque demeanour. In a sense the film is crying out for more interactions between the siblings, especially during its less compelling first half. A word too for Burn Gorman who is superbly cast as a sly detective of sorts, slinking around in the much the same vein as Metropolis’ Thin Man.

At times del Toro’s film is exceptionally violent. One bathroom-set murder harkens back to Casino Royale’s pre-title brawl, only this one is much blunter and probably much bloodier too. It is part of an effervescent production design that somehow straddles the line between realistic and dreamlike: marvellously crafted sets, eye-catching costumes, piercing sounds (just wait for Lucille’s ceramic-screeching monologue).

Enshrouded in a bleak snowy mist, Allerdale Hall — the mansion that hosts proceedings — could pass for a miniature Voldemort-led Hogwarts. Dan Laustsen’s camera swoops around torn halls and through once-noble doorways as if flaunting the Titanic. When it comes to housing, del Toro is decorative master and he incites every moan, groan, and grumble from Allerdale Hall as possible. Blood red clay seeps from floorboards and bleeds down the walls in Evil Dead II fashion; it’s as if the building is literally sinking into hell.

Crimson Peak benefits from the process of time, with each passing second coaxing greater momentum and a rise in intrigue level, until the film reaches its barnstormingly gory finale. But it also benefits from boasting a cast who collectively prescribe to the mood of the piece, and a director who knows this genre — his genre — better than most.

Crimson Peak - Tom Hiddleston & Mia Wasikowska

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Universal Pictures

Mama (2013)

★★★

Director: Andrés Muschietti

Release Date: January 18th, 2013 (US); February 22nd, 2013 (UK)

Genre: Horror; Thriller

Starring: Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Megan Charpentier

Although no director’s chair with his name on existed during filming, Mama has Guillermo del Toro’s fingerprints laden all over it. He is an executive producer this time, and the del Toro checklist brims with ticks in reference to this solid fantasy-horror outing that benefits a great deal from the presence of Jessica Chastain. Details are intricate and refined; visuals spring off the screen with life; harmonious sounds glide around with an air of mysticism. And just like in some of del Toro’s previous work (such as Pan’s Labyrinth and Don’t be Afraid of the Dark) the plot centres around an engaging, young female — only Mama demands two of them.

After murdering his wife and business colleagues then crashing his car in the snowy wilderness, troubled Jeffery is killed by a mysterious force that appears to be protecting his two daughters, Victoria and Lilly, from sharing a similar fate to that of their mother. Sometime later, a search for the missing girls funded by Jeffery’s twin brother Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) proves successful and the two sisters are slowly reintegrated back into society under the parentage of Lucas and his rocker girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain). However as time passes it becomes clear through consistently strange and distant behaviour that all is still not right with the girls.

Long gone are the days of atmospheric mind annihilation delivered by The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, or even nerve shredding tension served up during Alien. In 2013, you’d do well to uncover a film boasting these cherished characteristics of psychological horror and this is partially why we are subject to so many remakes and/or reboots. Creative ideas are at a premium (though not entirely obsolete) therefore the average mainstream horror output seems to be upping the technical anti as a compromise. Therefore Mama is a horror film that isn’t actually all that frightening, but is entirely watchable.

Why is it watchable? Proficiency in the visual department is partly responsible. The outside setting is rich. Old croaky shacks look and sound, well, old and croaky. First time director Andrés Muschietti bolsters the story with enticing monochrome-like flashbacks (or are they visions?) which are eerie and exceedingly well executed. Even the inclusion of a creature which would not be out of place surrounded by group of Dementors aboard the Hogwarts Express can be forgiven, as it moulds in appealingly amongst Guillermo del Toro’s fantasy visualisations. The illustrative prowess displayed throughout certainly adds a degree or two of watchability.

However, more than any optical standard set, the reason Mama deserves the attention of passers-by is Jessica Chastain. In a role that at first glance may seem a world away from her normal portrayals, Chastain’s rock ‘n’ roll chick Annabel actually shares a number of similarities with the actor’s previous characters. Although she is the sturdy anti-mother who squirms at the idea of pregnancy to begin with, Chastain soon becomes maternal and protective over the children, much like her venture into motherhood as Samantha in Take Shelter. Staunchly independent, yet perhaps not entirely equitable to the task, there are instances of Zero Dark Thirty‘s headstrong Maya here too. Forced into a situation out-of-her depth, there’s even a measure of insecurity present, akin to Rachel in The Debt. These qualities merge to create a character who is emotionally sympathetic and empathetic, and this is key in horror — we need to want Annabel to succeed in the face of uncompromising danger. Chastain is tremendous (though, when isn’t she?) and develops an unshaken dynamic with her two young co-stars who also do a stellar job. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is even on hand to provide charm and stability along a potentially rickety road.

Of course the primary aim of any horror film is to scare, and the fact that Mama fails to do so often enough is a significant problem. The issue stems from perseverance with too many over-wrought elements aligned with the scare-fest genre. Not paying attention to odd happenings soon develops into ‘why does nobody believe me?’ until the ‘don’t go in the closet’ saga revs its rusty engine. There is a haunted house; a venture into some frozen, dark woods; heck we’ve even got time for a solitary cabin hidden in the trees (Bruce Campbell, eat your heart out!). When a semblance of fright is unveiled it’s always by way of unnatural stillness and haunting imagery. Sadly though, the BOOS! are back before long and don’t hold the same fear factor they did thirty years ago. A lack of innovation in this highly important aspect does let the film down, particularly when just about everything else is good.

As crazy as it sounds, maybe Mama would’ve been better off as a drama rather than a horror. It gets all the non-scary bits right, but is unable to juggle the workload and deliver what the viewers really want — frights and screams. Mama’s limbs are looking healthy, but her torso could be doing with a diet to rid all excess clichés.

Just don’t tell her that.

Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)

★★★★★

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Release Date: October 11th, 2006 (Spain); November 24th, 2006 (UK); January 19th, 2007 (US)

Genre: Drama; Fantasy; War

Starring: Ivana Baquero, Sergi López, Maribel Verdú

From the all-encompassing mind of Guillermo del Toro comes Pan’s Labyrinth: a tale about imagination and innocence; a fable comparing the evil we do know against the good that we do not; a story about a young girl whose reality is not quite in sync with those around her. Del Toro’s filmmaking abilities are completely transparent here as he creates a fantasy world that is utterly encapsulating. Not only is the narrative a success, so too is the technical prowess displayed throughout. In one word, Pan’s Labyrinth is not far from timeless.

In 1944 following the Spanish Civil War, Spain is crippled by fascism. Ofelia, a young girl influenced by fantasy stories and fairy tales, travels with her pregnant mother to a fascist command centre in rural Spain. The leader of the centre is Captain Vidal, an authoritative fiend who is also the father of the mother’s unborn child, and whose brutality juxtaposes Ofelia’s virtuous curiosity. It is clear from the beginning that Ofelia’s imagination is the driving force behind her energy and exuberance — as soon as she sees an unusual creature her precious books (and her hat) hit the ground as she heads off in pursuit. This early scene in essence epitomises the film, conveying Ofelia’s disconnect with the real world in favour of her intrigue towards one that is only found in fairy tales.

Ivana Baquero stars as the aforementioned Ofelia, and is outstanding as the young, wide-eyed dreamer. Much of the success of the film rests on her shoulders — she must pivot between the harsh, murky reality where her mother is ill, and the wondrous, mysterious realm presented to her by a faun she meets. “Is that you?” the faun exclaims emphatically, as though it has been waiting an eternity to ask. Ofelia learns from the mythical creature that she is in fact a princess separated from her kingdom. This first interaction between Ofelia and the faun is a telling one, as the girl appears more at home now than at any other previous point in the film. Her reality is fantasy. Unlike anybody else placed in the same situation, Ofelia does not get startled when she meets a creature not-of-this-earth, and instead introduces herself as calmly and invitingly as she would a family member: “My name is Ofelia. Who are you?” the girl wonders gently.

The warring backdrop is far from Ofelia’s mind throughout Pan’s Labyrinth, as it appears Del Toro is highlighting the separation of good and evil. This separation is at its most prevalent by way of the glaring comparison between the monstrous Captain Vidal — who represents tyranny and abnormality — and the faun — whose description of himself as “the mountain, the woods and the earth” is more natural and pure than anything Vidal represents. The film’s ‘good versus evil’ branch also plays in tune with Del Toro’s more violent approach to a story which would normally be directed towards a young audience. Blood, guts and broken bones all see the light of day here and given the prominent fairy tale aspect of the narrative, the enterprising inclusion of such elements is surprising (recalling leg-hacking in Shrek or head-munching in Cinderella is proving a tad difficult). The presence of such a degree of violence is completely warranted however, as it represents the harsh, unwanted situation that Ofelia’s real life presents her with, a real life that in itself does not capture the youngster’s interest.

Sergi López is utterly menacing as Captain Vidal, who is the epitome of vulgarity. López’s presence is overarching in every scene, be that whether he is towering over the relentlessly inquisitive Ofelia, or ordering around his housekeeper Mercedes, with as little compassion as he can muster. Mercedes, played by Maribel Verdú, acts as a beacon of hope in amongst the madness, as she works for the captain against her beliefs in order to spy for a group of rebels situated in the surrounding forests. Verdú successfully juggles sadness with fierce determination, creating a character who the audience roots for alongside Ofelia. Numerous mythical beings and some genuinely creepy monsters (one in particular renders stealing buffet food a no-go zone) are expertly displayed on-screen in awesome detail, both visually and audibly.

In Pan’s Labyrinth, Guillermo del Toro has created a film that is wonderful to look at and tremendous to listen to. Del Toro delivers a multitude of characters and creatures, some to love, others to despise and a few to cower away from. Most significantly however, the Mexican director tells a story that is not overawed by style, and one which looks set to keep on championing imagination for decades to come.