Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Catching Up: "Crimson Peak"

 1.5 / 5 

Neither scary enough to be terrifying nor brooding enough to be gothic, Crimson Peak can't be faulted for having its sights set too low.  Director Guillermo del Toro is trying to do a lot, beginning with reviving an entire genre, but good intentions aside, it's a remarkable failure on most levels.

Flashback a few years: My mother, who at the time was in her late 70s, could barely be pried away from her computer during a holiday visit.  The source of her obsession was a video game called Return to Ravenhearst, in which players wander around a large and spooky haunted house and gather clues to the mystery of the murder that happened in the mansion so many years ago.

The object of the game was to look for hidden objects, like a computer-age version of the old Highlights for Children puzzles.  When you found them all, you'd unlock a puzzle that would give you another piece of the clue.  The game took hours and hours to play, and every once in a while there would be a scratchy "vintage" recording or an eerie "antique" photo that revealed more of the mystery.  You'd find a locked trunk and need to search for the key, and inside there would be a letter written years ago that helped get to the truth of the terrible, dark secrets lurking in the mansion.

Crimson Peak is not, to the best of my knowledge, based in any way on Return to Ravenhearst, the game that so enthralled my senior-citizen mother, but it might as well be.  And the movie would be a lot better if at key points you had to walk up to the screen and find some hidden objects before moving on to the next scene -- at least the activity would keep you awake and act as an antidote to the movie's deadly dull pacing, impossibly stilted dialect and wooden acting.

Much of its first hour is endless exposition, with characters explaining their roles, their functions, their relations to each other.  One of them is named Edith Cushing (aha! an in-joke!), an aspiring young author in an age when women are not encouraged to write.  Edith (Mia Wasikowska) meets Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), a pasty-faced-but-swoonable Brit who is visiting America with his sister, Mrs. Danvers-- er, I mean, Lucille (Jessica Chastain, proving that, no, she actually can't play every role convincingly).  Thomas wants money.  Edith's father has lots of it but won't give it to him.  A private investigator uncovers a dark secret.  Edith's father throws the baggage out.

But, in the film's one hideously unsettling scene of ultra-graphic violence -- so shocking it doesn't fit anything else in the film -- Esther's father is murdered.  She is the sole heir.  Thomas wants to marry her and take her back to England.

Did I mention, perhaps, that years ago the ghoulish-looking ghost of Edith's mother visited her and left her with three words: "Beware Crimson Peak"?  Oh, yeah, well, that happened.  But the ghosts in these movies are generally terrible communicators, they say and do nothing helpful, and their cryptic messages look more like bad performance art.

Esther goes off to live with Thomas and Lucille in their manor.  Seems odd Thomas forgot to mention a few things to Edith, like the fact that their grand mansion doesn't have a roof, so the leaves and snow just fall right in; or that it's on top of a deposit of blood-red clay; or that if she finds the bird, the frog, the trumpet and the pocket-watch hidden in the next picture she can take a key off of Lucille's key ring and go open the door to the room downstairs.  OK, that last part doesn't  happen, but it should -- anything to move the plot along.

Let me just tell you a few other things that happen in Crimson Peak: Lucille is always trying to warm up Edith by giving her some tea from a particular container.  Edith starts to cough up blood. Edith finds the aforementioned trunk.  Edith discovers some wax recording cylinders.  Elsewhere, she finds a device to play them on (how convenient!) Edith catches her husband doing something rather unsavory.  Edith sees ghosts, who mostly point their fingers at different areas of the house for no particular reason.

Somewhere in all of this, there's also (allegedly) a love story, but it's as weak as the rest of the plot.  Will Edith escape?  Will she learn the truth of Crimson Peak?  Will the ghosts ever just say something?

None of it really much matters.  It moves at such a glacial pace and with such stilted dialogue, overwrought acting and lavish costuming that, on the practical level, you have to wonder who the filmmakers thought would want to see this movie.

Older adults, who might remember similar movies like Gaslight and Rebecca have no interest in lavish visual effects and extreme violence.  Del Toro's core fan base likes to see his splendidly designed monsters and his singular visions, but both of those are muted here.  Horror fans will be turned off by the endless exposition and turn of the century manners.

Devoid of humor, lacking a strong narrative, and empty of visual majesty,  Del Toro's intention to create a firecracker of a melodrama just sits there and refuses to go off.  Crimson Peak is a dud. If only it had some of those hidden pictures.

Viewed Feb. 15, 2016 -- VOD

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