Monday, October 19, 2015

Crimson Peak

Feeling prodigal and carefree with the proceeds of my recent art show, I decided to take in some fine cinema yesterday at the local theater. Actually, the Sunday matinee here costs all of $4.00, somewhat more than I make from the sale of a copy of my book, so I'm naturally selective when it comes to spending my hard-earned cash. But Guillermo del Toro's Crimson Peak opened this weekend, and I've so enjoyed most everything I've seen by him that I couldn't possibly stay away.

Though it contains elements of horror, Crimson Peak is in fact a gothic romance, which is a genre of its own with a long history and well-established tropes. The seminal work is said to be Horace Walpole's 1764 The Castle of Otranto, subtitled (in later editions) A Gothic Story, but perhaps "Bluebeard" is the basic template for the specific type of story in question. At any rate, gothic romance or (more broadly speaking) gothic fiction became widely popular through the nineteenth century. Some of the most well-known English novels from the period, like Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, have elements of gothic romance, and Jane Austen parodied the genre in Northanger Abbey.

Today the term is used to describe a subgenre of the twentieth-century romance novel owing to this tradition, by authors such as Daphne du Maurier or Mary Stewart. I read some of the latter many years ago, having found them among my mother's books, but don't recall the titles or authors. According to my vague memories, the plots invariably involve a lady who marries into a decadent old family with a large, creepy house and a few (literal) skeletons in the (secret) closet, generally of the former-wife variety. Of course I was there for the secret passages and skeletons.

So the appearance of a film like Crimson Peak is something of a phenomenon. It's a beautifully faithful cinematic adaptation of a literary genre that's (now) almost as storied and neglected as the houses that feature so prominently in its exemplars. It has a spirited young heroine, a brooding, titled scion of a decadent family, a horrifically decayed old house with paintings hung in salon style and interior décor so spiky and gothic it's almost perverse, and a dollop of intra-familial feminine animosity.

Oh, and blood. Lots and lots of blood. The whole movie is drenched in blood.

The film also involves a certain number of ghosts. It begins and ends with ghosts. These ghosts are as scary as hell. Some people might therefore be led to believe that it's a ghost story. But the ghosts are only a metaphor, you see. Amusingly, that assertion is one the heroine, a budding novelist, makes of her own manuscript. Crimson Peak is, to a certain extent, a commentary on its own genre. "Bluebeard" is never far off, but there's a twist.

The visuals are, of course, stunning, and equal to anything in Pan's Labyrinth, which is probably del Toro's best work to date. Allerdale Hall is the most gorgeous, most decadent haunted house I've ever seen on the screen. The movie ticket is more than worth the price just for that. The ghosts are, as I said, delightfully monstrous. They emerge like slow spiders from the inky blackness that seems always threatening to engulf the protagonist.

Insects and clockwork form important motifs, as they do in practically all of del Toro's films from Cronos on. Crimson Peak features some lovely, horrific images of butterflies being devoured by ants; huge, grotesque moths inhabit the old house. There are plenty of wind-up gizmos and steam-powered machines as well, including a creepy elevator that takes you down to the basement you're not supposed to go down to.

No spoilers here, but, familiar as I am with the genre, I guessed all the secrets in the first ten minutes. That didn't lessen the enjoyment, because I don't really watch movies or read stories like this out of a desire to see the mystery solved. I've avoided any and all reviews, as I do whenever I plan on reviewing a movie myself, but I have seen that Crimson Peak hasn't done as well as hoped. I can guess why: people go expecting horror, and instead get gothic romance, which is its own thing. And Crimson Peak really is a romance. That is to say, it's structured as a love story, and its eroticism is (how shall I put this?) female-centric, with a focus on emotion rather than skin. You might almost call it a chick flick, though the various brutally graphic skull bashings and splittings tip the scales a little bit the other way. So it's a blood-soaked horror-romance, which kind of seems like a tough sell.

But it's lovely, I tell you, simply lovely. Please go see this film. If you do, maybe your ticket will be the one to convince the studio to let del Toro make that At the Mountains of Madness movie he's wanted to do for years.

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