‘Crimson Peak,’ ‘Victoria,’ Halloween Horror
Cinema Junkie / October 15, 2015
Guillermo del Toro returns to the realm of ghosts for his gothic romance, "Crimson Peak."
Welcome back to the KPBS Cinema Junkie Podcast, I’m Beth Accomando.
Today I’ll be reviewing Guillermo Del Toro’s Crimson Peak followed by a round up of some alternate venues screening interesting fare.
I fell in love with Guillermo Del Toro and his films as soon as the first glorious images of his Mexican film Cronos unspooled in San Diego in 1994. Having been raised Catholic I was also immediately attracted to his reimagining of the vampire film as a perverse Christ story of resurrection and redemption.
Years later I had the honor and thrill of interviewing Del Toro and he told me a story that further endeared him to me. He explained that when he was four-years-old, he had a life altering experience. After watching an episode of "The Outer Limits," Del Toro's brother dressed up like the bug-eyed monster from the TV show to scare his younger sibling. "Then," the adult Del Toro recalled, "I woke up and had an urgent need to pee. I looked around and saw monsters everywhere. There was this fluffy carpet and I thought every single strand of the carpet was a finger and in the closet I saw a big monster. I was so scared that I resigned myself to pee in the bed. That happened almost every night for a couple of weeks and my mother said ‘If you pee in your bed again, I'm gonna really give you a good one.' That night I woke up and wanted to go to the bathroom so I spoke to the monsters in the room and I said that if you let me pee, I will be your friend forever.' They allowed me and here I am peeing happily and making monster movies."
One of the things I loved about Del Toro’s films was his ability to make the monster sympathetic be it a Christ-like Vampire, a predatory insect that is only trying to survive, a sad little ghost haunting an orphanage, or a red demon with a thing for Baby Ruth’s and kittens. Del Toro’s films surprised us because he turned expectations on their ear and made us see the world in new ways.
For years, Del Toro has been able to balance making Hollywood films with making personal ventures. But with Pacific Rim and the cable series The Strain, Del Toro revealed a shift – his sympathies no longer seemed to be with the monsters. In Pacific Rim, he sided with the robots and humans and reduced the kanji to clones. The film was still fun and displayed a superb use of 3D but it seemed unlike Del Toro to not treat the monsters with more compassion. With The Strain (he also wrote the book that inspired the series), again he seemed to favor the humans over the infected creatures.
Now Del Toro returns to the ghost genre with Crimson Peak, a gothic romance.
CLIP Ghosts are real…
Del Toro opens the film with Edith – bloodied and in the snow -- making this revelation. Edith is a young woman with spirit and imagination but she feels unchallenged by what society is offering her at the turn of the previous century. She wants to be a writer and she’s annoyed that people call her story a ghost story, she insists the ghosts are a mere metaphor for the past, and that because she’s a woman they expect a love story.
Edith experiences a family tragedy and ends up marrying Thomas Sharpe, a man with a certain Heathcliff on the moors dark appeal. He brings her from her home in America to his forbidding mansion in England that he shares with his sister.
I went into Crimson Peak with high expectations since The Devil’s Backbone – Del Toro’s first ghost outing -- had so brilliantly used supernatural tropes to deliver a highly original story about the things that can cripple childhood.
I have to confess that it’s difficult going into a film from a filmmaker I adore. I have to temper my expectations so as to not set the bar ridiculously high. And I sometimes have a hard time coming to terms with my disappointment. In the case of Del Toro, I love his films and respect him as a filmmaker and while it hurts to find fault in his work, I also feel that I don’t want to let him get away with less when I know he can do more. He’s like the honor student whose teacher holds him to a higher standard than the rest of the class.
I say all this because I want to be upfront about the fact that film reviewing is not a science and is not the least objective. Film critics, like anyone seeing a film, have highly subjective responses based on their own personal tastes and experiences.
So when I left Crimson Peak after the preview screening I was wrestling with mixed emotions. As with all of Del Toro’s films it was ravishingly beautiful. In this instance cinematographer Dan Lausten, production designer Thomas Sanders, art director Brandt Gordon, and costumer Kate Hawley all collaborated to make Crimson Peak pop off the screen in a way that is more stunning than any 3D technology has ever been able to do. The film is rooted in gothic horror but bursts forth with the bold colors of an Italian giallo. The images are sometimes so striking that you become hypnotized.
But here’d my problem, the story quickly grew predictable and bland, and the design of the ghosts and the role they played in the story left me feeling disappointed. Perhaps Del Toro, like Edith, is delivering a ghost story that is not about ghosts; perhaps they are only a metaphor. Del Toro did this successfully with The Devil’s Backbone. But with Crimson Peak, the ghosts just have no personality. They are not scary, they are not tragic, and they play little part in how the story unfolds. Plus Del Toro has always been so good at using practical effects to create his monsters and with Crimson Peak the ghosts just seem black and shadowy with a lot of CGI smoke billowing around them. It’s nothing like the sad little boy ghost in The Devil’s Backbone who leaves wet footprints on the cold floor and who seems to be in water with blood floating up from his body and forming a halo over his head.
Crimson Peak is very much set within certain genre conventions and Del Toro delivers a film that effectively looks the part. But while The Devil’s Backbone gave us a supernatural horror film with a soul, Crimson Peak feels as cold and soulless as its wintery setting and that’s an unusual and unwelcome thing in Del Toro’s universe.
I also want to highlight a German indie film that turns a gimmick to its full advantage. Victoria is a single take film that plays out in real time as it follows the title character on a wild night of thrills and tragedy.
CLIP I’m Victoria
Single take films like found footage films but to a lesser degree, employ a gimmick to try and add an immediacy to the storytelling. But often they rely on tricks to cover edits to make that seamlessness play out more easily.
But Sebastian Schipper’s Victoria is truly a one-take film that relies on a handful of actors to improvise off a story outline for just over two-hours as they traverse the city of Berlin, moving from clubbing to stealing cars to robbery. Schipper apparently did three takes on three consecutive nights with the last take being the movie we see. The film is about youth, energy, and impulsive action and is perfectly matched to the shooting style.
Most of the film plays out in English, the second language for the main characters. Victoria is Spanish and the men are German. The performances are all impressive and the film completely pulls you into their world and the intensity of emotions rises. Victoria opens Friday at Landmark’s Ken Cinema.
The San Diego Italian Film Festival began this week and runs through Oct. 24 with a diverse selection of films culminating with a Gala featuring film and food on the festival’s closing night.
Silent Screams at the Whaley House continue next Wednesday with the creepy classic Nosferatu. If you haven’t seen this silent vampire tale, you simply must!
Also in the Halloween spirit is the TBT Horror Showcase kicking off on Oct 22 at the Digital Gym with the classic Boris Karloff/ Bela Lugosi starrer The Black Cat.
Cinema Under the Stars will screen Alfred Hitchcock’s mesmerizing Vertigo this weekend and screen the irresistible send up of Universal monsters, Young Frankenstein next weekend.
That’s it for this edition of the KPBS Cinema Junkie Podcast. Make sure to check out the Halloween episodes of the podcast featuring Clive Barker, a tour of the Surgeons Hall Museum and coming up an exploration of the Babadook with a psychologist.
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You can also find more reviews and arts coverage on my blog at kpbs-dot-org-slash cinema junkie
So till our next film fix, I’m Beth Accomando your resident cinema junkie.
Satisfy your celluloid addiction with the Cinema Junkie podcast, where you can mainline film 24/7. This film and entertainment series is run by KPBS Film Critic Beth Accomando. So if you need a film fix, want to hear what filmmakers have to say about their work, or just want to know what's worth seeing this weekend, then you've come to the right place