Guillermo del Toro sure has had his share fair of both hits and misses throughout his now 20+ year career making movies. He started off making films in his original country of Spain with his debut film — 1993’s “Cronos” — still my second favorite of all of his movies but more importantly the very first film that caught the eye of many people and put him on the international filmmaking spectrum. Then came his first English language film — the mostly lousy and disposable “Mimic” in 1997. Only for him to follow it with a film that found him going back to his native country, and what’s still tied for my favorite of his — 2001’s “The Devil’s Backbone” — which, for those of you who have seen it, would know that it was and still is a very solid entry to the horror genre. Then del Toro followed up another hit with another miss by coming back again to America to make the second entry in the “Blade” series (2002). Following this he put out his first of his two what I like to call “superhero” movies in “Hellboy” (2004) which, despite my unlikeness of the genre, was actually pretty entertaining with Ron Pearlman (a frequent del Toro collaborator) breathing new life into a somewhat unconventional superhero. Then came “Pan’s Labyrinth” which was his biggest box office and critical success yet – again, which had the writer/director shooting in Spain, and brought to audiences an incredibly unique and visually stunning film that wound up going on to be nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 2007 Oscars. “Pan’s Labyrinth” catapulted del Toro into legendary status, and if you look at almost anybody’s list of “best films post-2000”, you’ll find it on there. Then he returned back to America like most foreign directors do following an overseas hit and he made the second film — “Hellboy 2” — in his “Hellboy” series. A film, again much like the first one, which wasn’t necessarily the typical kind of film I like as it incorporated superheros but like the first one that I found myself having a lot of fun with. Then came 2013’s “Pacific Rim” — again another film I was apprehensive to see at first but because it was a “del Toro” film, I wound up seeing and that surprisingly impressed the shit out of me, and wound up on my Honorable Mentions list (10-20) of that respective year. Then came this film, which admittedly I thought looked like something that looked like a true visual feast for the eyes, similar to something like “Pan’s Labyrinth”, combined with a Gothic horror vibe that immediately caught my eye and piqued my interest. So I decided to see it opening weekend, like I do with most directors who have put out a couple or more works that I admire. Because I find myself chasing and hoping that I’m going to find something almost or equally as good as their best work.
The story revolves around Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska, the daughter of a wealthy industrialist; who in an early impressive scene, is warned by her dead mother to beware of ghosts (or better put – “Crimson Peak”). The film then jumps 14 years later, to where Edith is now an adult, and she meets a young Aristocrat Thomas (the still relatively unknown but always impressive Tom Hiddleston), who’s visiting her father seeking investors, and whom she eventually falls for despite her father’s disapproval. You see the father thinks the young Thomas is a hack, and as with most wealthy families, particularly in the 19th century in which the film takes place, he forbids Edith from marrying Thomas. Thomas’ sister Lucille (played by the lovely but increasing “hi I’m in every movie” Jessica Chastain) is also seemingly against their relationship, but for reasons unknown except that they appears to have an almost incestual-like relationship. Completing this triangle of disapproval is Edith’s childhood friend now doctor, Dr. MicMichael (“Son’s of Anarchy”‘s Charlie Hunnam), who’s gut tells him there’s something sketchy about the relationship between Edith and Thomas. Despite everyone’s warnings, Edith moves to England and marries Thomas, and winds up in their rather mightily impressive mansion living together under the same roof as Thomas’ sister Lucille. This house is built on the red clay that Thomas, the investor, was initially trying to sell to gain investors. And well, at this point forward in the story, nothing really is as it seems.
“Crimson Peak” winds up reflecting many ideas, styles, and tones that are lifted from some of del Toro’s earlier works, particularly that of “Pan’s Labyrinth”, and is simply without a doubt his most “impressively looking” and shot film to date. I found myself in full on jaw gape mode as I looked at the many astounding set pieces and designs (both Edith’s own house that she’s shown living in as a child into adult and the house she moves to with Thomas in England) reminded me of the Overlook Hotel from Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” (1980). Almost as if they were a separate character of their own. The stark use of vibrant colors with the “red clay” motif shot against the white snowy wintertime is a visual feast for the eyes. As was the creature makeup, which I personally found to wholly original and genuinely scary when we get the several sites of the ghosts in which Edith encounters throughout. It’s probably del Toro’s most visually impressive film to date, even more than “Pan’s Labyrinth”, and contains a visually arresting Gothic flair in both its production and costume design.
However, where it ultimately fails is in allowing much more for the story other than its technical components. Some of which I’ve listed above. The story is bogged down by a slightly weak and wooden sounding script co-written by del Toro. The actors themselves – Wasikowska, Hiddleston, Chastain, and Hunnuam all do their best but sound like their pulling too much weight off of their acting talents to try to elevate an otherwise weak script. As for the story, it’s a bit predictable as soon as the young investor Thomas courts the wealthy industrialist’s daughter Edith, the viewer will most likely be able to predict what direction it’s going to head in. It’s also a bit of a slo-burner, and takes much too much time overdeveloped story in which we can already predict after about the first half hour where it’s headed in.
In summation, it winds up being an exercise in style over substance. But if you, like me, like to look at the technical side of things and enjoy del Toro’s visually stunning set pieces, design, and costumes. Then you just might find it worth it for those reasons alone. It also retains a pretty nice “creep factor” throughout, and as mentioned above, the film’s creatures and ghosts are genuinely pretty scary and there’s quite a few well shot and executed “jump” scenes. And even despite a strong ending, where the naive Edith begins to learn the real story about her husband’s house and relationship with his sister and takes matters into her own hands, it still all comes at just a little too late. This is a worthwhile effort from del Toro simply because its most technically impressive film to date, but which barely makes up for a lack of a good story, plot or character development, and weak script. For diehard del Toro fans, this warrants a recommendation. But for others, they just might find its exercise in style over substance to be just a tad bit underwhelming.
The second film of the day I caught as part of one my local $3 theatres in town – who are doing a welcomed tribute of horror Grindhouse films leading up to Halloween. These films, otherwise known at the time as being labeled “Exploitation” flicks, are known to be the cheap, artsy, made on a shoestring budget crop of films from decades ago. They’ve been described as the “gross”, “mean-spirited”, “ugly”, and “distasteful” films of their time. But along with that, there’s always been a very large underground demographic or resurgence of people (evidenced by the almost sold out showing I caught in Portland late Saturday night) who gravitate towards and really get into this type of thing. I for one have admittedly never been a big fan of the genre, but in trying to keep up with and being as much of a well-rounded student of film as possible, I try to keep myself interested in any and all types of films. And in the case of this film – I went out on a bit of a limb and took a chance in a type of film that I’m normally not used to. The kind of interactive, so bad it’s good, “B” film, that you kind of know what you’re getting yourself into, even if you’re even if like me, you’re slightly familiar with what to expect. These were and still are the types of midnight independent horror films you get together with your not for the faint of heart friends for while over a pitcher of beer and hoot, holler, and laugh at the grotesque and deplorable display of images that are being projected onto the screen. To give you a better idea of the “type” of film I’m talking about here was the more commercialized (if you even want to call it “commercial”) film that came out a few years back — Jesse Eisener’s “Hobo with a Shotgun” (2011) starring Rutger Hauer — a direct homage and paying tribute to pretty every “Grindhouse” picture to have come out before it. It’s maybe that I owe this picture some gratitude of debt in that it familiarized myself with and became interested in these lost hidden gems from a time long ago where people liked their films cheap, violent, and uncompromising. It’s like being a part of a movement, like the film equivalent of punk rock, where you think you may know but you never really do wind up knowing what to expect.
“Street Trash”, a picture I was previously unfamiliar with, wound up being a great late night Grindhouse feature that expertly blended elements of horror and comedy. It’s the type of film whose main purpose is to get the crowd interactively rowdy. The story itself is totally off-the-wall, as it involves a group of homeless people who inhabit the back of a junkyard (yep) and whose favorite liquor store owner happens to stumble upon a seemingly ancient crate of liquor which he dusts the cobwebs off of and sells the bottles each for a mere dollar. Creating a sort of buzz around the homeless community in where people start to buy the magical elixir in droves (a scathing commentary on Reagan-era American consumerism). And once said elixir is drank, it melts its victims into a gooey mess (yep, again). Which pretty much sums up the gist of its plot.
Like the title suggests, this is a trashy, grotesque, and vile affair. But one that does exactly what it sets out to do – which is to completely gross out the audience and make them both laugh and cry like the many of us who were in attendance did. So in this sense it achieves exactly what it sets out to do. This film had more violence, gore, gratuitous sex and nudity, and underlying humor, in almost anything I’ve seen in a while. Along with the crowd “interactive” aspect which is half of the fun. It wound up being a great slice of trash from the eighties which I’m sure was just as offensive then as it was now. Though this is not the type of film to be analytical about, it’s simply a film to have fun with, and if you can find it at the bottom of your going-out-of-business video store’s bargain bin, it might just be the most fun with a film you should feel bad for having had such a good time with. I know for me personally it’s a film and an experience that I will both never forget.