Saturday, October 17, 2015

the metaphorical ghosts of Crimson Peak, the great live-action Scooby Doo episode on film this year. ;)

First off, having seen it this weekend I don't hesitate to say that Guillermo del Toro's Crimson Peak is the best feature length live-action Scooby Doo story I've seen.  Formally presented as a ghost story the protagonist Edith Cushing telegraphs that it's a story that happens to have a ghost in it. It's a Gothic romance, as has been said, and it's a story full of ghosts but at which the evil center is utterly mortal.

Whether wax cylinder recordings, ghost images on film sheets, hints in portraits, or unrecovered letters, the imagistic ghosts can be seen as physical revenants, testimonies left unnoticed. Edith eventually discovers through familiarizing herself with Allerdale Hall's chaotic material the cycle of desperate conning and killing the Sharp siblings have conducted in a feeble attempt to recover the reputation and prosperity of their house and household. Reduced to a literally and metaphorically incestuous bond that failed to preserve their family line, Thomas and Lucille Sharp scour the Western world for girls of no family but financial means to seduce into funding a boondoggle-ish mining project. 

There are ghosts aplenty in the film, but in the end the evil is the thoroughly flesh and blood Lucille.  Jessica Chastain chews through the film, shifting from contemptuous icy formality to apoplectic fury.  It's a performance fit for a cartoon (in fact Chastain had moments where she reminded me of the gloriously creepy Azula, for those who know who that character is). Lucille is loyal and determined and if she had virtues beyond those she'd be a more heroic character. :) 

But she's the central villain of the story and the story is not so much about the overly formal marriage Edith Mia Wasikowska) has with Thomas Sharp (Tom Hiddleston) as about the conflict between Edith and Lucille.  Early on Lucille announces to Edith that everyone has a place and that she would ensure Edith would find hers.  Having done the grifter cycle for four or five marriages in a row Thomas begins to feel genuine affection for Edith but is too co-dependently bound to Lucille to do much more than issue a few private expressions of regret and provide a couple of reprieves once the full nature of the siblings' legacy of murder and deceit is finally discovered.

In ghosts stories it has been conventional that the ghosts represent the malign or unsettled souls of those whose lives were cut short and exact punishment on people. In Crimson Peak the role of the ghosts is benevolent.  Though they bear the grisly wounds that dispatched them to the grave, and seem only to take visible form to speak for short moments, from start to finish the ghosts of Crimson Peak are witnesses. The ghosts can appear and then briefly turn Edith's attention to the physical world around her in which and through which clues to the cycle of murder and deception can be discovered. Signaling subtext and text was pretty on-the-nose within the first third of the film and the story overall feels pretty conventional but there's not ultimately that much winking and nodding at the audience.  Sometimes old stories are worth retelling because the stories worked.  Crimson Peak evokes Poe without being so obvious about it as to be a straightforward retelling of "Fall of the House of Usher".

I don't know if I'd go see it again or necessarily suggest you go snap this film up on disc when it gets that far.  I found the remake of Evil Dead more personally fun and intriguing with its thematic re-envisioning of Sam Raimi's splatstick film as an exploration of drug addiction and a family with a history of mental illness; but Crimson Peak is still a solid matinee experience. Wasikowska is fun as the lead and Hiddleston is ever reliable whatever he does but it's Jessica Chastain who seizes the film and runs with it. I liked reading Dana Stevens' joke in her review of the film that Chastain at length tired of playing characters who save guys like Matt Damon and wanted a character who has agency and drives the plot.  Boy, does Chastain's Lucille drive the plot!  The majority of ghosts in the film are of those she has killed. 

At the end of the film Edith declares in voice-over that ghosts are real, this she knows.  Of course the ghosts remain metaphorical in the film and if it seems that by dint of this the film manages to eat its cake and have it, too, well, that's the kind of movie it is. If the ghosts in the ghost story disappoint because they are not trying to harm Edith but to seek her as a witness on their behalf to the crimes committed against them it's worth noting the people who have worked on this film have been explaining that it's a story with a ghost in it first, and that the ghosts are metaphors. It's not like we weren't told in the first act.

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