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October 22, 2015

Crimson Peak: It Has Ghosts in It

So here’s the question that’s been on my mind for a while, at least since the halfway point of Crimson Peak: is Guillermo del Toro trying to tell us something?

It’s kind of a given that the answer is yes.  Presumably, every piece of art is a look inside the mind of the creator, and there are coded messages hidden within the overall package.  That’s something of an unsettling thought, knowing that the creator’s soul is -- intentionally or not -- inside a story; I’ll probably have a lot of explaining to do if/when my stuff ever makes it out there.  But for now, I have to think about what del Toro’s saying via Crimson Peak.

I’ll be the first to admit that he was never really on my radar until Pacific Rim (the first movie I was consciously aware he spearheaded, and incidentally one I enjoyed a lot).  But in light of his troubles with Konami and Silent Hills, and his other cancelled video game projects, and the uneasy state of Pacific Rim 2, you can’t help but wonder if all of it is taking a toll.  (Though the timetables don't necessarily sync up; games and movies take a LONG time to make, IIRC.)  And then I find out that Crimson Peak lost in the box office to Goosebumps, and after crying enough to have turned into a crusted and powdery husk I just -- I don’t know, I feel like the guy needs a hug.  Anyone could, really, but I feel like he needs one the most.  Like he was born a universe where very few things go his way, and only by receiving enough love can he return to the proper dimension.

It’s okay, Mr. del Toro.  If it makes you feel any better?  I think you made an awesome movie.

Time to do that thing I do where I ruin movies -- which I’ll admit is made possible by virtue of my good friend, SPOILERS.  He spoils everything that happens, and will also steal your wallets and food.  As one would.

Here’s the setup.  The star of the movie is Edith Cushing, daughter of a famous businessman, and an aspiring writer -- one that just so happens to be able to see ghosts.  Technically she’s only seen one ghost at one point in her life -- her mother -- but it’s enough to give her an important message: “Beware of Crimson Peak.”  But wouldn’t you know it, the ghost returns to give her the same message, right around the time when Thomas Sharpe rides in on the wind from England. 

His mission?  He wants to get big daddy Carter Cushing to back the development of his mining machine, which looks like a giant steampunk version of Mousetrap.  And so begins Edith’s entanglement with Thomas, his sister Lucille, a dark scheme, even more ghosts, and the mystery of Crimson Peak…chief among them, just what Crimson Peak is supposed to be, since Ghost Mom seemed more eager to scare the corset off her daughter than adequately explain the source of impending danger.

Also, let’s go ahead and take this time to get all the jokes about Alice, Loki, Murph, and Raleigh Becket being in the same movie.  This post is already going to be long enough.

It’s worth noting upfront that Edith and Thomas form a relationship -- or at the very least, mutual respect -- early on.  The reason for that is because even if they’re in different fields, they’re struggling together to make their dreams come true.  Edith wants to be a writer, but her manuscripts get shot down on a regular basis by publishers who demand “more romance” out of her, or just look down on her because she’s a woman.  Meanwhile, Thomas made the journey across the pound while effectively penniless, all so he could sell his machine, revive the Sharpe mining business, and kinda-sorta revolutionize the industry…and he can’t even get his foot in the door because a bunch of suits (Edith’s dad chief among them) don’t like the cut of his jib.  Even with their talent and resolve, neither one can break through because a bunch of old men are playing gatekeeper.

There’s something eerily resonant about that, even for those who aren’t into creative industries.  (But for those that are?  Well, it’s relatable -- and that’s all I’ll say on that for now.)  But it feels like this is one of those areas where del Toro put a piece of himself and his troubles into the movie.  Granted he’s not exactly a beaten-down dog -- he got to make this movie, after all -- but it almost felt like what Edith dealt with were things he dealt with.  The suits just don’t get him, and don’t feel like getting him.  That’s pretty presumptuous to say, since he has seen some successes.  But how many failures did it take for him to reach that point?  How many times did he hear “no” before he got to hear “yes”?  How much stuff has been rejected and/or canned even with his beloved name attached?

It’s possible -- probable, even -- that I’m reading too far into this.  But even if it’s not about del Toro, it is about the movie’s central theme: slaves to passion.  And there’s only one way that theme could ever be explored thoroughly -- which leads me to the greatest strength this movie has.

Crimson Peak is not a horror movie.  It’s a gothic horror romance.  And it’s stronger for it.

If Crimson Peak was about wall-to-wall scares, it might have sucked.  But it’s not.  It’s about the romance between Edith and Tom, and the relationship between all of these interlocking characters -- between Carter, between Lucille, and even between Raleigh Alan.  Chalk this up to personal preference, but I find that significantly more interesting than how much gore a movie can throw in my face, or how blatant its attempts to try and scare me.  You can’t spell “characters” without “care”, after all, and setting up a movie so that its entire point is to systematically kill them off -- and remove the very best tool a story has -- strikes me as more counterproductive than a car with tree stumps for wheels.

Can you tell I’ve had bad experiences with the horror genre before?  Yeah.  I’ve had bad experiences with the horror genre before.  But let’s not dwell on it.

Edith mentions early on that her story is only one that has ghosts in it; they aren’t the focus.  That nod to the audience is seriously on the nose, but at least it’s an honest move.  Anyone who wanted ghosts and horror and junk will probably walk away disappointed (which wasn’t helped by the fact that the terrible promos sold it as a non-stop scream-fest).  But anyone who wants to see a more subdued form of horror…well, they might want to look elsewhere, because Crimson Peak isn’t exactly the most subtle movie around.  Then again, that’s part of what makes it so good.

I’m not going to pretend like there isn’t any horror in the movie, because there is.  See, one of the main wrinkles of the story is that Carter looks into the Sharpe siblings’ past once Thomas starts moving in on Edith.  The investigation leads to Carter getting killed -- and with such brutality that I could hardly keep watching -- and Edith effectively runs into Thomas’ arms for support.  She ends up marrying him and running off to England to live with him and Lucille in their home, Allerdale Hall…which ends up being an ill-advised movie, because it’s actually the Crimson Peak her mother warned her about.  Not like it matters, though.  Having seen Frozen for the first time semi-recently, I’m still fighting the urge to call it Arendelle Hall -- but you know what?  They should have just called it Bullshit Manor, because it’s so over-the-top evil, and I love it.

I mean, seriously.  The Sharpes have lost their family fortune thanks to the failure of their mines and the squandering done by dear old dad.  As a result, the mansion Thomas and Lucille live in is in such a mess that even the shambles are in shambles.  There’s at least one massive hole that extends all the way to the roof, and lets the snow drift down to the floor.  The décor is so bleak and harsh that it’s a wonder no one gets carved up just by looking around.  There’s an infestation of moths, to the point where they nearly cover every wall of a lower floor.  Nightmarish howls are practically guaranteed thanks to the wind, and rickety squeals might as well be a requirement for every touchable surface. 

That’s overlooking the main draw of Bullshit Manor Allerdale Hall: it’s built upon the red clay that Thomas is looking to harvest, and since the whole house is sinking, it leads to situations where it looks like there’s blood all over the place.  Step on a floorboard?  Red stuff oozes all over.  Need to take a bath?  Run the water until the clay stops pouring out.  Later on, Edith finds a room that is pretty much the definition of pure evil; think of a fusion between a dungeon, a prison, and a hot tub store, and you’re pretty much there.

This house only exists so that the movie can have something to show off to people, and get under their skin.  And you know what?  I’m 100% okay with that.  Unrealistic as it may seem, Allerdale Hall works because it’s a natural extension of Crimson Peak’s style.  That style is blatant as all get out, to be sure.  But it’s better to have an unmistakable style than no style; conscious decisions were made every step of the way, all for the sake of creating something memorable -- something more substantial than a bunch of fleeting scares.  The aesthetics, camera angles, and even the colors used all serve the atmosphere.  (Especially the colors.  As you can guess, shades of red see a LOT of play here.)

Admittedly, I’m not much in the way of art or interior design, so I’d recommend that those with a flair for aesthetics watch the movie for Allerdale Hall itself.  Let’s get back to the main idea here: if Crimson Peak isn’t a straight-up, scare-your-pants-off horror movie, then what is it?  Pared down to basics, it’s a cinematic take on a gothic novel; the first thing that came to mind for me was Wuthering Heights (though I’d bet there are better examples than that out there).  Still, that’s a conclusion I came to later on.  Having been duped by the promos -- and rather uncharacteristically of me, avoiding reviews/info -- I went in expecting a big dumb horror movie.  Well, maybe not to that extent; as a del Toro work, I assumed that I’d be taken for a spin.  Caught off-guard by a twist or two.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I find out that the ghosts are only incidental.  Oh, sure, they have their presence; they’re in the movie to point Edith toward the truth, but they’re not even close to the threat or threatening.  But what surprised me more was that there’s also nothing particularly supernatural about Crimson Peak.  Ghosts aside, there’s no magic.  There’s no ancient pact.  There’s no malevolent force.  Honestly, you could think of the stupidly-spooky Allerdale Hall as the movie’s biggest red herring; despite the movie’s looks, it’s a tale governed by humans.  Human interaction, human intent, human will, human foibles.  I can appreciate that…buuuuuuuuuuuuuuuut it does feed into one of my biggest complaints.

Crimson Peak is a slow burn.  Watching it means, in a sense, committing to an investment.  The ghostly scares evaporate well before Edith heads to England, and aren’t even all that common to begin with.  Honestly, you’d be forgiven for forgetting that the ghosts are a factor based on the gaps of time that passes between one sighting and the next.  Speaking personally, there were points in the movie where I wondered “Okay, where are you going with this?  What’s the endgame here?”  I couldn’t see it, in a lot of instances.  So in that sense, you could say that Crimson Peak loses track of the plot at certain points -- like it’s building toward a finale or a major point, but it’s hard to come by.

Plot threads run through the story, for sure.  Scene after scene builds up the mystery of the ghosts, and the mystery of the Sharpes, and Thomas being creepy, and Lucille being creepy, and Alan playing the detective.  But there’s not really a significant payoff until later in the movie.  Without the threat of the ghosts, and without anything supernatural, there’s a disparity between what Crimson Peak looks like, and what Crimson Peak is actually doing.  It doesn’t want to be a horror movie, and that’s fine -- but the tradeoff is that at several points, it felt like it didn’t want to be anything.  It wanted to be formless, or at least play the long game so much that it became formless.

It’s fine, though -- because man oh man, is there one hell of a payoff.

Like I said, the central theme of the movie is that the major players are all slaves to passion.  They’re intelligent people, no question, but they end up making bad decisions -- and acting on them, no less -- that lead to things spinning out of control faster than The Flash on the turntables.  It’s actually interesting to see these people embrace their dark desires, and go to extremes to get what they want at the cost of everything and everyone around them. 

There’s a benign version of that theme early on with Edith’s publishing woes.  She wants to be a writer, and goes after her dream -- as anyone should.  But when the door gets slammed in her face, she’s willing to go from writing out her manuscripts to typing them out; the reason for that is so she can mask her feminine handwriting, and that gives her a better shot by posing as a man.  It makes sense from a historical perspective (Crimson Peak takes place in 1901, after all), but what’s important is that Edith is willing to sacrifice a part of herself -- with a smile on her face, no less -- to get what she wants.  It sounds minor enough, but she rides down that slippery slope with a greased-up sled.

What do I mean?  Well, when her father dies -- or gets murdered, more appropriately -- guess what she sacrifices?  Her home, her connections, her assets, and pretty much everything that makes her a Cushing.  All so she can become a Sharpe instead.  All for her brand new hubby.

Edith’s an interesting character, for sure.  She’s not exactly one for direct combat, barring one notable instance, but she makes up for it with a solid character.  The demands of the movie may force her to be on the ropes or scared out of her wits for a good 75% of the movie, but she’s still got enough of a personality to justify her presence as a main character.  She’s got spirit and courage, and a little humor to her, but she’s also pretty concerned with solving the mysteries of the movie.  Admittedly there were moments where it felt like they had to shoehorn in how she’s such a strong female character who doesn’t play by society’s rules -- proof that she’s most unorthodox, for sure -- but overall she’s an important part of the movie.

She still loses out to Thomas Sharpe, though, because…well, he’s a real wildcard, that’s for sure.  A huge chunk of the movie is devoted to figuring out just who this guy is and what he’s about -- which leads to a lot of scenes where he’s talking with Lucille about some vague plans he’s putting in motion.  (There was a part of me that thought he wanted to sacrifice Edith to ensure his continued immortality.)  Really, though, I wonder if there’s that much to reveal about him.  There is plot-wise, sure, but what matters more is that he establishes his character, and he establishes his presence -- whether or not he does so as a charmer to the fair Miss Cushing.

Like Edith, Thomas is a slave to his passion.  His top priority is that he’s out to have his machine built and the resources of his mine (and beyond, presumably) harvested.  To that end, he spends huge swaths of time working on it, and the assumption is that he skips out on sleeping alongside his new wife so he can tinker in the workshop or scrape up new parts.  The truth is just a little more complicated than that, but the important thing is that he’s a man who won’t betray his passions -- even if he can be pretty cold or unreasonable as a result.  This is a guy who was offered up a huge sum of money by Carter just so he would get the hell out of town, and then refused so he could reunite with Edith.  Guy’s got moxie.

The big twist (such as it is, because the movie has the subtlety of a screaming elephant) is that Thomas has been married before, and Edith is actually his fourth wife.  It’s all a ploy to get his hands on wealthy girls’ money, and use it to resurrect his home.  It goes about as well as anyone would expect, given that Edith is Girl #4 -- and Edith’s protagonist powers not only make her immune to getting killed off-screen, but also let her worm her way into Thomas’ heart.  So before movie’s end, Thomas’ dark passion involves more than just a machine or his sinking nightmare house; we can argue day and night about how real the relationship between him and Edith was, but by movie’s end it becomes unquestionably real.

It’s too bad he spends a big slice of the movie and the entirety of his backstory in an incestuous and (arguably) emotionally abusive relationship with his older sister Lucille, and becomes an accomplice to the murder of his previous three wives, Edith’s dad, and their inbred baby because he just can’t quit her.

Yep.  This sure is a horror movie.

Remember when I said there’s one hell of a payoff?  There is, and it’s embodied by a single character -- the movie’s best character by a wide margin.  Lucille Sharpe is the MVP, even if I didn’t know it at the outset; given that she makes one of her first appearances decked out in red and acts unreasonably creepy, I figured she was a red herring.  I thought that despite it all, there was no way she could possibly be the movie’s villain -- the final boss, if you will.  I vastly underestimated Crimson Peak’s blunt force trauma style.  Much like her house of bullshit, Lucille is over-the-top unnerving, and it’s amazing.

At first it seems like she’s weird and not all there, but as time passes it’s clear that she plays by a very specific set of rules that just so happen to be her own.  She’s cold and calculating, and tries to restrain her emotions until the very end -- all for the sake of accomplishing her goals.  The core objective, of course, is to make sure Thomas is with her and only her, so it’s no small wonder that she tries to shuttle him towards winning over Edith and screwing the Cushings out of their money.  Incidentally, she’s the one who murdered Carter via bashing his damn skull in, and aims to take Edith out by poisoning her tea.

I’d say she’s one of those “just according to keikaku” sort of characters, but there’s another comparison that comes to mind.

Okay, to be fair?  Lucille isn’t exactly riding atop a mosh pit of loyal goons and ne’er-do-wells.  But much like Ratigan, it’s about putting on airs.  The key point of her character, I think, isn’t that she lacks emotion; it’s that she’s trying to restrain it -- or, alternatively, she has too much of it.  She’s passionate about her brother, her home, and the life she envisions.  For the most part, she doesn’t want anything to change, and she’s willing to sink into the depths of the earth if it means one more blissful minute with Thomas.

It really says something about the character when, despite shacking up with her beloved brother, Lucille doesn’t show a hint of passion or emotion.  It’s as if she’s going through the motions -- or maybe she’s built up such a high tolerance to her incest-filled relationship that she needs him to mash his body against hers just to get to normal.  So once Edith steps into the picture, you could say there’s a deviation from the plan.  This newcomer is interfering with their lives, and her chance at passion; as unwelcome as that may be, it also forces Lucille to redirect and reassert her passion. 

It’s what leads to some of the movie’s most chilling moments; if and when Lucille is being anything more than mysterious and spooky, it’s…well, it’s a sign somebody screwed up big.  In the best-case scenario, she’ll break character and go into a shouting fit, slamming down food and violating personal space.  In the worst-case scenario?  The comparison to Ratigan suddenly becomes a lot more apt.

It hits the fan spectacularly once the truth is revealed, and the confrontations are had.  Thomas ends up choosing Edith over Lucille, which makes the already-unhinged lady of the house go wild -- and in a fit of rage, she stabs her brother, including a grisly thrust into his face.  (I cringed so hard that I practically merged with the theater seat.)  After that?  Lucille drops all pretenses of being calm and collected, and commits herself to one thing: killing Edith, no matter what it takes.  She fails, naturally, but she still acts as a legitimate threat in the climactic chase throughout Allerdale Hall.  She’s disheveled, she’s screaming, she’s armed with a knife -- and eventually a massive cleaver -- and if I didn’t know any better, I’d say she activated a few cheat codes for boosted speed and cloaking.

It’s still not enough, though.  Edith manages to hold her off and try to escape despite being debilitated by poison, but in the end it doesn’t come down to a one-on-one fight to the finish.  Ultimately, it’s Lucille’s dark passion that does her in; just as the Hall’s ghosts -- victims killed by the mistress’ precious poisons -- appeared before Edith, one appears again to bring the struggle to an end.  This time, though, it’s Thomas, silent and ethereal.  The sight of him leaves Lucille still enough for a counterattack…so Edith goes for the kill and smashes her head with a shovel.

And so the story wraps up with Edith leaving the mansion behind with Alan, heading back home, and getting a book published.  The name of the book?  Crimson Peak.  Thus, the movie ends -- but I still have some questions.

So the implication is that Edith turned her experiences with the Sharpes into a book, which makes sense.  Earlier in the movie, Thomas (as part of an act to break off with her) ridiculed her for writing such sentimental drivel when she hadn’t experienced anything worthwhile, love well among them.  That’s obviously not a concern now, since she was very much in love with Thomas, even after the reveal.  So how much of her heart did she put into the story?  As an endeavor of passion in a tale built around passion, did she give herself to her writing as a means to feel her late husband’s warmth?  As a way to impart lessons to others?  As a coping mechanism for the trauma she endured?  As a means to find closure, and use the therapeutic process to gain answers she couldn’t before?  Or did she just think it would make a good -- and bankable -- story?

I guess I can’t help but wonder what happens to Edith now.  Granted I have a lot more questions in mind, but I wonder if she’ll still be a slave to her passion, or give up a part of herself just to fulfill her desires.  She won’t rush into another marriage again, probably (though Alan’s there to catch her on the rebound), but will she have really gained closure with her book written?  Will she become tied to the past, just as Lucille did?  Will Thomas haunt her, in every sense of the word, even with an ocean between them?  Will she become a darker version of herself because of the effect one earnest stranger had on her life?  What kind of messages has she coded within the pages of her story?  And will that coding recast or even distort the truth?

With the movie over, I’ll probably never get a solid answer.  But I’m still asking those questions.  That has to count for something -- and that’s why I’m putting Crimson Peak somewhere around HERE on my SmartChart™:

And that’ll do it for now.  See you next time.

Oh, and one more thing: this movie has Tom Hiddleston's bare ass in it.  Like, right there, gyrating, and taking up a good third of the screen.  So there's an incentive for anyone swooning for Loki.

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