Friday, April 7, 2017

Crimson Peak

Re-watching Crimson Peak on DVD gives me much more mixed feelings than my theatrical viewing. I think the change of format was part of the problem. I don't think I'm able to get the full experience of del Toro's visual style on such a small screen. The ghosts, in particular, no longer look quite as stunning.

This is a major blow for a film this utterly immersed in visual symbolism. An ancient house whose heirs are degenerates is sinking into a clay pit, while also falling apart. As the house sinks, red clay seeps out of the walls, giving the appearance that the house is bleeding. Yellow butterflies are fragile innocence, while black mouths are hardy bitterness. The final confrontation even takes place on top of a field of snow dyed crimson red by the clay. The impression of all of this is deluded in a home viewing format.

That said, the film still holds up. Mia Wasikowska gives a decent performance as Edith, the wealthy heiress who finds herself seduced by Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston). After the “accidental” death of her father (Jim Beaver), Edith marries Thomas and leaves for England with him and his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain).

The movie makes very little effort to hide the fact that Sir Thomas and his sister want Edith for her money. Their estate is falling apart, and Thomas is desperately working on a clay-mining machine that he hopes might restore the family fortune. Edith, who has the power to see ghosts, is surprised to find a number of them haunting the manor, leading her to realize that Sir Thomas had married three previous women for their money, all of which were killed by Lucille.

The movie likewise makes the “twist” that Thomas and Lucille are incestuous lovers fairly obvious as well. We're eventually told by Dr. McMichael (Charlie Hunnam), Edith's other love-interest and would-be rescuer late in the film, that the two were also suspected of murdering their mother. However, the real horror hits when we're told that this happened when she found out about their incest...when Thomas was 12, and Lucille 14.

This effectively rewrites everything, and makes Sir Thomas the most interesting character in the entire movie. He was molested by his sister at an age when he could not possibly consent, explaining why throughout the film he concedes to almost everything she wants. Even as we see him sincerely fall in love with Edith, it takes tremendous will on his part to even object to her murder, and this eventually causes Lucille to kill him in a moment of rage

Del Toro's goal with this film was to invert traditional gender roles by having a female character save herself, another female character as a “slasher,” and Sir Thomas as an inverted Femme Fatale. Unfortunately, I think Del Toro missed the memo that his subversions come a few decades late. In fact, we're living in a time when Edith's pure “final girl” status is not only a cliché, but a cliché Hollywood started subverting in mass years ago. As for the female killer, see the original Friday the 13th for more.

That's not to say that these characters don't work here. They definitely do as throwbacks, and it's likely that if this film had been made in the time of the Hammer films it draws inspiration from it would have been far more subversive. However, the only role-swap that really works is Sir Thomas, and not because of his status as a seductive and dangerous man, but because of his status as a male survivor of sexual abuse by a female perpetrator.

The final confrontation between Edith and Lucille is somewhat anti-climactic. Lucille chases Edith, Edith leads her away from the wounded Dr. McMichael. Then, out in the clay-stained snow, the ghost of Thomas distracts Lucille so that Edith can finish her off with a shovel. I think the lack of anything truly sensational is part of the point. Much of the last act is simply a crazy woman running around an old house with a bladed weapon. The theme of degeneracy runs deep enough that I think Del Toro decided that to give Lucille a remotely dignified or dramatic death simply wouldn’t have fit.

The film ends with Edith and Dr. McMichael fleeing into the snow to get away from the house, while the ghost of Lucille plays the piano. She's now trapped forever in her family home, as Thomas appears to have finally passed on. I would love to know what happens to the house.

If I don't seem to have mentioned Dr. McMichael much, it's because he borders on a Red Herring. We're supposed to expect him to save Edith, but his only real contribution is delaying her death when he shows up at their door, and Lucille wants to avoid killing Edith in front of him. If I give him points for subversion, it's that he's saved by an otherwise traditional Final Girl. Usually such characters are forced to save themselves when their men are axed, not forced to protect their wounded men.

It's truly shameful that more people didn't experience this film in the theatre. I do still recommend it. It's a solid throwback to the days of hammer, and a great chance to see Tom Hiddleston in a truly magnificent performance.

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