31 Days of Hallowe’en, Day 28: Crimson Peak (2015)


Oh, I’d been looking forward to this beautifully gothic horror since it had been announced, since the casting, and then that gorgeous trailer overlaid with that haunting PJ Harvey cover of “Red Right Hand”.

It’s not until the first scare attempts arrive that I realise I’m being let down. How the ghosts will be handled is painfully telegraphed from Mia Wasikowska‘s opening narration. It’s more effective to go in knowing very little, other than Wasikowska’s character Edith, an aspiring horror writer and daughter of a self-made newspaper magnate (Jim Beaver), who goes to live with her new husband Thomas (Tom Hiddleston) and his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) in their crumbling family home.

source: EW

And I mean literally crumbling, as the two have no caretakers but themselves for the estate. Mould and dust and discoloured wood crop up at every turn, and an ever-increasing hole in the ceiling raining a never-ending waterfall of leaves (later replaced by a Guillermo del Toro staple, snow). Proper props to set designer Thomas E. Sanders for crafting a space in which I simultaneously want to live in and is creepy enough for me to be thankful for the invention of electrical lighting and central heat.

Used to classic New York-state finery and, er, a cleaner, Edith is a trooper at first, unfettered by her excessively puffy dresses and cloaks tracking the autumnal dirt through the house, and even when Lucille’s frosty reception grows colder than the piece of shit house she’s married into living in now. But then she starts to take ill, and begins hallucinating foggy, ghostly figures. Something ain’t quite right, and Edith sets about trying to do some investigating with nobody around to help her.

source: Legendary Pictures

From there the plot plods. The movie is more creepy than it is scary (and probably the intention, despite how it was marketed), but there are moments that could have been dripping with suspense, or more than an air of mildly confused dread. Jump-scares are predictable enough as a fright gimmick, but even more so when the camera lingers on the setup shots for far too long. Gore is thick and bloody (del Toro doesn’t pull his punches here), and there’s a sinister undercurrent to some of the plot’s developments.

There are some gleeful moments of droll genre humour  – Thomas explains the viscous red liquid bubbling up through the floors is just the clay pits, which, in their giant cellar vats and intrusions through the snow-covered walkway, are a character in their own right.

source: indiewire

I’m not sure what to make of what I thought of this film. It’s better than “OK” or “just good”, but it’s not as fulfilling as del Toro’s other works. His dark fairytale treatment should have been perfect for old-school gothic, but there’s a disappointing, slight preference for style over substance, and that wastes the superior acting talents of the principal trio, especially Hiddleston, who imbues Thomas’ unsettling demeanour with the same moral ambiguity and inexplicable sympathy (how does he do it??) he’s brought to his other, similarly dark roles.

It’s ultimately a dark, gothic romance with an odd mix of old-fashioned ghostly horror and modern disturbing elements, but it’s never quite more than a better-than-just-good sum of its parts.


31 Days of Hallowe’en, Day 8: The Devil’s Backbone (2001)


source: impawards.com

I’ve seen a couple Guillermo del Toro’s later works (Pan’s Labyrinth and The Orphanage), so I felt like I was robbing myself a little when I stepped back in time to catch one of his movies that bore his artistic hallmarks and themes. I didn’t want to feel like I was comparing it to those other two, but luckily, del Toro makes such compelling pieces that it’s easy to get lost in the dreamy cinematography and perfectly-placed musical cues.

The Devil’s Backbone is set in 1939, during the Spanish Civil War. I had gleaned some knowledge from my mildly pointless exercise of looking up what people might have eaten during that time period (so I could make it for dinner as a movie accompaniment). The Nationalists were the Franco ass-kissers, and would have eaten around 200g of meat a day. The Republican loyalists? A mere 20, if they were lucky.  The Nationalists would also have had coffee and wine. Not fair! And I’m a tea-drinking, cider-swilling vegetarian (not that I would have been any of those things back then). But yeah, I had gotten pretty distracted and read about the conditions the Republicans would have faced in dormitories and on the battlefield, being more likely to succumb to illness or to disease than their Nationalist counterparts.

source: rhandawatches.files.wordpress.com

So I wasn’t surprised to see that the boys’ orphanage depicted in the movie, despite it housing children of war heroes, was a bare-bones of an institution, in which much of the character development and conflict comes from the various interpersonal politics at play, each with their own mini storylines. It also clarifies the unflinching inevitability that those who are in danger are primarily young children. It’s also not surprising, then, that the film’s ghostly protagonist is also a young boy; impossibly cute, impossibly evil-looking, and literally shrouded in mystery.

The acting, dialogue, editing and direction are so taut that there were moments that I forgot I was watching a movie; it felt like I was peering into a couple of really crappy days in a ’30s-era Spanish orphanage in the middle of nowhere. Every one of the kids is believable, especially the lead, Fernando Tielve (Carlos) and Íñigo Garcés (Jaime), the former of whom had never acted previously.

source: betweentheseats.blogspot.com

Unless the movie or TV show I’m watching is an outright mystery, I usually sit back and let it wash over me without trying to predict the outcome (my husband did that, but he can’t help himself – though by the time the movie was over, he’d forgotten what he’d predicted!). So, because of the story being driven by the characters and their actions (as opposed to, say, Star Trek Into Darkness, where the characters just react to plot devices), it wasn’t terribly obvious to me where the story would lead, up until the film’s final scenes (at least you hoped that’s where the movie would lead). And because it’s fairly likely that, given the character demographics, it’s the helpless, orphaned children who are constantly in danger, there’s that much more haunting, tense dread to go around here. That’s enough for me to issue caution to anyone considering watching it (as that kind of threat of violence tends to taboo in typical western horror), but it’s such a hauntingly, tragically, beautiful little piece that will linger in your mind long after the credits roll.