Monday, October 19, 2015

Crimson Peak, macabre and malevolent

Too often do we associate evil with mere darkness and death. We fancy evil to thrive in darkness and associate it with death which is inherently stagnant. However, evil does not thrive in darkness nor does it desire death. Instead, like life itself, evil feeds on light and has a life of its own. But unlike life which reflects light in a million different ways, evil consumes it whole. And evil that lives has a hold more pertinacious on life than light will ever have. What light strives to set free, evil jealously desires to hoard.

Evil, light and life. Lucille Sharpe, Edith Cushing and Sir Thomas Sharpe. This is the unholy trinity that forms the revelation that Crimson Peak is.

We start with the little Miss Edith being warned by her mother's ghost (a ghost like only del Toro can produce) about the Crimson Peak. Years pass, the rose bud has bloomed. Young Edith is an aspiring writer who does not write ghost stories but stories with ghosts in them (Oh, how I would love to read such a story!). She is brushed aside as just a pretty little face when Sir Thomas Sharpe enters her life seeking from her father a loan for his ingenious clay mining machine. He is handsome, charming and most importantly understands and appreciates her writing. While the subtle courtship is underway, Mr. Cushing discovers dark secrets about the Lucille family. Despite his attempts to protect his child, he himself is murdered and Edith becomes Lady Sharpe. And during all of this, Lucille, Thomas' sister stays lurking in the background, merely playing the organ while her brother and the unwilling debutante waltz around the dance floor.

The story then moves to Allerdale Hall, a house that is putrefying in almost the exact way a corpse would. And it is here that Lucille, much like a certain Transylvanian Count, when her feet are on her own soil; clayey soil that when touched with the snow becomes crimson as Sir Thomas explains later (a little too late for Edith perhaps) comes to her own. From hereon, there are just two characters in the story conducting their own opera of the macabre - Lucille and the Allerdale Hall itself. What is the final act, the denouement of this opera? You will obviously find that out watching the movie, but it barely matters.

Because the plot, the dialogues, the ending are all trivial embellishments to a movie that is almost a pagan worship ritual for the Gothic. It is like watching the visions that inspired, or perhaps haunted the likes of Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley, Poe or Emily Bronte come alive on screen. There is perhaps only one simile that can be used to describe this movie - it is like a pomegranate cut with a knife of ivory (Elle est comme une pomme de grenade coupée par un couteau d’ivoire. - Salome, Oscar Wilde). Morbid, macabre and alluring.

I was rather disappointed with del Toro's Pacific Rim. It seemed like another director with vision had fallen prey to mundane box office revenues. But thankfully unlike Burton, del Toro seems to have survived. His ghosts are very much the fantastic and grotesque monsters of Pan's Labyrinth. But where he truly excels in creating the atmosphere. The roads are muddy, the decadent clothes all seem like they are out of the Masque of Red Death, the snow droops like dead flowers rather than falling and even daylight seems dreary and shorn of life.

And the house! My, what a house. While it might not be as horrifying a presence as say the castle Dracula (the one infested by Bela Lugosi, not Gary Oldman) or the Overlook hotel, it is definitely a presence more alive. The stairs do not creak, they groan with mortal agony. The walls do not crumble, they rot like human flesh revealing skeletons of the past. The boards on the floor do not squelch with mud, they bleed crimson. It is a living, breathing maze of death and like Edith, we too are trapped inside it. The house towers over the movie with a stature (pardon the pun) that no actor dare challenge.

And yet, Jessica Chastain does just that and I daresay almost wins. It is always too easy to get carried away when you have a character as steeped in evil as that of Lucille Sharpe. A lesser actor would have resorted to exaggerated histrionics and affected mannerisms that would have definitely reduced Lucille to a caricature. But Jessica breathes the character into life with her subtle performance. The scene where she "takes care" of a wan Edith promising to "get her out of this bed soon" will send shivers down your spine.

Tom Hiddleston and Mia Wasikowska play their parts well. Hiddleston is required to give a more nuanced performance as the enterprising brother who is torn between the two women and does so brilliantly. The confidence of his character with Edith and diffidence with Lucille are brought out perfectly. Mia plays yet another nubile damsel in distress in a Gothic horror romance. Thankfully, this time she is in a delectably dark Cumberland and not in a badly imagined Wonderland. (Mr. Burton, sir I hope you are taking notes!)

The climax of the movie was a bit of a letdown. Personally, I would have preferred a tragedy for the climax. (SPOLIER ALERT: Why not have the Allerdale Hall buried under the very clay that is the lifeblood of the house with everybody in it instead of the "happy ending as only celluloid can deliver"?) But I guess one cannot afford to get one's hopes too high as a pessimist with movies these days. :-)

To sum up, you remember the first time you read Frankenstein or Wuthering Heights or The picture of Dorian Gray as an impassioned youth? You remember all those dark desires that these works stirred in you, desires beyond love, lust, romance or even evil? Crimson Peak breathes life to all those malevolent thoughts and ends up consuming you much like how evil does.

I, for one, however could have done with a couple more bodies. ;-)