Crimson Peak (2015)

★★★½ / 👍

Crimson Peak (2015) poster

I didn’t love this movie, but I never expected to. I prefer my ghost stories ambiguous and restrained; Guillermo del Toro is an artist driven by bold colors, broad strokes, and the satisfying clack of interlocking gears. Crimson Peak is a Gothic film through and through, and—in the words of Stephen King—a primary attraction of the Gothic is that the machinery is PRETTY GODDAMN LOUD.

Mia Wasikowska has what could only ever have been a thankless part, given the type of movie being made. It’s never quite clear what turns the intelligent, independent-minded, somewhat cynical woman we see at the beginning into—well, into a Gothic heroine, rather than the proactive, goal-driven protagonist we expect of a feature film released by a major studio in 2015. The audience would likely be contemptuous of her if she didn’t have those “strong female character” attributes at all, but those traits do make the artificiality of the situation even more apparent than it already is.

I first saw Jessica Chastain in two very different films on the same day—Tree of Life and The Help—and I’ve always mentally categorized her as an actor who adds surprising depth to stock archetypes. Her grounded performance in Mama (produced by del Toro) was wasted because it was at odds with that film’s jump-scare creature feature elements. Here, she’s given a character on the same wavelength as the movie, and makes the most of it. Watching Chastain sink her teeth into the role, and occasionally the scenery, is a genuine pleasure.

Hiddleston is wonderful as a latter-day Vincent Price here, splitting the difference between the dashing cruelty of Dragonwyck and the later tortured soul (with just a hint of camp) of Corman’s Poe adaptations. Charlie Hunnam’s floundering performance and unconvincing accent serve (intentionally or not) to mark his character as the sort of well-meaning but ineffectual man who is de rigueur in a Gothic.

I don’t love Guillermo del Toro’s films, but I do admire him as a “genre” filmmaker, in the specific sense of an artist who seeks to understand and replicate the core elements of a specific type of story, even at the expense of wider acceptance from the uninitiated. Rather than a middlebrow version of a kaiju film, akin to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon‘s art-house take on the wuxia, Pacific Rim gave us a big-budget Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em monster rally that delighted fans of those films, and baffled almost everyone else. Crimson Peak continues this trend: it’s nearly devoid of sense, and embraces sensibility, to a degree that many will find unacceptable—or even laughable. I don’t know if del Toro’s cinematic necrophilia is any more or less distateful than, say, Quentin Tarantino’s; I only know that my particular kinks map more closely to Guillermo’s than Quentin’s.

The CGI ghosts are unconvincing and distracting, but they are, after all, only a metaphor.

[Hoop2fer #24. Watched with: The Innocents (1961).]

The Innocents (1961)

★★★★½ / 👍

The Innocents (1961) poster

“Sometimes one can’t help…imagining things.”

Like Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining, Jack Clayton’s The Innocents is a masterpiece of the cinematic form that I find deeply disturbing, but not even remotely frightening. (As with Nicholson’s Jack Torrance, the psychological cracks in Kerr’s Miss Giddens, and her tendency “to be carried away quite easily,” are apparent long before she even accepts her new job.)

This is a gorgeously shot, expertly edited thriller with excellent use of sound, and filled with pitch-perfect performances. But no matter what pressure I might feel to say otherwise, I’ve quite given up on trying to convince myself that I can see anything supernatural here.

[Hoop2fer #23. Watched with: Crimson Peak (2015).]

Frankenstein Created Woman (1967)

★★★ / 👍

Frankenstein Created Woman (1967) poster

The fourth Frankenstein film from Hammer is a stylish if somewhat plodding return to form after an ill-advised experiment in licensed nostalgia. Frankenstein Created Woman restores Peter Cushing’s Baron to the sociopathic mad doctor we love to hate, adds a stronger metaphysical element than usual to the series, and manages to provide a healthy dollop of erotically-tinged violence before the end credits roll.

Baron Victor von Frankenstein—doctor “of medicine, law, and physics”—has made a breakthrough in his quest to conquer death. Earlier attempts had him seeking out only the best ingredients (“the finest hands in Europe!”) and only substituting peasants and criminals faute de mieux. Here he is much less concerned with the physical shell: “Bodies are easy to come by. Souls are not.”

Due to complicated plot events that take up the majority of the running time, Frankenstein is able to use a “frame of force” (i.e., a force field) to trap a freshly-guillotined prisoner’s soul before it leaves the body. After taking a few moments to gaze at the soul through an observation window like a proud father at the maternity ward—the only unfeigned smile Frankenstein displays in the entire movie—the Baron and his assistant get to work rebuilding the body of a “twisted, deformed, and broken” woman who drowned herself.

Frankenstein Created Woman is no Bride of Frankenstein. That said, the unveiling sequence of the drowned woman, Christina, does have a pretty nifty visual joke. As the last bandage is removed, the film withholds the reveal of Christina’s face by cutting to her point of view, slowly coming into focus as Christina’s eyes adjust. Our first full glimpse of Susan Denberg’s unblemished blonde beauty is intercut with her character’s first impression of the world—a couple of old dudes looming over her. The way her eyes flick from the beaming, ruddy-cheeked Thorley Walters to the grim, distant Cushing isn’t exactly Elsa Lanchester’s hiss, but it’s delightful nonetheless.

Susan Denberg was likely hired primarily because she was Playboy‘s Miss August 1966, and not for her acting abilities. While her ultimate transformation into a monstrous femme fatale is actually pretty great, it comes very late in the film. For most of the running time Denberg is stuck playing a meek, high-strung peasant girl, saddled with terrible dialogue and disfiguring makeup that distracts more than it disgusts. (That her performance was dubbed by someone else certainly doesn’t help.)

Once revivified and given decent costuming, makeup and hair, though, Denberg can draw on her modeling skills to pose in a series of confident, erotically-charged tableaux. The change isn’t exactly subtle, but the flimsiness of the pretext begins to work in the movie’s favor: it’s difficult not to share the thinly-veiled contempt she displays for her targets.

Peter Cushing is delightfully amoral throughout. Though clever and capable of charm, his Frankenstein reflexively insults others through arrogance and impatience, even when it makes his life more difficult. Cushing’s gravitas also helps to smooth over some potentially creepy moments. The audience might be leering as he manipulates Denberg’s legs, but as far as Frankenstein is concerned, she’s just a “very healthy young girl” and that’s that.

[Hoop2fer #1. Watched with: She Killed in Ecstasy (1971).]