Mia Wasikowska is a beautiful chameleon. She has the star spangled eyes and cream features that’s catnip to high-end literary movie producers who make her Jane Eyre and Emma Bovary, but she soars—and seems to be having the most fun—in more perverse ventures. She was at her best (and the best thing about) David Cronenberg’s Maps To The Stars, and her triumph to date has been as the murderous India Stoker in the garishly entertaining movie of her name. Now she’s Edith Cushing, amateur novelist and glossy socialite in Guillermo Del Toro’s new “One-for-me” Crimson Peak. It’s unfortunate that Del Toro didn’t cast her as the evil, incestuous Lucille (Jessica Chastain), sister of Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) who courts Edith, marries her after the mysterious death of her father, and takes her to the sprawling, ruinous Allerdale (groan) Hall. Wasikowska can play evil better than Chastain, and Cronenberg and Park Chan-Wook (director of Stoker) used her with far more Bad Seed finesse. Crimson Peak is handsomely mounted but stale and rambling. It reminds one less of Mario Bava than Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland (Mia’s breakout), which isn’t a good thing at all.
The film never recovers from its earliest blunders, like having the ghost of Edith’s mother come to warn her of Crimson Peak twice within the first twenty minutes, and bogging the scenery down with prim Period Piece jabber that unconvincingly streams from the mouths of the principles (including Jim Beaver as Edith’s father and a wasted Charlie Hunnam once more doing his faulty American accent). Crimson Peak is a bad period piece and an even worse horror movie. Once Edith marries Thomas she, and the audience, become stuck in the mansion where the set design and lavish color photography do most of the heavy lifting. The actors are stranded by Del Toro’s misplaced enthusiasm, and the screenplay (co-written by veteran Matthew Robbins) galumphs through tame bodice rippings and a foggy central mystery. Ironically, Del Toro’s most purely enjoyable and streamlined movie was 2013’s Pacific Rim; I liked it far more than his “personal” projects like Pan’s Labyrinth and the horrendous Hellboy series. If Rim is what he has to do to make movies like Crimson Peak he should do more of them because they bring out his true talents as a mainstream entertainer rather than as a “visionary.”
There are three kinds of Jessica Chastain movies: the good (Tree Of Life, Take Shelter), the bad (Intersteller) and the actually unwatchable (The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, A Most Violent Year). Crimson Peak isn’t unwatchable—Del Toro knows how to shoot, color and frame a movie, and it’s very tempting to bathe in the delectable reds and serene snowfall dancing to the ground in the mansion’s interior—but it is definitely bad, with final scenes that are dire in their lack of imagination. I would think Del Toro would have advanced beyond the “talking killer” device. I was never a big Hammer Horror fan (I always preferred Roger Corman’s Poe movies) and at its worst Crimson Peak recalls the expository blandness of the dullest Hammers. He should have studied Bava harder to find a way to get his effects with little talk and more brevity (at 80 minutes a movie like Whip And The Body accomplishes more than Del Toro’s film does in a bloated two hour runtime).
With Crimson Peak Del Toro tarnishes what he loves and stifles the talents of a promising performer. You wouldn’t even know that Tom Hiddleston is the exciting thespian of The Deep Blue Sea, War Horse and Only Lovers Left Alive by the evidence of his simpering turn here. Not that Hiddleston can be blamed—Del Toro cares more about Doug Jones in a variety of costumes than he does his more than capable leads. In his jumble of actors and narrative Del Toro proves himself to be one of the most profoundly overrated of the Ain’t It Cool Saints.
Pan turned out to be a very apropos title as the movie sunk like a cannon-torn pirate ship, though I like it, as I also liked director Joe Wright’s Hanna. (He should stick to trash material instead of his high-lit aspirations.) It never matches the razzmatazz invention of its early scenes, like a battle between WWII-era bombers and a flying ship that could have been thought up by Pynchon (it indeed is a combo of Gravity’s Rainbow and Against The Day) as well as a cadre of orphan miners singing Nirvana along with the evil Captain Blackbeard (appropriately hammy Hugh Jackman). Nevertheless, Rooney Mara and the John Huston (or is it Daniel Plainview?) sound-alike Gerrett Hedlund make for spirited guides through the busy remainder, and some beautifully conceived flashbacks along with Cara Delevingne as a trio of topless mermaids help make Pan a movie Pauline Kael might have also called a Bliss-out.It's also far better than the similar, and wretched, Oz: The Great And Powerful and the anachronisms better Baz's, as the movie is infinitely better than anything he's done that I've panned.
Goosebumps is wondrous. As a child I always responded to the book cover illustrations more than the actual content of R.L. Stine’s writing, which is fitting because Rob Letterman’s homage to the popular young adult horror author takes those elegantly detailed pop cartoons—abominable snowmen, talking ventriloquist dummies, evil garden gnomes—and sets them off like Gremlins when its revealed that Stein (Jack Black, in his best since Bernie)’s powerful imagination makes the monsters real and they must be contained in locked manuscripts while Stein and his daughter Hannah (Odeya Rush) keep a reclusive existence in a small nowhere town. This is discovered by Zach (Dylan Minnette), a normal kid suffering in silence from the death of his father and moved to Madison, Delaware by Mom (Amy Ryan, starring in the second terrific movie I’ve seen over the last two days). This is a pungent writer’s fantasy, made cinematically expressive in shots of the actual ink of the books taking tactile shape and morphing into the various beasts (reminding the marathon viewer of exposition deployed through living woodcuts and water sprites in Pan). Goosebumps is deftly wrought entertainment with exhilarated pacing and fine comedic turns by people you didn’t expect to show up (Ken Marino, Jonah from Veep), but in the treatment of Stein’s most beloved creation it levitates into the realm of moving profundity. One of the heroes doesn’t know they’re a product of Stein’s imagination, and the moment where another character realizes this comes when elegiac moonlight seeps through the invention’s body, making it glow transparently. This is gothic lyricism miles beyond Del Toro’s lax ideas, as well as one of the most poignant commentaries on the magic and cost of writing that I’ve seen in years. Letterman provides the kind of Americana romantic crush poetry that Joe Dante used to effortlessly pull off before seemingly losing all his gifts in this year’s more-abominable-than-the-snowman Burying The Ex. Rob Letterman is the new Joe Dante, and is a fulfillment of the claims Del Toro’s fans overheatedly make.