‘Crimson Peak’—A Movie for Another Time

[Crimson Peak Poster]
Photo Courtesy of IMDb

Crimson Peak’ (2015)
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Screenplay by Guillermo del Toro, Matthew Robbins
Drama | Fantasy | Horror | Mystery | Romance | Thriller
Stars Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston
Universal
Rated R
Log Line: In the aftermath of a family tragedy, an aspiring author is torn between love for her childhood friend and the temptation of a mysterious outsider. Trying to escape the ghosts of her past, she is swept away to a house that breathes, bleeds—and remembers.

Don’t get me wrong—I liked this movie from the great Guillermo del Toro, a filmmaker I have admired since his amazing ‘Pan’s Labyrinth.’ And similar to that film, ‘Crimson Peak’ is beautifully crafted, like the china teacup Lucille uses to serve Edith her questionable tea. Unlike del Toro’s earlier effort, though, this movie felt distant and terribly formal to me—the Noble Style vs. a rollicking square dance. And, speaking of dances, there was no better scene to illustrate this aloofness than the one in which Thomas waltzes with Edith in front of her father.

There’s Horror and There’s HORROR
To me, the best horror is visceral, not mannered. Referring back to the Hollywood classics of the 1930s, ‘Crimson Peak’ felt closer to ‘Wuthering Heights’ than ‘Frankenstein.’ Sure, we get to see abominable CG apparitions, but even they are distant. They never really engage with Edith in a way that would induce sheer terror in a cultured young woman. Of course, I realize they are there to warn her, rather than scare her. But still … By now, movie audiences have been exposed to such fare as ‘Saw,’ ‘The Human Centipede’ and ‘House of 1000 Corpses.’ Pretty hardcore stuff, don’t you think? To my way of thinking, resurrecting gothic horror was a bit of a risk for everyone involved. Why did they do it?

That Damned Red Clay
I’ve seen a lot of horror movie devices over the years, but never clay. Usually, desolate places like Cumberland are filled with moors floating in a dense white mist. But clay? This didn’t really work for me. Sure, it was red and resembled blood, but …. They never really did anything with it—even when they had their chance in the cellar, which held huge wooden vats of the stuff. Maybe those scenes ended up on the cutting room floor. And as long as we’re talking about missed opportunities, what about Edith’s so-called writing? She managed to bang out one story and never really writes another word during the rest of the film. Okay, the movie is not about her writing, but the story would have worked just as well without it.

The Audience Has Spoken
‘Crimson Peak’ did not do well at the box office. As of this writing, it has earned $75M worldwide, according to Box Office Mojo, with a production budget of $55M. Compare that to Warner Bros.’ 2013 hit ‘The Conjuring,’ which to date has grossed $318M worldwide, with a production budget of $20M. To me, ‘Crimson Peak’ was a movie for another audience in another time.

In the trailer, the quote “Gorgeous and terrifying—it electrified me” is attributed to Stephen King. Terrifying? Really? Come on, Steve. I can’t imagine that anything short of an alligator chewing your fingers off one at a time would be terrifying to you. And certainly not this movie. Disturbing, yes—especially concerning the twisted relationship between Thomas and Lucille. Henry James would be proud. As I said, I liked ‘Crimson Peak’ but, sadly, I went into the thing wanting to love it.

‘Lucy’—Asking the Wrong Question

Photo Courtesy of IMDb
[‘Lucy’ Poster]Lucy’ (2014)
Directed by Luc Besson
Screenplay by Luc Besson
Action | Sci-Fi
Stars Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman, Min-sik Choi
Universal
Rated R
Log Line: A woman, accidentally caught in a dark deal, turns the tables on her captors and transforms into a merciless warrior evolved beyond human logic.

 

SPOILER ALERT!

I saw the much-anticipated ‘Lucy’ last weekend and, before going into my review, I’d like to make a few preliminary comments. First, I am a huge fan of Luc Besson. Ever since ‘La Femme Nikita,’ I was convinced this guy could do no wrong. Second, I am in love with Scarlett Johansson—don’t tell my wife. Third, I’m very aware that no matter what I say here, this movie will make a ton of money. So that said, what’s my take?

I was disappointed.

This Was Two Movies
Apparently, ‘Lucy’ couldn’t decide what it wanted to be. On the one hand, it is a smart, funny, bloody sci-fi thriller that doesn’t skimp on the action. On the other, it’s an vfx-laden treatise on the history of man and his ability to utilize the untapped potential of his brain. Judging by the official trailer, I was promised the former. And I was getting it in all its Luc Besson glory until Lucy finally meets Morgan Freeman’s Professor Norman in Paris.

There was an upside to the mindy, spacey stuff that takes us from man’s beginnings with the original Lucy to the wonders of the universe. I enjoyed the visual effects—especially when Lucy stops Time with a wave of her hand. Sure, that’s cool. And the movie came in at ninety minutes, which meant we weren’t saddled with a slow-moving second act. But when the screenwriter stops caring that Lucy is on the lam and an evil Korean guy is after her, and opts instead to focus on her morphing into a frickin’ computer made of giant Nutella-like tendrils, that’s when you lose me.

Every Hero Needs an Arc
This is a basic tenet of screenwriting. As we’ve learned over the years, it’s the Hero’s Journey, people. The hero—or the protagonist—reluctantly sets off on a journey where a bunch of stuff happens. Whether it’s good or bad stuff doesn’t really matter. In the end it’s life changing. And there’s always a final battle, which the hero must win. Then he returns home changed and tells the others what he learned. The model may be old, going all the way back to Gilgamesh, but it works.

So what happened to Lucy? Well, she didn’t come back! Instead of an arc, we got a trajectory. She never gets to have the final battle with Mr. Jang—that’s left to the battle-weary French cop Pierre Del Rio. Once Lucy’s brain reaches a hundred percent utilization, she trips off somewhere beyond Time and Space, probably meeting up with an alternate universe version of herself, which is the OS from ‘Her.’ Seriously? What am I supposed to do with pure energy? I invested a lot of my emotions in this woman, and now she just disappears? And just like Professor Norman, I am left with nothing but a thumb drive with a bunch of ones and zeroes on it. Great. I guess I should start that backup now. Oh wait, she melted all the computers.

How Might This Have Worked?
The movie already has the elements of a great sci-fi action thriller—bad guys, experimental drugs, exotic locations and a woman who, though she graduated Phi Beta Kappa, starts out dumb as spit when it comes to choosing men. Speaking of bad guys, the only thing better than a Korean bad guy is pairing him with an English bad guy. Bravo, Luc!

As I said before, I was good with everything until the fateful meeting with Professor Norman. Previously, she had only spoken to him by phone or video screen. He was becoming her Alfred. But once she meets with the good professor and other scientists, we’re transported to the Science Channel as Lucy’s brain utilization increases and everyone discusses the nature of Time and Space. At this point, I wouldn’t have been surprised if everyone adjourned to a nice restaurant and spent the next five hours discussing Sartre or the symbolism behind clowns in horror movies.

Here’s my idea for a third act. When Mr. Jang and his army arrive at the university to kill Lucy, she is already starting to lose her powers because the drug is wearing off. That, coupled with a blinding headache and other side effects from the drug, it’s a question of whether she can still take out the bad guys before they can kill her. A massive final battle ensues where everything—the university, everything—is destroyed as Lucy battles with Mr. Jang and his men while becoming weaker and weaker.

At a critical moment, Mr. Jang shoots Lucy. Weak and bloody she still manages to send him to hell. Then she collapses as the professor makes his way to her. As the professor examines her, he realizes that she is once again human. How? Well, her irises appear normal. Working fast, he and Del Rio get her to the hospital, where surgeons operate on her and she recovers.

Epilogue. Lucy is standing outside the airport with Del Rio. She’s going home to see her parents. He says, “I guess we’ll never know what would have happened had you hit a hundred percent.” Just then, a toddler drifts into the path of an oncoming taxi, his mother running after him and screaming in French. Suddenly, the taxi stops completely, as if Time itself had stopped. The crying mother retrieves her child as Del Rio stares at Lucy in amazement. “What?” she says, smiling. Then she kisses the cop on the cheek and walks into the terminal. Setup for a sequel? You bet.

The Wrong Question
Every great movie asks a question at the beginning that must be answered at the end. In ‘Lucy,’ the question appears to be “what would happen if we could access our whole brain instead of just ten percent?” To me, that’s the wrong question. It has nothing to do with a hero’s life. What happened to Lucy could have happened to anyone—the conniving boyfriend, the French cop or Professor Norman.

I think a better question is, “Will Lucy become the person she is meant to be?” With my ending, I think the movie would have answered that. It still would have been a kick-ass story and we would have left the theatre satisfied that Lucy completed the hero’s journey.