MOVIES: Crimson Peak

crimsonpeakposterDirector: Guillermo Del Toro
Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston
Verdict: The best gothic since Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein… dare I say it, the best since Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Rebecca Eyre in Blackbeard’s Red Death House of Usher. With Tom Hiddleston.

If you’re not already tripping over yourself to see this film after that, you’re not the target audience.

Despite the marketing – and Guillermo Del Toro’s worthy gore-drenched filmography – this is not a horror film. It’s a gruesome, bloody, romantic Gothic, in the style of Walpole or The Woman in White, made fragrant, delicious and sensuous by that dank, fetid look everyone remember from Pan’s Labyrinth.

Anyone who reads gothic romances – a misnomer, really, since romances have happy endings, and in a gothic no one gets out unscathed – anyone who reads gothic romances knows there’s a basic ‘Beauty and the Beast’ narrative. Naïve heroine, mysterious yet darkly attractive gentleman, eerie house in the middle of nowhere. Suspicions mount of foul play. Shenanigans (supernatural or not) and creepy romance ensue. People die horribly.

Crimson Peak doesn’t so much update this trope as… well, drench it in blood, splash it with perfume, and smash it out of the park.

Mia Wasikowska has made the gothic ingénue her own, what with Alice In Wonderland, Jane Eyre and now Crimson Peak. The camera loves her, and she brings a believable courage to what could have been a weak, too-stupid-to-live heroine. Jessica Chastain is chilly and haughty and wonderful as the I-Wonder-If-She’s-Evil Sister. And Tom Hiddleston’s Sir Thomas Sharp is tortured and beautiful and… well, need I say more?

Surprises (as opposed to shocks) are not this genre’s speciality. So it won’t shock you to learn that {highlight this to reveal} the hero is a nutter from the start and so is his sister and they’re probably sleeping together and EVERYONE HAS BEEN MURDERRRRED. You know that part in Event Horizon, when you realise that not only is Sam Neill a blood-crazed lunatic, but he has been from the very beginning only you didn’t notice?? That.

One rarely finds a movie as lovingly made, and as visually beautiful. The haunted mansion is a dank, crumbling, windswept House of Usher, creaking and dripping with mould. The contrivance that gradually soaks the ground in ‘blood’ throughout the movie, giving the place its name – Crimson Peak – is brilliant.

But it isn’t only visuals that impress. You can smell this film, from the spectacularly rotting house to the vats of blood (yeah, you have to be there) to the dark, intoxicating romance-hero cologne that you just know Mr. Hiddleston is wearing.

I haven’t seen a movie like this since Francis Ford Coppola gave us Bram Stoker’s Dracula. That film was widely ridiculed at the time – why? probably because of the fashionable A-list cast – but decades later, it stands up, as the superb creature of dark romance and luminous gothic beauty it is.

May Crimson Peak do the same.

Jack o’ the Pumpkin, etc.

We kind of don’t really do Halloween in this country. “All Hallows Eve: when the worlds of the living and the dead collide!” etc..

Maybe it’s just a bit silly for Australians. Maybe it’s because when white settlement happened in Australia, they sent us a bunch of dissenters, heretics, atheists and other dirty troublemakers who didn’t believe in saints. I don’t know. I did see a few dressed-up people wandering around Brisbane last night – ‘Day of the Dead’-style face paint seems to be the cozzie of choice this year.

In any case, these days, Halloween seems more about candy and costumes than communing with the dead. But the real reason we wear scary masks and carve faces into pumpkins? To keep angry ghosts at bay. It’s a ritual designed to keep the dead where they belong. We’re quick, they’re dead, and they want what we’ve got.

The old Irish tale of Jack of the Lantern – as in, Jack o’ Lantern, the face in the pumpkin? – tells that cunning Jack, a thief and a conman, tricked the Devil into promising not to take Jack’s soul at his death. But then Jack dies, and he’s too sinful to go to Heaven.

So Jack has nowhere to go. And now he’s endlessly wandering the earth, looking for the place where lost souls go, lighting his way with an ember from the flames of Hell that will never, ever go out. A gift from the Devil, who thinks Jack’s fate a fine joke, thanks very much, and that’ll teach you to mess with me.

It’s the old cautionary tale of the curse of immortality. Plucky Jack learned the oldest lesson in the book: cheat death at your peril. Walking the earth forever, finding no resting place, denied not only life, but the peace of dying… it’s a fate worse than death.

In paranormal romance, we LOVE this. We can’t resist a lost soul. Our immortal vampires are outsiders, stuck forever in time while the world rushes on by. Fallen angels, too, cast out from heaven, cursed to walk the earth in that eternal in-between place, neither damned nor saved. Demons, who can never be good, no matter how hard they want to.

It’s a heartbreaking, desperately romantic notion. But what I love most about cursed-to-walk-the-earth stories? The cursee has a choice. You can give up, and wallow in your own misery for eternity. Or you can get up, find a purpose, and get on with it, even if it seems hopeless.

That’s what’s cool about Jack of the Lantern – he doesn’t give up. He doesn’t curl up in a beanbag and cry into his beer. He picks up his lantern, and walks on, looking for the place where lost souls go. Because one day, just maybe, he’ll find it.

Because raging against the darkness is better than flickering out. You’ll never cheat fate if you don’t try—and isn’t that what the Devil’s counting on?

So for this year’s Halloween, while we’re celebrating another year in the land of the living, let’s light a pumpkin for plucky Jack, who walks on, no matter what. You might be seeing him soon, bwahahar…

MOVIES: Macbeth (2015)

macbethDirector: Justin Kurzel
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Sean Harris
Verdict: a dark, compelling and watchable film. Understated, with grim, forbidding imagery and tension that builds.

Why isn’t there more cinematic Macbeth? Actors seem to be falling over themselves to do Hamlet – sorry, dudes, but Branagh did it and thereby was it done – and you can paper the walls with all the unnecessary versions of Romeo and Juliet – again, sorry, but Luhrmann said all there was to say and then some.

But the Scottish Play gets neglected. The last version I can remember was Geoffrey Wright’s violent Aussie gangland homage, with Sam Worthington in the title role. I really liked it, but it wasn’t a serious movie, right? (Basically it was Underbelly: Macbeth, for those who watch Australian TV. Subtitled ‘Mr. Worthington has great hair’.)

Maybe it’s because Macbeth himself is such an unpleasant character, who makes such bad decisions, and he’s difficult to make sympathetic. He’s damaged, but he’s single-mindedly bloodthirsty, too. And I guess you’d need to have a particular physicality to carry him off.

Enter this movie – with its depiction of Macbeth as a war-hardened general – and Mr. Fassbender, who achieves all those things with aplomb and presence. His is an understated performance, full of suppressed rage and confusion. The few times he lets any other emotion fly, it’s a genuine shock and hits the harder for it.

Ms. Cotillard is a terrific real-world Lady Macbeth, not a caricature or a simple femme fatale. And Sean Harris – who’s a fine actor, even if he’ll always be Micheletto to me – typically chews your nerves and makes you stare as Macduff.

The only slightly false note for me was the strange treatment of the banquet scene with Banquo’s ghost. It was oddly surreal and clashed with the rest of the movie, somehow. But only a minor bump. The ultimate fire-and-brimstone duel – the culmination of Macbeth’s descent into hell – is spectacular and like nothing I’ve seen before.

A good movie. Oh, and it has Bamburgh Castle in it, which is near where I used to live in the UK! The mid-to-north of the British Isles has a special quality of light and this film captured it beautifully.

IMDB listing
Telegraph review

My new blog!

Get a blog, they said. It’ll be fun. And there’ll be cookies.

So here I am. Still waiting for the cookies. But hey.

I’ll talk about books, and movies, and TV. You know, the really important things. I’m an historical fantasy author, so if it involves history or fantasy or authoring, chances are I’ll be consuming it.

SAM_1233If you like the same stuff as me – and even if you don’t – this should be fun!

Thanks for visiting! You get a picture of Warkworth Castle on a cloudy day. Because castles are cool, and that’s what the weather in Northumberland is like.

This keep was built by the 1st Earl of Northumberland in the 14th century. This guy was a crony of the eventual Henry IV (at least for a while; this earl was a master turncoat) so a lot of this castle-building business in Northumberland was basically a dick-measuring contest between the earl and John of Gaunt, who’d put up his own castles around the area and needed to be put in his place.