Crimson Peak: Shake, Rattle and Ooze

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BEWARE–this review is full of spoilers.

Crimson PeakCrimson Peak is an okay ghost story about an American girl (with money) who marries an Englishman with a title, an old mansion, and a sister who likes poisoned tea and meat cleavers. Like the new bride on arriving at her new home, we find lots of motifs (the cold, the ratty mansion and more red than a mall at Christmas) but little in the way of scares, at least from anything supernatural. Yes, I know there were some moments where the undead plowed through a hallway carpet and rose from a vat of what looked like some super red preschool paint. The thing is, these devices don’t have the same effect anymore. The yawning death grin of Norman Bates’ mother scared the popcorn out of 1960’s audiences, but some times, and I’m talking to you, Guillermo, less is more.

I really enjoyed Mama, del Toro’s previous horror effort, but Mama, the actual ghost, with her absurdly elongated chin and little manic eyes looked like someone’s blind date nightmare. Much, much scarier was an earlier film of del Toro’s, The Devil’s Backbone. That one was truly eerie. Not only was the little boy ghost with a head of blood floaties like nothing I had ever seen, but the buildup to certain scares have stayed with me. Since I saw it for the first time, I avoid looking through keyholes.

One thing I’ve learned from watching Crimson Peak and Mama, del Toro’s latest scare-fests is if you’re the star and you die and come back from the dead, you get to be a good-looking ghost. In Mama, Nicolaj Coster-Waldau plays twins. One kills his wife and attempts to kill his children, and he dies as Mama’s first victim. One would assume, given his deeds, the dad would look like quite the troll in the afterlife, but noooo—he just looks sad.

The ghosts of all three victims of Crimson Peaks’ murderous brother and sister team, lost anything that might make them appealing and kept everything that rattled and oozed as they stalked poor vacant Edith (Mia Wasikowska). When she was a child, Edith’s dead mother appeared shortly after the funeral looking like a tar-drenched mummy with Halloween chattering teeth, ten-inch spikey fingers and wearing a funeral dress borrowed from Scarlet O’Hara’s Aunt Pitty Pat. So after being stalked by a number of gross looking ghosts, Edith tries to address what is eating (pardon the pun) the shades.

Alas, she discovers the truth. It’s murder and she’s next! But it’s complicated—She and Thomas (the brother) are in love and he’s having second thoughts. When sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) discovers that she and her brother Tom are no longer exclusive as a couple, hell hath no fury like Chastain. Seriously I would never want to have a fight with Jessica. She’s almost as manic here as she was in Zero Dark Thirty. A very fine actress, she steals every scene. And like every imperiled Victorian damsel, her old American boyfriend (Charlie Hunam—none of these actors are American other than Chastain), who makes it just in time to feel Lucille’s steel, saves Edith. Lucille, who makes quick work of the boyfriend, decides to teach Tom a lesson by shoving a knife through his face, and Edith has had enough. She takes Sister Dearest down, by whacking her with the business end of a shovel. Though the brave boyfriend, thanks to Tom, survives, Tom does not and his ghost distracts Lucille long enough for Edith’s shovel to make it count. And his ghost, looking rather gray, with blood floaties around his head, makes sad eyes at his soon to be out of there and on the way home bride. And for the star, Hiddleston’s ghost, there were no chattering oversized teeth and no head parts with a gaping hole where your brains once sat. And Lucille? There’s not a hair out of place nor is there a bow untied as her ghost plays the piano. They wouldn’t dare.

In The Haunting of Hill House, what walked there, walked alone. And we never saw it. It was one of the scariest novels I ever read and the 1963 film, made of it, The Haunting, was incredibly creepy. During the 1999 remake, there were tons of scary special effects and each over-the-top one detracted. Though I love a good monster and a good acid-dripping alien, when it comes to ghosts, less is more.

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Skull Island: A Review

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Grumble in the Jungle

Spoilers!!!

Skull Island is a new twist on King Kong.

I’ll just say it: If I were Kong, I’d sue for defamation of character. Written by screenwriters, Dan Gilroy (Night Crawler, The Bourne Legacy) and Max Borenstein (2014’s Godzilla), it is the second film by director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (The Kings of Summer). This new Kong is not the 1930’s beast beguiled by beauty or the misfit ape competing with Jeff Bridges for Dwan (Jessica Lange), nor is he the monster intrigued by Naomi Watts’ soft shoe. On Skull Island, Kong, who walks upright like Chuck Norris, is Clint Eastwood’s get-off-my-lawn curmudgeon of Grand Torino.

Cover image Skull Island

IMDB Skull Island image

When old enough, I often stayed up late to watch the 1933 version on Saturday nights.

Despite the wooden acting, the surreal jungle and Kong’s terrifying entrance always pulled me in. The sexual undercurrents of Kong’s attachment to Dwan is all I remember of the eighties version. I found Peter Jackson’s effort moderately entertaining, especially the Jurassic Park dinos. I enjoyed it more on DVD; the huge bugs weren’t nearly as gross.

On Skull Island, it isn’t Kong who loses his freedom; there’s no tragic fall. Instead, humanity might fall.

Waiting within the earth are monsters that can wipe us out. It begins with a WWII dogfight. Planes weave and dive above a sandy shore. When two crash, pilots, an American and a Japanese, struggle out of the wreckage. As they fight, something huge rises on the other side of a cliff; it’s Kong.

The scene fades into 1973. The Viet Nam War is ending.

Monster hunters Randa and Brooks (John Goodman and Corey Hawkins) plan a trip to a mysterious island. Randa believes that someday, monsters will emerge from the earth and kill us all if we’re not ready. And oh, yes—they’ll need a military escort.

In Viet Nam, Lt. Colonel Preston (Samuel L. Jackson), who hates to lose, prepares to leave.

A mission to a dangerous island could take the sting out of defeat. Along with tracking specialist Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and photographer, Weaver (Brie Larson), Preston and his men board a ship and sail to the island. Nearing the island’s mysterious clouds, the explorers pile into helicopters to scout. More helicopters will meet them later.

Ala Apocalypse Now, ‘70’s music blasting, helicopters drop bombs. Testing the depth of the island, they discover Randa’s “monster.” It’s Kong who reacts with a “who left the screen door open” glower. Unprovoked, Preston attacks and bullets fly. Kong bats the choppers away like giant flies. When they all crash, soldiers die. Preston vows revenge. He and his surviving men will pursue Kong on foot.

Conrad’s group (Weaver, researchers, etc.) looks for the rendezvous site, wandering through arid terrain that pales in comparison to the dreamy jungle of the original or the bug infested nightmare of Jackson’s movie. The American pilot (John C. Reilly) of the opening scene, a chatty eccentric, appears and introduces them to the locals, a National Geographic tribe of mutes who taught him how to avoid the island beasties.

Don’t mess with Kong, he warns; Kong fights the monsters. It’s all a misunderstanding, you see. Like Walt, the old man in Grand Torino, Kong defends the neighborhood by removing the undesirables.

While Preston seeks revenge, Conrad’s group, including the pilot, scramble for safety. Flesh-eating wildlife dine on several before the rest are rescued. Preston’s plans do not go well, especially for Preston. Kong lives to grumble another day.

Despite its A-list actors, I was glad to leave Skull Island. I didn’t care who got eaten.

And the monsters? I’ve read several reviews of this movie. Many describe them as innovative and scary. Maybe it’s just me; I couldn’t connect to the story enough to be scared. I missed the sticky hot jungle. I wanted dinosaurs, not a weird buffalo, giant daddy-long-legs or skeletal things that looked like dead possums. I wanted a huge wall hiding terrible things.

There was one thing I liked. I’ve always wondered where Kong came from, meaning: did he have a family?

Was there a Mrs. Kong, a Kong clan? Skull Island takes us to the Kong family plot. Kong, we’re told, is the last one. Is this the last of Kong? I hope not. If not, lose the daddy-long-legs and bring back T-Rex or even Godilla. Bring back the stop-motion charm of Faye Wray’s lovesick ape. Most of all bring back the mystery; bring back the wonder.