Dead Travel Coach

Crimson Peak: written by Matthew Robins and Guillermo del Toro; directed by Guillermo del Toro; starring Mia Wasikowska (Edith Cushing), Jessica Chastain (Lucille Sharpe), Tom Hiddleston (Thomas Sharpe), Charlie Hunnam (Dr. McMichael), and Jim Beaver (Carter Cushing) (2015): Guillermo del Toro delivers a love letter to Edgar Allan Poe, Gothics, haunted houses, ghost stories, and the 1950’s and 1960’s horror movies of Hammer Studios and Roger Corman. Oh, and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Rebecca. “The Turn of the Screw.” “The Beckoning Fair One.” And a whole lot of others. Also, a guest appearance by Buffalo, New York. 

The production and costume design are extraordinary, colour-super-saturated in the manner of many of Corman’s Poe adaptations while also supplying the requisite amount of decay and disintegration. Mia Wasikowska is solid as the late-19th-century American woman who chooses the wrong English guy, Tom Hiddleston conjures up some Vincent-Price-like morbid empathy as he plays that wrong guy, and Jessica Chastain is sinister and loopy as the wrong guy’s sister. 

There are even elements of steam punk in Hiddleston’s clay-digging machine, and a tribute to Sherlock Holmes (and creator Arthur Conan Doyle, fully name-checked in the narrative) in the person of Charlie Hunnam’s opthamologist/ghost-hunter/amateur detective. 

There’s nothing subtle about the movie — it wears its metaphors on its brightly coloured sleeves. All this, and the ghosts — as in the del Toro-produced Mama — are stunningly creepy, a triumph of visual effects and the imagination of del Toro and his designers. This movie isn’t for everybody. The build is just a tad slow in the first half, while in the second half del Toro pulls away from the cataclysmic finale antecedents such as “The Fall of the House of Usher” have primed us to expect. Highly recommended.

The Innocents: adapted from the Henry James novella “The Turn of the Screw” by John Mortimer, William Archibald, and Truman Capote; directed by Jack Clayton; starring Deborah Kerr (Miss Giddens), Megs Jenkins (Mrs. Grose), Martin Stephens (Miles), Pamela Franklin (Flora), Peter Wyngarde (Quint) and Clytie Jessop (Miss Jessel) (1961): Director Jack Clayton’s adaptation of “The Turn of the Screw” is also an adaptation of a stage play based on “The Turn of the Screw.” The play supplies many of our governess-protagonist’s speeches, which Deborah Kerr pretty much nails — though I’d always pictured Miss Giddens as being much younger than Kerr was at the time of her performance.

The set-up is simple and direct. A governess is hired to take care of the two orphaned charges of their uncle. They reside at a country estate. Miss Jessel, their previous governess, died under mysterious circumstances, as did the estate’s head groundskeeper Mr. Quint. But the longer the governess stays at the estate, the more disturbing the circumstances become. The children begin to behave strangely once older brother Miles returns, expelled from boarding school for unnamed acts. The governess starts to see strange figures and hear strange noises. But the cook doesn’t see or hear any of these things. The Uncle in London doesn’t want to be bothered with anything to do with the children. The governess is in charge of the household. What will she do?

The movie doesn’t really answer the faulty either/or binary posited in much of the 150 years of literary discussion about “The Turn of the Screw.” Are ghosts haunting the governess’ two young charges or is everything in her head? The movie, like the text itself, evades the binary and instead works best with both possibilities existing simultaneously. They’re not mutually exclusive.

The Innocents manages to create a genuinely creepy atmosphere through direction, cinematography, sound, and the occasionally unnerving performances by the two child actors. There are a couple of ‘Gotcha!’ moments that involve the sudden appearance of a specter, but for the most part the movie relies on a gradual accumulation of distressing details.

Two changes from the original text limit some of the film’s possibilities. “The Turn of the Screw” was told as a narration inside a narration decades after the events of the story; the movie omits this construction. James’ original forces the reader to consider the fact that the governess went on being a governess for decades after the events of the story while also parenthesizing the entire story inside the governess’ own telling of it, recounted to another person decades later. The movie also tries to be a bit more overt in explaining why Miles got expelled from boarding school, limiting the more unnerving possibilities of what Miles is capable of — and of what Quint and Jessel subjected he and Flora to.

The whole thing works very well, though it is occasionally a bit mannered. Both the supernatural and the psychological work within the movie to gradually build a sense of dread. The acting is fine throughout, from the salt-of-the-Earth cook to Kerr’s increasingly freaked-out governess to the two preternaturally coy and manipulative children. Highly recommended.

Re-Animator: adapted from the H.P. Lovecraft novella “Herbert West, Re-Animator” by Dennis Paoli, William Norris, and Stuart Gordon; directed by Stuart Gordon; starring Jeffrey Combs (Herbert West), Bruce Abbott (Dan Cain), Barbara Crampton (Megan Halsey), David Gale (Dr. Carl Hill), and Robert Sampson (Dean Halsey) (1985): Richard Band’s score channels Bernard Herrmann’s score for Psycho as Vertigo-riffing opening credits zip by.  Then we get this weirdly faithfully unfaithful adaptation of a novella that H.P. Lovecraft essentially wrote on a dare and considered complete schlock uncharacteristic of all his other stories.

Schlock and grue and hyper-violence and nudity are all in writer-director Stuart Gordon’s wheelhouse. Indeed, Re-Animator would help make his name and his studio’s name as a creator of enjoyable, bloody, violent, witty, and low-budget horror movies. Gordon on less pulpy Lovecraft fare such as “Dagon” or “The Dreams in the Witch-House” — not so good. Gordon on Re-Animator, From Beyond, or the Re-Animator sequels? Just fine.

I had forgotten the lamely acted romantic plot that weighs down parts of this movie. Really, I’d forgotten Bruce Abbott and Barbara Crampton, the ostensible leads of the movie, completely. Jeffrey Combs as Herbert West and David Gale as Dr. Carl Hill are the real stars, along with a whole lot of resurrected dead people, mobile body parts, and extremely angry resurrected cats. Gordon throws blood and guts around, but he does so with wit and a fair idea for what makes a horror movie gross and funny even as it occasionally verges on disturbing the viewer. I’ll be damned if I completely understand part of the climax, though: sometimes a little exposition is a good idea.

Jeffrey Combs holds the screen whenever he’s on it, which is never enough. He certainly captures the gonzo spirit of Lovecraft’s obsessed Resurrection Man. And Gale is a hoot, never moreso than when he’s menacing people while his head is separated from his body. The splatter effects are cheerfully bright, as is West’s day-glo-green Resurrection Fluid: in reality, the liquid from inside a glowstick. Recommended.

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