(On Cable TV, July 2016) Every so often, a movie manages to make me happy by sheer force of execution. Given that Crimson Peak is Guillermo del Toro’s return to dark fantasy in the vein of El Espinazo del Diablo and Pan’s Labyrinth, it’s not a surprise if the film is a sumptuous success in terms of atmosphere and visual design. Never mind the simple but satisfying story, the movie’s main set-piece is a decaying British manor in which snow falls through a hole in the roof, red clay oozes from the floor and vicious winds make the house creak and breathe. Crimson Peak is Gothic goodness pushed to a delirious limit, and the film is an eye-popping visual feast from beginning to end. The story may be predictable, but it acts as a decent framework for the atmosphere and the images, with capable supporting roles by Jessica Chastain (playing against type), Tom Hiddleston and Mia Wasikowska. Still, the real star here is del Toro, orchestrating lavish production values, fine-tuning his script until even the one-liners click and infusing a mature approach to genre elements in a unique mixture. Much like his previous dark fantasy films, Crimson Peak isn’t quite a horror movie, isn’t quite a ghost story and isn’t quite a Gothic romance: it’s a blend of elements that somehow fit together in a way that pays homage to a tradition without being slaved to it. It plays with tropes, gets much better in time (the first half-hour is hit-and-miss, but once the film makes it to the manor, it kicks in a different gear) and doesn’t let plot simplicity in the way of packing a lot of layers, call-backs, foreshadowing and allusions. If this review feels slightly giddy, it’s because I’m writing it still under the influence of the film—it’s a terrific piece of work, the kind of which gets essential at a time when all blockbusters are made for mass consumption. Crimson Peak may not be for everyone, and that makes it even better.
(Video on Demand, October 2013) For many people of the geeky disposition, Pacific Rim reads like a dream project: Fan-favourite writer/director Guillermo del Toro, perhaps one of the most imaginative filmmakers around, taking on both the entire tradition of Japanese kaiju films, and blending it with the mecha subgenre… with a decent budget for once. What’s not to like? And, for much of its duration, Pacific Rim does deliver on its premise. It’s a big blockbuster spectacular, made by someone who loves the genre(s), knows how to make a crowd-pleasing film and approaches the premise with a welcome blend of optimism and determination. The first ten minutes, if it wasn’t for the flat narration, are almost a model for delivering a ton of exposition without undue strain. Pacific Rim requires a significant suspension of disbelief to set up its premise (extra-dimensional monsters are one thing, but giant robots controlled by two mentally-linked people are a tougher sell when nuclear-tipped cruise missiles seem so much more appropriate) but the way it sells a fully-realized world affected by years of kaiju incursion is a good way to ease in even the most nitpicky viewers. Where the film loses points, curiously enough, is in its depiction of monsters-versus-robots combat: For all of ILM’s eye-popping work in setting massive fights in complex environments, it’s not hard to look at the Hong Kong sequence and wish for longer, wider shots and the opportunity to fully take in a sequence rather than the visual confusion made by the neon lights, rain and quick cuts. (This may be an unavoidable issue when hundred of special effects technicians slave for months on the same sequence: the temptation to add more, more, more visual detail may be irresistible, but it works at the viewers’ disfavour when it results in an overdesigned sequence.) In terms of sheer spectacle, the film also peaks at the three-quarter mark. Even though nominal star Charlie Hunnam couldn’t be blander (about a dozen other actors could have done the same, or better), del Toro gets good performances out of his other actors, with a bit of special praise going to Rinko Kikuchi as the emotional center of the film, Charlie Day in a surprisingly compelling comic performance and Ron Perlman for being, well, Ron Perlman. Pacific Rim is a good film, albeit one that I wish could have been great. Del Toro has done terrific work here, but a little bit more oomph could have carried this even further.
Morrow, 2009, 401 pages, C$34.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-06-155823-8
Any review of Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan’s The Strain can start from an embarrassing number of attention-grabbing hooks: The celebrity stunt-writing aspect; the resurgence of the evil-vampire breed; the post-9/11 New York setting; the first-book-in-a-trilogy angle. They all compete for attention, obscuring the fact that the book reads like an average middle-of-the-road horror novel with techno-thriller overtones.
It would be easy to focus exclusively on Guillermo del Toro, who’s one of the finest genre horror director currently working. Few others combine his rich fantastical imagination, his writing abilities and his strong visual abilities. But his obvious influence on The Strain seems limited to two things. First: how the vampires have a striking similarity to the ones in del Toro’s own Blade 2. Second, how his name alone seems to have added 5$ to the book’s cover price for a shoddily-made hardcover. Otherwise, one would assume that the book has been written in more or less the same way as other celebrity collaborations: Ideas and concepts from the celebrity, actual writing from the below-the-line writer.
The resurgence of the evil vampire as an antagonist is only noteworthy thanks to a blip in popular culture that, from Lestat de Lioncourt to Edward Cullen while passing through a good chunk of the paranormal romance genre, has momentarily de-fanged the vampire in quasi-genre literature. One notes, however, that most of this vampiric denaturation has occurred at the borders of the genre, and not too often within horror itself: The “return of the evil vampire” was never needed for core horror fans. Still, del Toro and Hogan make no secret of what they’re trying to do in this novel: As vampires land in Manhattan, it’s time for a zombie epidemic scenario featuring blood-suckers.
The post-9/11 setting offers a few more interesting critical opportunities, especially considered within the book’s techno-thriller affections. From the Dracula-inspired opening sequence in which a Boeing 777 lies immobile on the JFK tarmac with only four survivors left inside, The Strain co-opts some of the techno-thriller tricks to heighten its depiction of an initial vampire outbreak. We get short chapters alternating between many narrative viewpoints. We get tons of historical and technical details weaved into the fabric of the story. We even get historical flashbacks explaining back-story, familiar characters, one-off vignettes in which the viewpoint character ends up dying horribly and use of landmark locations in action set-pieces. (Or, as it happens, the use of former landmark locations in action set-pieces.)
It may be familiar, but it works well: The opening sequence is creepy in part because it explains so patiently how official authorities would react to a supernatural mystery. The picture that del Toro and Hogan end up creating of modern New York feels convincing, and does much to distinguish this novel from others in the same pack. The use of thriller plot mechanics also allows the story to tackle a bigger canvas than other horror novels, which is practically a necessity in this avowed first volume of a trilogy that seems headed for global apocalypse.
This potential for scope and breath, however, remains the most distinctive element of a novel that remains overly familiar in its other aspects. If the vampire/zombie hybrids feel as if they stepped out of Blade 2, the human characters also seem to come out of Central Casting: Give me an overworked divorced scientist, a wizened holocaust survivor and a level-headed blue-collar worker! The entire narrative thrust of the novel is just as ordinary, down to the convenient “kill the head of the vampires and the rest will die” plot device. The inevitable ending is also predictable from the moment we understand that this is the first volume of a trilogy.
The good news are that the first volume does set up a promising follow-up, and that the novel is solid enough to please horror fans looking for an uncompromisingly gory take on the vampire genre. The Strain is forthright enough to announce that the two other volumes in the trilogy, The Fall and The Night Eternal, will be forthcoming in June 2010 and 2011. Hopes are that they will take the story in more original territory.
[October 2010: The Fall is a decent follow-up in that it continues the story is pretty much the same way, using pretty much the same characters and monsters. While the apocalyptic atmosphere is stronger, the techno-thriller detailing isn’t as strong. Traditional narrativus interruptus is typical for a second-volume-in-a-trilogy. Recommended for fans of the first book, although it won’t make new converts to the series.]