Review of The Castle of Otranto

castleofotrantoI’m willing to bet that the following themes are all too familiar – Kingdom vs. Kingdom. A despotic Prince.   Underground passageways. A fleeing princess. Knights on the hunt. Dire prophesies.  A castle haunted with phantoms. Have I listed enough clichés?

All of these motifs are found in Horace Walpole’s novel “The Castle of Otranto”. But let’s give the guy a break. After all, he wrote this piece back in 1764.   Long before George R. R. Martin had his Game of Thrones, sooner than J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, previous to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, prior to Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolfo, Walpole wrote this fantasy novel about a time long ago (even in 1764 it was a period piece); a time of knights and kingdoms, princesses and perils, all wrapped up in a story that is sprinkled with ghosts and other supernatural phenomena. Mind you, he had his predecessors. Shakespeare was writing of kingdoms and ghosts and the 16th and the stories of King Arthur and The Knights of the Roundtable date back to the 11th and 12th century. However, Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto is credited as the very first gothic novel.

What does it mean to be the first “gothic novel?” Well let us see what the with the fine men and women of wikipedia.

According to Wikipedia, the novel, establishes:

“many of the plot devices and character-types that would become typical of the Gothic: secret passages, clanging trapdoors, pictures that begin to move, and doors that close by themselves.”

But what makes this novel standout among other fantasy and frightful novels of its time is its unique method of blending the fantastic with the mundane. Supposedly in the late 1700s, stories of the supernatural were considered “old school” (They probably had a different term for it, but you catch my drift).  Modern tales of romance and adventure were allegedly devoid of such supernatural themes and focused more on believable foes and realistic conflicts.  By mixing the two literary strands, Walpole establishes what has come to be a defining theme for Gothic literature – traces of the past making their way into the modern world. Looking at the gothic haunted house stories that come later, this theme bears out over and over –  curses born in the past that claim the lives of future generations, justice for sins committed long ago coming for the heirs of the original sinner; ghosts returning from the graves to haunt the living.

Wadpole, a British politician, was a fan of the ancient medieval period, so much so that he had a castle built to replicate a palace of yore. It’s called Strawberry Hill House and it still stand today, although it has gone through much renovation. In writing “The Castle of Otranto,” Wadpole tried to imitate the style of speech from the medieval era. In its initial publication, Wadpole included a preface that made is seem as if his tale was an ancient one, written in the sixteenth century.

Fascination for the ways of yore, nostalgia for periods of we never knew – this is at the heart of Gothic literature. What are ghosts but fanciful beings from times long gone!

So, how much of this novel is dedicated to ghosts and other things that go bump in the night? I’d say there is a smidgen of these elements. Maybe more.   Phantoms and other mysterious things pop in and out of this story. Lord Manfred, a ruthless tyrant, arranges a marriage between his son Conrad and the maiden Isabella in order to unite two kingdoms. However, before the marriage is to take place, a giant helmet falls from nowhere and crushes him. Paranormal event #1.   Lord Manfeld then takes it upon himself to have Isabella as his own. But not if she can help it. She flees through an underground passage. Lord Manfeld chases her while the painted image of his grandfather flees the portrait and interferes in the chase. Paranormal event #2.

More story follows, but I’m not going to go into much detail. There are battles. There is a love story, and there are more supernatural events; inhabitants of the castle see a giant foot that occupies an entire room, a specter in dark clothes kneels before an altar. Some of these occurrences are rather bizarre to say the least.

As to the claim that this tale deposits the supernatural into “realistic situations”, I don’t really see it. I’m not saying that this isn’t happening. It’s just that I am so far removed from the writing style of the eighteenth century and I’m a complete novice when it comes to the “ordinary, day to day life” of the royal classes of medieval society. Therefore, I’m not attuned to the supposed “realism” that is going on here. “Realism” to me is a Stephen King story, where there might be a guy in a baseball cap chomping down on a Mars candy bar at gas station and sipping his bottle of Dr. Pepper, all while speaking in local slang.   In Wadpole’s work, the characters speak in a theatrical style.  Formal, long-winded salutations seem to invade nearly every sentence of the dialogue.  The heroes and heroines always have the noblest of intentions.

I can’t say that this novel thrilled me to death. The story is fair. However, I did learn a lot from reading the book and doing research for this article. I have a better understanding of the foundations of gothic literature and I have learned a great deal about the evolution of literary styles. For this I am thankful. And onward I will go, digesting more works within the Gothic genre. Some I will like, others not so much. But I look forward to the rewarding experience. You too can have such an experience. Just pick up a book and read, read, read!

 

Dracula’s Castle

draculabandn2I am a sucker for those hard cover, classic-bound books that are published by Barnes & Noble. I have several, and last autumn I purchased another – Dracula and Other Horror Classics by Bram Stoker. For the first time, this sucker (me!) finally read about the most noteworthy “sucker” of all (bloodsucker that is!)  – Dracula, the most famous of all vampires.  I enjoyed the novel considerably, especially the first four chapters. I relished them in the same way a vampire relishes blood! For it is in these chapters that the reader is lured into the vampiric crypt of Dracula’s Castle. I went down into this crypt ever so willingly!  But first things first.  Vicariously, I began my trip to this malevolent fortress.  Through the wooded Carpathian Mountains I rode with Protagonist Jonathan Harker via horse and carriage. I took in the chilling surroundings; the high mountains, the dark trails, and the glowing lights.  I listened to the howling of the wolves. Finally, there it was – The Castle of Dracula, off in the distance, challenging the heavens with its height.  Soon I would be inside its domain! I couldn’t wait.  I went inside and the excursion was only beginning!

This piece you are reading is not a review of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.”  Instead, the focus will be on Dracula’s Castle as it exists in both fact and fiction.  I will examine the characterisics of this castle along with the themes that arise from its stories. In the end we will be left with a setting that is saturated with delicious gothic gloom!

(So then, why not just write a review of the novel, or even the Dracula movie, and in that review, describe this “gloom”?) 

Good question.  The answer is: I am not sure if Dracula’s Castle qualifies as a haunted house. (All the reviews are of haunted house stories, afterall.) There are no ghosts in this tale. Likewise, there is nothing supernatural about this castle aside from the creatures that dwell within. Remove these creatures and the castle is just another fortress of stone and relics. For the most part, the history of the Castle (in the fictional story) is hidden from us. We can only guess at any ghastly misfortunes that might have played out inside this domain over its many years of existence. If the “spirits” or “disembodied emotions of past dramas” still cling to the castle, they do so only vaguely at best; there are no details that describe such “spirits,” certainly not enough for one to say that the castle is haunted by them.

And yet, Dracula’s Castle cries out for special recognition. It stands among its peers (i.e. other famous haunted houses and castles) proudly, and in some cases towers over them. Its influence on the haunted house genre is great. Likewise, it has made a huge impact on popular culture.  There are many haunted attractions worldwide that have borrowed its title.

(Here for instance. https://www.queensland.com/en-us/attraction/draculas-haunted-house

And here http://www.darkinthepark.com/Niagara/niagara4.htm)

It has spawned many movies, television stories and novels , not to mention video games. Castles in Eastern Europe are in competition as to which one can rightfully claim to be the “real” Castle of Dracula. They are open to tours and on some occasions, they welcome overnight guests.

Now that I have established the literary and cultural relevance of Dracula’s castle, let’s begin our examination of its finest, most ghoulish elements. We’ll start where the preceding paragraph ends – with the real Dracula and his castle (or castles.)  The vampiric count of Stoker’s novel is based on Vlad Tepes, a fifteenth century voivode (or ruler) of impaleWallachia, an historical region in what is now Romania. He was also known as Vlad III, Vlad Dracula, The second son of Vlad Dracul (or Draculesti). However, his most famous and notorious alias is Vlad the Impaler. According to wikipedia:

“Vlad the Impaler is said to have killed from 40,000 to 100,000 European citizens, (political rivals, criminals, anyone he thought to me “useless to humanity”) , mainly by impaling…… Impaled up to 100,000 Turks.”

According to Sparknotes.com, Stoker discovered Vlad while studying Romanian history.  He chose to name his villain after him, and even suggested (in the novel) that Count Dracula is a descendant of Vlad.

Vlad’s reigns of terror occurred in the late Middle Ages, but even these “late” medieval rulers had their castles.  Vlad resided in Poenari Castle in the region of Wallachia. draculascastle.com claims this to be the “real” Castle Dracula, since it was the domain of the real historical ruler.  However, Stoker did not have this castle in mind when he wrote his novel.  Sources contend that it was Bran Castle , also in Romania, that captured his attention and inspired his vision for the fictional castle.

From the Washington Post:

“Images of Bran Castle supposedly reached Bram Stoker, the 19th-century Irish author of “Dracula,” who drew inspiration for his famous work from travelogues and sketches by British diplomats and adventurers in what was then Wallachia (modern-day Romania).”

Today, Bran-Castle is a tourist attraction. Recently, arranged by AirBnB , Bran-Castle opened its doors to guests for an overnight getaway. This was not an average bed and breakfast affair. Guests were treated to a carriage ride, dinner, and nice snug sleeping arrangements – inside coffins!

Watch the promotional video:

Take a virtual tour of the castle here:

http://bran-castle.com/

Pictures outside and inside the castle.  Pictures are from  dailymail.co.uk :


So far, I have presented an historical context for Dracula’s Castle and have offered pictures, along with links to videos and websites. Let us hang on to this knowledge and retain these images in our minds as we reexamine the castle through a prism of Gothic horror. By the light of his vivid imagination, let’s unlock the palace doors and tour “Stoker’s castle.” Let’s navigate through a darkness that’s irresistible to fans of horror fiction.

Bram Stoker did not invent the gothic haunted castle. He followed in the footsteps of many of the greats. (Like Horace Walpole, for instance, author of 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto, which is said to be the first Gothic novel). But he was a great asset to his genre. As sparksnotes points out, his work “spawned countless imitators, and scores of horror films owe a debt to the simple but powerful repetition of Stoker’s “doors, doors, doors everywhere.”

When reading the “doors, doors, doors everywhere” phase in full context, the effect is incredible.

“The castle is on the very edge of a terrible precipice. A stone falling from the window would fall a thousand feet without touching anything! As far as the eye can reach is a sea of green tree tops, with occasionally a deep rift where there is a chasm. Here and there are silver threads where the rivers wind in deep gorges through the forests. But I am not in heart to describe beauty, for when I had seen the view I explored further; doors, doors, doors everywhere, and all locked and bolted. In no place save from the windows in the castle walls is there an available exit. The castle is a veritable prison, and I am a prisoner!”

Stoker effectively instills a scene that is both picturesque and horrific. He lends to us a feeling for what it might be like to be locked inside such a towering structure; to be above such a beautiful yet isolating landscape.

Some time ago, I wrote an article called Ghostly Grounds: Explorations Outside of the Haunted Houses of Film and Literature. In the article, I explain how the external environment of haunted houses is significant to the stories within this genre. It gives the reader a sense of place, sets the mood, and can even reveal key plot points. Stoker is quite generous when it comes to describing such an environment. From the cultural accounts within this foreign region to detailed descriptions of the darkened landscape, Stoker transports his readers into a chilling world, all while preluding to a terror that will unfold at the Castle.

We first learn of Count Dracula and his gloomy castle from the journal of Jonathan Harker. He is a lawyer from London and he makes his way to Transylvania in order to do buisness with The Count. While London in a triving urban center, Transylvania is a region insulated from modernization; it is a land of superstitious mountain people.  On the road toward the castle, he hears the warnings of these people as they cry out in their language, “Satan! Hell! Witches! Vampries! Werewolves!”  He heeds not their warnings and goes deep into the wooded Carpathian Mountains.  His coach driver seems uncanny and mysterious.

As they make their assent, they travel through tunnels of trees. The wind is wild and tree branches are “smashing together.” Harker is quite unnerved.  He hears the howling of wolves. There are mysterious blue flames here and there among the trees.

Finally they arrive in the courtyard of the castle. Harker has some telling notes in his journal:

“In the courtyard of a vast ruined castle, from whose tall black windows came no ray of light, and whose broken battlements showed a jagged line against the moonlit sky.”

“I stood close to a great door, old and studded with large iron nails and set in a projecting doorway of massive stone.”

“A key was turned with the loud grating noise of long disuse, and the door swung back”

The Count greets Harker politely. He is carrying and antique lamp from the days of yore. Its flickering flame casts scary shadows on the wall. The Count carries Harker’s bags, and they travel up a flight of winding stairs; a trope for many haunted house stories yet to come. In these stories, characters are climbing to unknown heights all while tension is escalating. The same thing is occurring here.

They travel through many stone passages. The echoes of their feet fill the halls. Adding to this sound are the songs of the wolves that creep in from the outside.

Soon they arrive in a set of rooms that are, perhaps, almost comfortable for Harker. There is a warm fireplace, a table with food and Brandy. There is a library with books on all subjects; history, geography, politics, political economy, law, botany. The curtains and upholstery are centuries old.

In short, The Count makes Harker feel welcome. He is a well-read man of great knowledge. The two have interesting conversations. But soon a sense of unease will take Harker over. Fright is not far around the corner. The Count’s startling eccentricities are beginning to show.  He is absent during the daytime, never to be found. One evening, he has some rather bizarre things to say about the castle.

“Let me advise you, my dear friend – nay, let me warn you with all seriousness that should you leave these rooms you will not by any chance go to sleep in any other part of the castle. It is old, and has many memories, and there are bad dreams for those who sleep unwisely.”

Here are some of the vague references to the history of the castle that I had alluded to earlier in the essay; to the “spirits” of dramas past. But these aren’t ghosts that the count is warning Harker about. There are others living with the Count in the castle; other vampires.

In the daytime, Harker wanders the corridors and finds many locked doors. The main doors to get outside are locked as well. He is trapped in this dreadful castle. Once a man who was comforted by The Count’s hospitality, Harker is now fretful, afraid of his own shadow.

Sparknotes sums up this transition very well:

The tone of Harker’s journal changes with amazing rapidity as his stay in Castle Dracula progresses. In the course of a single chapter, Harker feels stripped of the robes of honored houseguest and considers himself bound like a prisoner. Here, Stoker demonstrates his mastery of the conventions of the Gothic novel: evoking the ruined castle, the beautiful but overpowering landscape, and the mounting sense of dread.

From Harker’s own words:

“I am beginning to feel this nocturnal existence tell on me. It is destroying my nerve. I start at my own shadow, and am full of all sorts of horrible imaginings. God knows that there is ground for any terrible fear in this accursed place!”

Harker thinks he has found relief when he stumbles upon a somewhat enchanting room. He discovers it via a secret passage that leads to a staircase that takes him to a lower floor.  Hidden passages – another staple of gothic and haunted house lore. If the story is suspensful, the reader anxiously awaits to discover where it leads and what it reveals.  Stoker writes with suspense, very effectively so.

The room he finds relaxes him. It smacks of a woman’s touch. There he falls into a trance-like sleep. He awakens to the sight of three young and very pale women that seem to materialize right out of the moonlight. They descend on him, and Harker experiences this attack as if he were in a dream. He thinks he sees The Count behind them commanding them to retreat. The next thing he remembers is waking in his own guest bed back in the wing he had left.

Harker wanders again and discovers a stone passageway that leads to a circular stairway. Down, down down he goes – to the crypts!

From Harker’s journal:

“At the bottom there was a dark, tunnel-like passage, through which came a deathly, sickly odor, the odor of old earth newly turned…….as I pulled open a heavy door which stood ajar, I found myself in an old, ruined chapel, which had evidentally been used as a graveyard.”

There he finds fifty gray boxes – coffins! In one coffin lays the count, immobile, eyes wide open.

What becomes of Jonathan Harker? Does he escape the castle?  Read the novel and find out.  Read as Jonathan looks out the window and watches The Count descend the outer walls of the castle as if he were some kind of reptile. Read as Jonathan, from the same window, sees the pale women out in the forest below hunting for blood.

Only the first part of the novel is centers around Dracula’s Castle. But it is by far my favorite section of the story. How can a Haunted House guy like me not relish such chapters?


How about the Movie?

There are crypts below the castle. Smoke rises from the earthen ground. Rodents hide behind coffins, of which there are several. A rat crawls inside one and hides amongst the bones. Three ladies creep out of three of the coffins. They walk slowly toward their master – Count Dracula.  draculamovie4

This scene occurs early on in the 1931 Dracula  film, before the protagonist enters the castle. Grisly foreshadowing at its finest! The scene lets the viewers know that Count Dracula’s (played be Bela Legosi) visitor, Redfield, is about to walk into a snare.

The movie and the book differ on many points. I prefer the book. In both platforms, my favorite chapters/scenes center on Dracula’s Castle. So let us now examine the Castle through the eyes of the camera.

It is a foggy coach ride toward the castle. Eventually, Renfield arrives at the castle and stands before its giant door. It opens on its own accord with an unnerving creak.

The room he enters is humongous. It is old, dark and gray. The ceiling is propped with pillars. There are stone chards on the floor. And there are spider webs. They freely blanket every platform in sight. There are bats fluttering about outside of the windows.

Renfield notices a wide, L-shaped staircase. He watches as Dracula descends the staircase. He is holding a large candle. It is the only light in this dismal place. He welcomes Renfield draculamovie and instructs his guest to follow him – back up the stairs. Wolves are howling in the background and Dracula comments “what beautiful music they make!”

There is a wall of cobwebs crossing the stairway. Whereas Dracula is able to pass through without destroying it, Renfield must slash it apart with his cane. A huge spider runs for cover.

Dracula leads Renfield to a dining room. There is a candelabra, a knight’s armor and a fireplace. In the background, a door is opening and closing with a moaning creak.  Dracula excuses himself and makes for the door. It opens on its own accord.

Renfield is alone now. What is to become of him?  See the movie and find out.


 

draculabandn

 

 

Dracula’s Castle – an icon of horror, one of the most frightful fortresses of lore. Although, due to some minor technicalities, this castle might be cheated out of the title “Haunted,” it is nevertheless one of the most terrifying castles of literature and cinema. Borrowing from the most brutal tales of times past, Stoker created Dracula, the world’s most famous vampire.  Since every great villain needs a lair, he gave him a castle which he took from the pages of history. He reassembled it inside his novel and filled it with bats, coffins, and other creepy things.

Both in fact and fiction, the “Castle of Dracula” is legendary. It has earned its respect. So I came to the conclusion that I needed to pay homage to it somewhere inside this blog.

The scope of its influence extends outside the pages of literature and beyond the frames of film. A mere review of the book or movie would not suffice. Therefore I gave it its own theme; its own article. I hope I have done it justice.

Review of The Haunting of Gillespie House

Haunting of Gillespie HouseThere are occasions when a novel helplessly succumbs to the tropes of its stated genre. Page after page is littered with overused themes.  They reach out from these pages and smack the reader across the face.   “Look at me! Look at me!” they shout from in between the lines, “Look at me and let me lock you inside every literary device that I the author I can conjure up from the catalog!”  Conversely the opposite is also true.  Like a summer wind that blows across an ocean beach, the familiar and expected can be refreshing.  If a story is imaginative and well written, then the proverbial themes within will wrap the reader in nestling comfort as s/he settles on in to the story.  Such is the case with Darcy Coates’s The Haunting of Gillespie House

 

This beautifully written piece features a large house in the countryside. Protagonist Elle agrees to stay and watch over this house while the elderly owners (Mr. and Mrs. Gillespie) go away on a trip. The house is shrouded with mystery and intrigue.  There are locked rooms with hints of activity occurring behind the doors. Peculiar scratching-noises are heard within various walls.  The third floor contains rooms with beautiful antique furniture strangely hidden away. Certain revelations lead to the conclusion that there is a secret passage somewhere in the house. But where is it?

The grounds surrounding the house have their share of intrigue as well. There is a hidden cemetery with gravestones of Gillespie family members dating back to the 1800s. All of them have the same year of death inscribed into the stone, which alludes to the fact that some kind of horrible tragedy was responsible for these deaths.  Fast forwarding to current times, Elle discovers that deadly misfortune has also plagued the surviving members of the Gillespie clan – poor Mr. And Mrs. Gillespie have recently suffered through a sad set of circumstances.

As I made my way through this creepy and enjoyable journey that is the book, I was reminded of the thrills I experience when I play graphic adventure video games. These games are usually non-linear and there are plenty of puzzles to be solved along the way. (See MystShivers, and Amnesia: The Dark Descent . The last two are Haunted House themed games.)

For those not into gaming, I hope that I have not cheapened The Haunting of Gillespie House by making this comparison. But for me, the association is appropriate because both platforms inspire suspense as I travel though the various mediums anxiously wondering, “what is behind door # 6?”

The Haunting of Gillespie House – the tone is inviting, the descriptions are colorful, and the writing is superb.  Do I have any complaints?  Minor ones, mostly concerning the length of the story.  This is a long novella.  I wanted more – I wanted a novel.  The ending is somewhat abrupt.  I felt there were seeds to more story planted here and there. With just a little more nurturing they could have developed into something great.  However, it turns out that The Haunting of Gillespie House had already outgrown its original intent. Darcy Coates states in her after word that this tale was supposed to be a short story.  It ended up being much too long to fit within the boundaries of the short story format as unintended themes manifested and grew. This happens quite often when writing a story.  So she had to let the story grow into its preferred outcome. I think there could have been more, but who am I?

As a bonus, Coates includes a short story entitled The Crawlspace for readers that purchase her ebook. This story is what was left behind when The Haunting of Gillespie House grew to big for its bridges. When I say, “left behind”, I do not mean to imply that this story is a collection of discarded material. Rather, it is the youngling that The Haunting of Gillespie House was destined to spawn from. Keep in mind though, that it is a different story altogether.   It’s a good story too.

Overall, I highly recommend this book. This well-written piece is a page-turner.  While The Haunting of Gillespie House does put readers in a somewhat uncomfortable state of wanting more, it also leaves behind a desire to explore more works from Darcy Coates.

 

Review of The Others

The Others

If I were to make a list of my ten favorite haunted house films, I would say that The Others would make the top five.  I first fell in love with the film a decade ago. I re-watched it the other night to see if the sentiments were the same. On second viewing, I liked it even more.

It is a period piece, set during World War 2 on British island off the coast of France. The film takes place at a creepy manor that sits within acres of fog-filled foliage.  It utilizes gothic themes artfully. Thankfully, the film substitutes shock and gore for suspense and mystery. The story itself is absorbing from beginning to end.

The film brilliantly sets up a haunting environment when the lady of the house Grace Stewart (Nicole Kidman)  introduces three new servants to her home.  She has a peculiar set of instructions. The house has many rooms, all of which have lockable doors. No door must ever be left open! When entering a room, the door must immediately be shut and locked. That way, the light of one room will not escape into the other. Why is this an issue?  Grace’s two children are photosensitive; allergic to light. Therefore, all the windows are covered with drapes to prevent any invading sunlight.  The servants are shown a grand piano and they are told that never must the children play with it. Grace suffers from migraines and so noise is kept to a minimum. There are no phones, no radios. In fact, the house had no electricity.

the-others-nicole-kidman-scaredSo – you have a large, isolated house on a remote section of an island that is surrounded by gardens and fog; a house that is kept gloomily dark and eerily silent without any devices to connect its occupants with the outside world.  What else could there be to make the situation anymore creepier?  How about a religious zealot of a mother that tells her children stories about little boys and girls that go to Limbo after they die, which is at the center of the earth where there is fire, and they live there in pain forever and ever – all because they told lies.

But wait, there’s more.  Remember earlier how I said that doors inside the house must remain shut and that the windows must stay covered and that the piano must not be played?  Well, these things never remain closed, covered and unused.  Who is opening door, uncovering the windows and playing the piano, ghosts?  Perhaps. One of the servants has an explanation for this:

Sometimes the world of the living gets mixed up with the world of the dead.

 

A mighty strange trio these servants are!

the-others - Servants

 

There’s Mrs. Mills the nanny,  Mr. Tuttle the gardener and Lydia the mute maid.  They know things that others do not.

 

This film brilliantly adds its own unique twists to the scenarios it borrows from the gothic tradition. To explain how it does this would be giving too much away. I won’t do this. This is one of those films gets better and better as the mystery unravels.   However, I will point out one scene in particular that perhaps is forgotten after the film is over but ought not to be (The scene stuck with me only after the second viewing).  At one point, Grace is convinced there are intruders hiding in the house, disturbing the dark and quiet environment. She has the children hide away from the the-others-Windowslight while she and the three servants search the house. They open all the curtains to bring the dark corners to light.  The sunlight beams through the windows one by one.  Different shots of the house’s interior literally “come to light”;  a long hallway, a room with a clothed table sporting an oil lamp, a den with a fireplace, walls with tapestries and murals. All of these things are common décor in haunted house movies, but in The Others, it is the light that brings out the creepiness within them, not the dark.

What more is there to say? It’s a great film. It’s refreshing that a film of such classical scares was made on this side of millennium, just squeaking in at year 2001.  Makes a guy hopeful for the future!

 

Review of Crimson Peak

crimson-peak houseWhen I heard that the writer and director of Pan’s Labyrinth was writing and directing a haunted house movie, I got excited. I looked forward to seeing the latest film from visionary Guillermo Del Toro. I couldn’t wait to see “his” ghosts; freed from his imagination and set loose on the big screen. To these ends, my wishes came true on Tuesday night, Oct 27.  My visual appetite was satisfied, as was any desire I had concerning flair. It was a stylish film indeed.  But alas, something was missing.

Let me being with what I liked about Crimson Peak. I liked the atmosphere. I liked the gothic manor and all its intricacies, seen and unseen. I liked the winding staircase and cage-like elevator. I like the unfinished roof and the atmospheric snow that flowed continuously into the house like background waterfalls.  I loved all the props – the candelabras, the portraits, the piano. The music is appropriately haunting.  The ghosts are great. Silky and spooky; they are like no ghosts I had ever seen on the screen.

I liked the overall tone – the Victorian/Edwardian formality in dress and speech. The Crimson-peakfilm transported me out of the theater and into a different time period without any turbulence.  It was nice to see a shout out to those glorious horror films of yore.

And the film is rich with symbolism. It’s poetic.

So much is good about the film. So it disheartens me to say that I left the theater feeling slightly underwhelmed.  Why is this? It was the slow and unpromising plot. Actually, cancel that word “unpromising.”  It was promising. The problem was that it made promises but failed to deliver upon them.

It teased out mystery where there was none. It built up false suspense and while the story didn’t leave viewers hanging, in the end it seemed to shrug apologetically for the fact that there was never a reason to hang at all.

It is difficult to provide examples without trudging into the storyline. But I don’t want to reveal too much, although the risk of spoiler contamination is very low. The young and handsome Thomas Sharpe arrives to New York from England with his sister. He is an opportunist and he tries to convince Carter Cushing to invest in technology that he has developed for mining clay. Carter turns him down. So Thomas and his Crimson Peakmysterious sister will go back England, but not until Thomas woos away Carter’s daughter Edith.  Carter does not trust Thomas. He says that there is something unlikable about him but he can’t explain what it is.  But at least Thomas is friendly and charming, unlike his sister who is cold and expressionless.  Thomas marries Edith and the three return to England to live in the spooky old mansion on top of Crimson Peak.

crimson-peak-trailer

Here’s a hint as to how the suspense works in this film: if a character has a hunch (like Carter has with Thomas), he is probably correct. If a person appears evil, the person is evil. If there were a butler in this film, then the quip “the butler did it” would surely play out (There is no butler in this film.)

One might say, “Okay, so it’s a straightforward film. What’s wrong with that?” What’s wrong is that it starts viewers out on arcane paths, only to merge them into a plain old narrative of narrow storytelling.  If you want to tell a straightforward, what-you-see-is what- you-get story, that’s fine. But don’t lead the viewers on with secrets and hidden histories.  There are many examples of this kind of leading, but I won’t mention them, because I guess even a letdown can be a spoiler.

Imagine receiving a present. Not only is the wrapping paper beautiful, but there are bows and bells and pieces of candy attached to the box as well. Peel away all this and you find that the design of the box is appealing too.  Inside the box there are decorative tissues and fluffy coverings that feel soft against your fingertips.  Remove this covering and you find – tube socks.  Happy Birthday.   If this were a terrible movie with absolutely no depth, then my analogy would be a bit different. It would entail dazzling wrappings on a crappy, empty box. But it’s not terrible, it’s just, well, it’s tube socks.

Let’s end on a mostly positive note as I focus in on the ghosts. I’ll call this the “good, the blah, and the good again”

  • The good – The ghosts looked good. The CGI worked to the film’s benefit. The ghosts didn’t come off as cartoonish. They looked genuinely creepy.
  • The blah – We didn’t learn much about the ghosts. They were just sort of “there”, part of the background. Yes they scared the wits out of poor Edith on several occasions. But they didn’t contribute all that much too the overall workings of the story.
  • The good again – Kudos for allowing viewers the time to take in the ghosts! They didn’t flash rudely on the screen as did the ghosts of other modern ghost movies such as The Haunting of Connecticut  and the remake of Amityville Horror. Rather, they traversed slowly and creepily. They peered around walls. They peaked out of closets.  THIS is what “scary” is all about.

crimson-peak-crawl

So that’s about it. I really, really, wanted to like this film. And I guess I did, but I just couldn’t bring myself to love it.