Thursday, December 10, 2015

Crimson Peak vs. It Follows

I saw two horror films recently: the 'big' budget ($55 million) Guillermo del Toro flick, Crimson Peak, and a small ($2 million) indie flick called It Follows by David Robert Mitchell.

Crimson Peak feels like a Tim Burton film, with Gothic sets and steampunk machinery. Everything about it is highly stylized, and the film makes no effort at verisimilitude whatsoever. Young Edith (Mia Waikowska) falls for a charming, bankrupt aristocrat, Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), and is whisked away to his creepy, delapidated mansion, where she's tormented by his demented sister Lady Lucille (Jessica Chastain). If you thought your in-laws were bad, wait to you get a load of her...

The indie horror film It Follows, on the other hand, is so disturbingly down-to-earth in its approach it's the anti-Crimson Peak. Granted, being a low budget indie flick, it doesn't have much choice. But it turns these limitations into advantages. Set in Detroit, the story follow the romance of bland teenager Jay (Maika monroe) and Hugh (Jake Weary); unfortunately all is not as it seems. Hugh has an alternate agenda: to pass on an ambulatory, homicidal STD. Things get weird and creepy and disturbing from there.

Crimson Peak is filled with 'Characters' whereas It Follows is populated by people. It's almost like they shot documentary footage of a bunch of real kids faced with a horrible, preternatural stalker. The acting and dialogue are so naturalistic you don't notice the performances.

It Follows also doesn't shove archetypes down your throat. Sure, one of the characters is a bit geeky, another is more studly, but these traits are subdued, overshadowed by the character's common humanity. It feels amateurish, in a way, as if it was just a bunch of friends doing a movie together as themselves. But it is enormously effective, particularly for this genre. The audience needs to project themselves into the characters, to feel the peril they are in. 

Best of all, the characters all behave in a realistic manner, as people might when faced with similar circumstances. In other words, the complete opposite of The Walking Dead and more like The Thing.

There are a few things in It Follows that don't make sense if you really stop and think about it, but none occurred until after the film was over. Crimson Peak didn't make sense to me while I was watching it. It's big and bombastic, and the characters here are more cartoonish than real.

Larger than life archetypes are often necessary in film as you have to convey a great deal of information in a very short period of time. They serve a function. Yet the capital 'A' acting in Crimson Peak is jarring and ostentatious when contrasted with It Follows.

That being said, the characters are more interesting in Peak. They're overwrought archetypes, scenery chewing lunatics, even, and intentionally and amusingly so. Which is the very opposite of what It Follows is going for. Here the cast is deliberately ordinary, even bland. We learn little about them beyond what is strictly necessary for the plot. This faint glimpse into character is about what you'd expect to get if you only spent an hour or two with someone. Hints of traits rather than full reveals.

While It Follows does drag (a little) in the middle, Crimson Peak is a slog the whole way through. The outlandish period sets and costumes can't make up for the mess of a story. Mia and Tom have charisma, but it's harnessed to a dead horse here. Del Toro recycles elements from his earlier and much better film, The Devil's Backbone, as well, with severely diminished returns. Backbone, in fact, is my favourite film of his, before he went Hollywood and big studio.

The CGI ghosts of Crimson Peak are obviously digital creations, and that just neutralizes their fright factor. By comparison, It Follows is as primitive as it is powerful and effective.

Sometimes less is more.

Advantage: It Follows.

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