neath luna


Nobody asked me, but I’m increasingly fearful that Guillermo del Toro has jumped the proverbial shark.

I admit that I haven’t been completely satisfied by any del Toro film, although I recognize his skills and eclectic, wide-ranging sensibilities (I don’t like that phrase — maybe I will replace it). I allowed myself to get excited for Pan’s Labyrinth after hearing that it was inspired, at least in some ways, by Arthur Machen’s wonderful piece The White People … but short of the bravura sequence with the unsettling “Pale Man” (played by the ever-astonishing Doug Jones) I was left entertained but disappointed.

… and then there’s Crimson Peak, which I watched a year or so ago, and Nightmare Alley, which I just watched. In these two films, style has triumphed completely over substance, and shouts “look at me!” from beginning to end. Nothing in the writing or performing has a prayer of matching the candy-colored, comic-book-rich production design. I sense the baleful influence the MCU here. Do all our movies have to look like this?

I have a theater background, so suspending my disbelief is, honestly, old hat. The reason I recoiled from Crimson Peak‘s foundational “clay that is so red it looks like blood” myth had zero to do with plausibility, and everything to do with “this was a conscious aesthetic choice and boy, isn’t it convenient that this lurid, Gothic story has such a … well, I can only call it a ‘prop’”? It’s just so obvious. And the film keeps on hitting the viewer with this kind of thing: if memory serves, the ceiling over the main stairway in the mansion on Crimson Peak has given way, so that daylight shafts in from above … and in our first view of this, there’s snow falling, and so here’s another “boy, doesn’t that look amazing?” moment.

It does look amazing — gosh, wow — all of it. But I could not connect with any of the characters in any way. I suppose that could be my fault, but I don’t think so. I don’t even think it’s 100% the actors’ fault. There’s simply nothing that comes up to the level of the production design.

Nightmare Alley works slightly better, I think, and it may be because the source material is better (I want to see the 1947 film). I’m also inclined to say that the actors, here, do a better job than the ones in C.P.: in particular Richard Jenkins and Rooney Mara. I usually adore Cate Blanchett, but her performance here isn’t so much stylized as mummified, and I’ll be damned if her cheekbones don’t look like the result of CGI. In general, there is less of a sense that the performers are being upstaged by the scenery, but I still can’t get that interested in these people.

Let’s, however, pause and ask: how likely is it that a character as insulated, paranoid, dangerous and wealthy as Ezra Grindle (whew, what a character name) would have a side entrance to his garden that’s secured only with a rusty old padlock? Really? I wanted to shout at the screen. I know this is melodrama, but kee-ripes.

Finally just a word about facial injury. Del Toro seems to have a ‘thing’ for damage to the human face — not as all-pervasive as, say, Lucio Fulci’s penchant for showing eyes being damaged, but still there. A hard-to-watch sequence from Pan’s Labyrinth involved a character having the butt-end of a heavy bottle smashed into his face over and over and over — and in Nightmare Alley, Ezra Grindle’s face is pummeled into awful concavity (the camera treats us to the result, which feels gratuitous) by our {pro|ant}agonist. I do wonder why things like this come up the way they do: I’ve often wondered why, for example, actor Michael Ironside often performs film roles that involve having his arm or arms ripped off. I mean, what the hell?


I had formerly thought del Toro a better, or at least more interesting, film director than Tim Burton … but Crimson Peak left me with feelings similar to those I had watching Beetlejuice: looks great; not filling at all.

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