The Cinematic Squared Circle: Goosebumps vs. Crimson Peak

Despite familiar stars and multi-million dollar marketing budgets, Hollywood films are ultimately victims of circumstance. The very nature of critical assessments and (more importantly) box office returns forces movies of often very different breeds to do battle for the hearts and minds of the movie going public. In this second entry of “The Cinematic Squared Circle”, we will be taking a look at the horror comedy Goosebumps and the gothic-romance Crimson Peak.  Being October, the two films in question[1] use the month’s presence of Halloween as a selling point for exciting, spooky fun. But this chamber of horrors has only a single throne for one ghoulish entry, as the other must take its place in an inescapable crypt down below. Two movies enter. One may just leave with their life.

  1. Round One- Literary Pedigree:

Goosebumps, adapted from the series of horror novellas of the same name, looks like an inevitable nostalgia move from Columbia Pictures in the midst of the industry’s young adult boom. Zach Cooper (Dylan Minnette) and his mother Gale (Amy Ryan) move to the sleepy town of Madison, Delaware, only to discover that famed, best-selling author R.L. Stine (Jack Black) and his teenage daughter Hannah (Odeya Rush) are their reclusive neighbors. After Zach strikes up a friendship with Hannah, he and his wing-mate Champ (Ryan Lee) accidentally unleash the classic Goosebumps rogues gallery (stored within Stine’s original manuscripts) onto Madison. Stine teams up with the teens to recapture his once fictional creations before the small town is destroyed.

All things considered, this premise is an ingenious way to represent the beloved 90s anthology series in 2015. This meta approach allows kids from the 90s to take a trip down memory lane while allowing their children or younger siblings a chance to acquaint themselves with these forgotten freaks. It would have been interesting to see Goosebumps adopt an anthology film that drew a narrative through line across the various vignettes. However, director Rob Letterman[2] and screenwriting duo Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski[3] understand that a property such as this would hardly award ambition. Stine’s original books were fairly straight forward genre efforts that never strayed too far ahead of its adolescent readers. As an adaptation, the film makes its own Goosebumps yarn from the standards the playground novellaist[4] perfected over twenty years ago.

Conversely, Crimson Peak is an “original” film from Guillermo del Toro that tells the story of Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), a young dreamer who wants to be a fiction writer than a stuffy, high society lady that her father and the established social mores would have her be. Edith falls in love with the British Sir. Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), with the two retreating back to Thomas’s estate of Crimson Peak after the mysterious death of Edith’s father. Edith quickly realizes something in the house is afoot, as ghosts from unknown origins haunt her throughout the creaky manor. Meanwhile, Thomas’s sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain), seemingly jealous of her new sister-in-law at every turn, plots to ensure that Lucille and her family fortune never leave Crimson Peak’s horrid halls.

Though Crimson Peak is a fresh concoction from del Toro and screenwriting partner Matthew Robbins, the film is deeply entrenched in a literary subgenre known as gothic romance. Examples like Jan Eyre, Frankenstein, and Rebecca emphasize the horrors of patriarchal systems of power while featuring occasions of feminine perspective. del Toro has said in numerous interview that his latest film intended to revive the style in a modern context, citing the melodramatic tone as being transplanted from the Old Hollywood films of the 30s and 40s.[5] Universal clearly thought marketing the movie as a straightforward horror flick instead of a more emotionally complex work would have proved to be more easily attractive for audiences.[6] Either way, it would stand to reason that some curious viewers will leave the movie looking for a more complex breed of generic storytelling. In this sense, a more ambitious Crimson Peak takes round one from a more formulaic Goosebumps.

crimson peak

Round One Winner- Crimson Peak

  1. Round Two- Comedy (Intentional or Otherwise):

The original Goosebumps books, as well as the TV show, always featured a twisted sense of irony, making the stories Twilight Zone-esque allegories for children. The new movie, however, is less subversive than it is jokey and physical. Still, I must admit to being surprised at just how much of the humor landed for me. Nearly every line that was intended to illicit laughter at the very least drew chuckles from me. The majority of this is thanks to Jack Black, who fully commits to the silly premise with a maturity that grounds an adventure that threatened to at points fly off the rails. You could imagine another version of this movie that featured Adam Sandler in the same role, trading Stine’s breezy exposition and authorial asides in favor of fart jokes and shtick as old as the very books being transplanted.[7] Thankfully, Black proves his comic movie stardom still has some juice.

The blood red Universal logo that opens Crimson Peak quickly signals that del Toro hardly has humor on his mind. While I can’t criticize the director for trying to make an un-ironic film, the relentless seriousness in which del Toro positions his characters in his dollhouse of horrors makes for absurdly out-of-touch filmmaking.  I understand that the melodramas that Crimson Peak was cribbing from made no apologies about the experiences they sought to create. Even so, the preposterous tonal shifts just make the movie seem silly instead of frightening. By the end, I heard various audience members laughing at the turn of events the third act decided to spiral into. If only Crimson Peak would have leaned into its campy atmosphere earlier could it have been more complete and entertaining experience.

Round Two Winner- Goosebumps

  1. Round Three- CGI Monstrosities:

It’s come to the point that CGI is quite simply a tool as present as actors, especially when it comes to these types of movies. As one would expect, both Goosebumps and Crimson Peak approach their digital tools in different ways. When it comes to the overall production design, Crimson Peak is top notch fare, as the dilapidated house feels like a dangerous, if fragile, environment.[8] However, the same authenticity cannot be attributed to the ghosts of the film. They more often than not feel like plastic decorations you would expect to see trick or treating in a neighborhood on Halloween night. It’s unfortunate that a director like del Toro who prides himself on practical effects couldn’t have come up with a more convincing look for the ghosts. Goosebumps, on the other hand, makes no qualms about using CGI at every available opportunity.[9] These otherworldly creatures, combined with the movie’s small town setting[10], felt like a callback to the monster movies of yesteryear that had no other intention other than to entertain nerds and make-out artists alike during a matinee showing.[11] Sure, Goosebumps‘s giant praying mantis isn’t going to have you suspending your disbelief but its self-aware cheesiness is part of the light hearted aesthetic.

crimson-peak-tom-hiddleston-3-1500x844

Round Three Winner- Goosebumps

  1. Round Four- What a Twist! (SPOILERS FOR BOTH MOVIES, SKIP TO THE END IF YOU WANT TO REMAIN UNSULLIED)

Like any dose of spooky fun, both Goosebumps and Crimson Peak feature third act surprises that try to turn the movies on their head. On par with the trend that has emerged, Goosebumps pulls ahead once again. Call me naïve but I found the revelation of Hannah being a fictional creation by her father to be a surprise. The fact that they snuck a twist it in on me in a movie I should have known was going to have one was quite a piece of sly execution. Her transformation into a real girl seemed oddly earned by the conclusion. Crimson Peak, predictably, was far less successful. Thomas and Lucille wanted to draw Edith into their snares to…subsume her family fortune? As it turned out, the siblings partook in an incestuous relationship that threatened to go stale with Edith’s presence, forcing Lucille to be even more vicious than you would expect from a bored, murderous chambermaid. Like Rebecca before it, Crimson Peak’s third act lets down the overall package by deciding to get a bit too twisty instead of trusting the luscious atmosphere to do the job. But Rebecca’s first two acts were so great that a weak third act was forgivable. Crimson Peak’s dreadful beginnings made its ending even more tired.

Goosebumps_10

Round Four Winner- Goosebumps

After an early win in round one, Crimson Peak fell far behind to Goosebumps, our champion for the second match of “The Cinematic Squared Circle”. In the end, a fun piece of spooky fun with a fair dash of nostalgia for good measure will always beat a boring, pretentious slog that has no idea which of half a dozen films it wants to be. Hopefully, del Toro remembers his earlier thrill rides Hellboy and Pacific Rim when crafting his next big budget effort. Likewise, here’s to hoping Sony don’t try to run a property into the ground by launching a mediocre franchise. Now that would be frightening.[12]

slappy

[1] Or at least their marketing.

[2] Family friendly helmer of such films as Shark Tale, Monsters vs. Aliens, and Gulliver’s Travels.

[3] Writers of such films as Ed Wood, Man on the Moon, and Big Eyes.

[4] Is that even a word? If not, I now decree that it is.

[5] http://www.ign.com/articles/2015/10/16/guillermo-del-toro-on-why-crimson-peak-is-not-a-horror-movie.

[6] However, it’s looking like even this approach proved problematic: http://www.forbes.com/sites/scottmendelson/2015/10/24/box-office-steve-jobs-opens-worse-than-jobs-suffragette-opens-soft/.

[7] In fact, Pixels from earlier this year (itself released from Columbia) showed that maybe audiences are even tired of Sandler-fueled trash.

[8] http://www.wired.com/2015/10/guillermo-del-toro-crimson-peak/.

[9] Strangely enough, the film was released under the Sony Pictures Animation banner, a curious decision that would seem to signal a comfort in the film’s digital interests.

[10] As well as numerous visual and dialogue references to The Blob.

[11] Speaking of which, Joe Dante’s Matinee (1993) is a really fun period comedy about a culture that would have been a joy to experience firsthand.

[12] But sadly likely.

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