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Blu-ray Review: Mohsen Makhmalbaf: The Poetic Trilogy

Arrow Films brings three of director Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s films to vivid life with The Poetic Trilogy.

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Mohsen Makhmalbaf: The Poetic Trilogy

The pain that lingers beneath the surface of Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s “Poetic Trilogy” emanates from a careful melding of the cinematic image and the sociopolitical realities of daily life in Iran. Even something like the particular shade of sky blue that recurs in women’s clothing and textiles throughout 1996’s Gabbeh takes on greater significance if one knows that women at the time were prohibited from wearing or adorning themselves with such colors under the mandates of an oppressive regime. In this way, these films often convey a political perspective without dipping into explicit rhetoric that indicates them as speaking to, or about, a current state of affairs in Iran.

Nor does the “poetic” mean precisely the same thing in each film. The striking colors and compositions of Gabbeh stand in stark contrast to the low-grade digital images of 2012’s The Gardener, which explores religious devotion through the framework of a DIY, reflexive documentary. And 1998’s The Silence finds its own poetry in music and sound. Makhmalbaf conceives such remarkably distinct approaches to his own artistry, in fact, that the image itself belies a singular maker. These films resonate most as an experimental triptych testifying to the perseverance of its characters, whose circumstances oscillate between the stuff of myth and the idiosyncrasies of everyday life.

Gabbeh is the film in this trilogy that’s most formally aligned with what could be called modernist art cinema. The film’s title refers to both a type of Persian carpet and to a young woman, Gabbeh (Shaghayeh Djodat), who serves as the anchor for numerous subplots involving members of her family and her local community. Makhmalbaf focuses less on conventional narrative progression and conflict than on how Gabbeh’s outpouring of emotion through tears lends her a humanity that’s denied to her in everyday Iran. Shots of thread being cut, of carpets floating underneath water, and of flowers being plucked into real life directly out of paintings link art to life, suggesting artistry, whether of filmmaking or rugmaking, as a remedy for intolerance.

As Makhmalbaf lingers on the process of crafting textiles, the film brings to mind the ongoing debate in film theory over whether filmmaking should be understood as a craft or an art form. As conveyed in Gabbeh, craftsmanship becomes inseparable from artistry, so that Makhmalbaf’s resolving of his film’s plot also produces a reckoning with how contact with color through touch and sight might be both its own form of resistance to political oppression and an affirmation of the human condition.

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And if Gabbeh’s implicit linking of color and politics recalls Sergei Parajanov’s The Color of Pomegranates, then The Silence winks at such a reading by opening on a marketplace were pomegranates are sold. Though The Silence opts for a less ornamental color scheme than that of Gabbeh, it translates much splendor to the aural qualities on the soundtrack, as Khorshid (Tahmineh Normatova), a young blind boy, becomes obsessed with the transporting qualities of classical music. Like Abbas Kiarostami’s Where Is My Friend’s House?, the film sets a child’s pursuit of knowledge against a society that prohibits personal and artistic expression, so that Khorshid’s imagined conduction of an orchestra takes on multiple dimensions as a fantasy.

A documentary set within the Baha’i gardens in Haifa, Israel, The Gardener announces itself as a political work from the first shot, as Makhmalbaf and his son, Maysam, each operate cameras as they traverse the grounds. The film’s reflexive component is as overt as that of the credits sequence in Godard’s Contempt, with cameras traveling toward the (off-screen) camera shooting the film at hand. As such, The Gardener is as much compelled by the question of how filmmaking creates and shapes meaning as it is by the perspectives of its subjects, all of whom have devoted their life to religion in some capacity. Unfortunately, the poetic dimensions here feel sophomoric and overworked, with sequences of performance art and cringe-worthy poetry being recited (mostly in English) directly into the camera with utmost sincerity. Unlike the prior films in the trilogy, The Gardener gets stranded between theorizing its ideas and finding a perceptive, less literal means to put them into practice.

Image/Sound

The 2K scans of Gabbeh and The Silence showcase magnificent transfer work by Arrow Films. Colors, particularly reds and blues, practically leap from the screen throughout Gabbeh. There are no problems with fading or color balance, as each shade appears saturated in accordance with the 35mm internegative that Arrow used during the transfer process. The Silence boasts a sharp image, though some minor scratches and other damage are briefly glimpsed throughout the running time of both this film and Gabbeth. The Gardener is easily the least notable of the three image transfers, not least because the low-grade DV simply looks bad in comparison to the other films. Nevertheless, there’s no indication that the original image has been compromised on this release, as focus and color is consistent throughout. The soundtracks, variously in mono (Gabbeh, The Silence) and stereo (The Gardener), all project clean and distortion-free audio.

Extras

The highlight of this two-disc set’s extras is an hour-long interview with Mohsen Makhmalbaf conducted by critic Jonathan Romney, in which the filmmaker elaborates on the trajectory of his career beginning in the 1990s. He says that the first two films in the “Poetic Trilogy” are like his children and contextualizes them within the censorship laws of the time. Makhmalbaf also gets personal, detailing when he was physically tortured as a young man and how his grandmother believed that anyone who practiced the arts automatically went to hell. Despite the severity of the tropic of discussion, Makhmalbaf proves jovial and even lighthearted as he discusses what each of the films means to him. A commentary on Gabbeh by critic Godfrey Cheshire dissects the film’s political undercurrent and also weighs its realist photography against the usage of color as fantastical element. Also included is a brief archival interview with Makhmalbaf on The Silence, the original trailers for all three films, and a stills and collections gallery.

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Overall

Arrow Films brings three of Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s films to vivid life with The Poetic Trilogy, in what will hopefully be the first of several high-definition releases in North America of the Iranian master’s work.

Cast: Shaghayeh Djodat, Abbas Sayah, Hossein Moharami, Tahmineh Normatova, Nadereh Abdelahyeva, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Maysam Makhmalbaf Director: Mohsen Makhmalbaf Screenwriter: Mohsen Makhmalbaf Distributor: Arrow Video Running Time: 233 min Rating: NR Year: 1996 - 2012 Release Date: August 28, 2018 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Luciano Ercoli’s The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion

No fan or cinephile’s knowledge of the giallo would be complete without seeing Luciano Ercoli’s film.

4

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The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion

In the opening scene of The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion, Minou (Dagmar Lassander) lies in a bathtub, taking a drag from a cigarette, telling herself in voiceover that today she’ll give up smoking, whiskey, and pills. These objectives aren’t for better health; rather, as Minou further states, they’re meant to appease her husband, Pier (Pier Paolo Capponi). Minutes later, Minou contemplates an alternative to giving up her vices: telling her husband that she wants a divorce. Minou’s oscillation between appeasing her husband and breaking away from him neatly establishes the film’s attention to reality versus possibility. Since Minou neither stops indulging her habits nor tells Pier that she’s leaving him, the film generates an underlying tension regarding Minou’s ability to act on behalf of herself that extends beyond the basic plot points of blackmail and potential murder that recur within Italian gialli throughout the 1970s.

Although the screenplay by Ernesto Gastaldi and Mahnahén Velasco doesn’t make tensions between genders into a spoken theme, numerous scenes pit a woman’s word against an unbelieving man’s point of view. After Minou is accosted on the beach by an unnamed blackmailer (Simon Andreu) who claims that Pier is a murderer, she recounts the events to her husband, who immediately casts doubt upon the veracity of Minou’s story.

Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, from the same year as Forbidden Photos, is comparably absorbed by the (in)accuracy of eyewitness testimonies, though in that film’s case, the male protagonist is implicated as the attacker himself. Even Otto Preminger’s 1949 noir thriller Whirlpool, which also depicts men distrusting a woman’s perceptions, invests its dramatic stakes in whether or not that woman will be found guilty of murder. Conversely, director Luciano Ercoli emphasizes Minou’s role as a spectator to the deceit of the creditors and financiers who comprise Pier’s business. By eliminating the possibility of Minou’s being implicated in a crime, Forbidden Photos is able to take a playful, melodramatic tone that more fully explores the interior life of its female protagonist.

The film’s attention to Minou’s plight as a woman is redoubled with the appearance of Dominique (Susan Scott), whose liberated sensibilities free her from the anxieties about her body and sex that inform Minou’s apparently monogamous devotion to Pier. After the two become close, Dominique casually shows Minou nude photographs of herself as if they were mere snapshots from a summer vacation. Even when Minou realizes that her own blackmailer is a participant in Dominique’s photos, Forbidden Photos doesn’t get bogged down by its routine plot elements; while resolving the blackmailer’s identity and motivations are essential to the film’s resolution, Ercoli has more fun juxtaposing how the two women perceive themselves within the social fabric of ‘70s Rome.

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In a memorable shot, the pair have lunch on the roof of a high-rise café overlooking the sea. Dressed in similar hats, coats, and skirts, the pair bond over their experiences as women in a city filled with desiring men. Their relationship comprises the film’s true center, something Ercoli tips his own hat to with a closing aerial shot of the two driving around a Rome that seems renewed with possibilities both sexual and professional.

It’s difficult to view Forbidden Photos and not see Scott as its greatest strength—something Ercoli apparently agreed with given that he cast her as the lead in his next two films, Death Walks on High Heels and Death Walks at Midnight. Ercoli’s vision of the giallo provides a thrilling B side to Argento’s own—one that’s much more engaged with how women navigate the terrain of marriage, sex, and their own happiness, even if that means, as its seems in the end of Forbidden Photos, waving goodbye to men altogether.

Image/Sound

Arrow Video’s 2K scan from a restoration of the original camera negative abounds in image clarity; as with Arrow’s previous releases of Death Walks on High Heels and Death Walks at Midnight, colors pop and flourish throughout, with nary a texturing flaw in sight. Whether showcasing a wide shot of Rome or a close-up of Minou preparing herself for Pier’s approval, the transfer displays a remarkable attention to detail. Grain remains consistent and present throughout; while there are sporadic instances of image defects, they’re minor and confined to a small blip or a slight crack, likely the result of irreparable damage to the negative. The Dolby Digital track comes in both monaural Italian or English and does a commendable job of balancing Ennio Morricone’s memorable score with crisp dialogue and Rome’s street noise.

Extras

A host of fine extras is highlighted by a feature commentary from critic Kat Ellinger, who contextualizes the film within the giallo tradition. Most helpfully, Ellinger distinguishes between the “F giallo” and the “M giallo,” which are designations meant to indicate whether a film has a female or male protagonist. “Private Pictures,” a newly edited documentary featuring archival interviews with Susan Scott and Luciano Ercoli, elaborates on how the film came into being and the impact it had on each of their respective careers. The documentary also features new interview material with Ernesto Gastaldi, who went on the pen numerous other gialli throughout the ‘70s. Musician Lovely Jon hosts a tour of music from Forbidden Photos and other ‘70s Italian cult cinema, supplementing his informed perspective with facts and trivia from the era. The disc also contains an interview from 2016 with Dagmar Lassander, original Italian and English theatrical trailers, and an image gallery.

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Overall

No fan or cinephile’s knowledge of the giallo would be complete without seeing The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion, which receives a lovely Blu-ray transfer and a slew of informative supplements from Arrow Video.

Cast: Dagmar Lassander, Pier Paolo Capponi, Simon Andreu, Susan Scott, Osvaldo Genazzani, Salvador Huguet Director: Luciano Ercoli Screenwriter: Ernesto Gastaldi, Mahnahén Velasco Distributor: Arrow Video Running Time: 96 min Rating: NR Year: 1970 Release Date: January 15, 2019 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

A strong audio-visual transfer makes the long-awaited arrival of Cristian Mungiu’s Palme d’Or winner to Blu-ray well worth the wait.

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4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, Corneliu Porumboiu’s 12:08 East of Bucharest, and Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days all advance the notion that time is of the essence in Romania. Set in 1987, two years before the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu, Mungiu’s Palm d’Or-winning film has the urgency of a ticking bomb. Like The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, the snarl of red tape sticks to everything, and while the tone here is less sarcastic, the cumulative effect of the film’s long shots—triumphs of concentrated minutiae and heightened performance—are every bit as haunting.

Luminița Gheorghiu, who appears in the film in a small role, passes the humanist baton of The Death of Mr. Lazarescu to Anamaria Marinca, who transforms the desperate struggle of her character, a college girl trying to help her roommate secure an abortion, into a stirring expression of female solidarity and empathy. Twice Otilia (Marinca) is told that her tech major will keep her from “being sent to the country”; she’s heard it all before, and the look on her face suggests a girl both used to and resentful of having to navigate the cruelties of a bureaucratic system. Much of the story follows Otilia as she tries to secure a hotel room for her friend, Gabita (Laura Vasiliu), and the film derives its disconcerting power from startling shifts in perspective and understated collisions of personality, as in the suffocating dinner conversation at the home of Otilia’s boyfriend, Adi (Alexandru Potocean).

Masters of horror should marvel at Mungiu’s canny deployment of red herrings: the pocketknife swiped by Otilia out of the abortionist’s briefcase in sudden fear, and the ID left by the man, Mr. Bebe (Vlad Ivanov), at the hotel’s front desk, whose method of operation suggests that of a torture program. Otilia and Gabita’s fear of being caught shapes every frame, though abortion isn’t so much the subject of the film as it is a jumping-off point. Like The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, which is only outwardly about the difficulties of securing health care in modern-day Romania, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is an allegory that speaks to the struggles of freedom fighters gripped by the terror tactics of a political machine.

Image/Sound

Criterion’s color grading stays true to the drained palette of Oleg Mutu’s cinematography. The transfer is crisp across the board, highlighting the textures and acute visual details found throughout the film’s settings. The crumbling exteriors of buildings, cracked walls, and dimly lit hallways take on a vivid, expressive quality that further amplifies the increasingly horrific circumstances that the characters’ find themselves in. The 5.1 surround soundtrack cleanly presents the film’s dialogue, while discrete, off-screen sounds creep into the mix nicely, helping to convey a disconcerting sense of unease in several scenes, especially during the chaotic family dinner sequence at Adi’s house.

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Extras

The beefiest extra here is an interview with film critic Jay Weissberg, who helps to contextualize the rise of the Romanian New Wave by charting the history of the Romanian film industry from the Nicolae Ceaușescu years through to the post-revolution period and into the 21st century. Weissberg’s historical perspective is augmented by his astute observations on the use of the long take in recent Romanian cinema, asserting that it’s an aesthetic strategy used to unflinchingly present horrific truths when examining personal morality in a society that had dehumanized its citizens for so many years. Weissberg also briefly touches on the work of filmmaker Lucian Pintilie, whose films remain little known outside of Romania, citing him as a significant influence on Cristian Mungiu and his contemporaries.

A lengthy new interview with Mungiu touches upon everything from the director’s very personal inspiration for 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days to the various ways he honed and perfected his aesthetic strategies throughout the making of the film. Mungiu is dry and direct, but he’s also humorously self-effacing at times, particularly when expressing his disappointment in how the film’s opening shot turned out. The complete Cannes press conference allows Mungiu to further expound on the cinematic techniques employed in the 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, and the reasons behind them, as well as address his controversial decisions, such as various red herrings and graphic, disturbing images that garnered much debate upon the film’s release. Actors Laura Vasiliu, Vlad Ivanov, and Alexandru Potocean also field questions here, but Ivanov is the only one who clearly and confidently expresses his opinions on his character’s questionable behavior.

The 15-minute featurette “The Romanian Tour” tracks the film’s reception in small Romanian towns, but offers little in terms of insight aside from stressing the dire shortage of theaters outside of Bucharest. Also included, in a fold-out booklet, is a fine essay by NPR’s Ella Taylor, who examines the myriad ways that Mungiu slyly satirizes Ceaușescu’s Romania and shrewdly presents a case that the demeanors of the film’s protagonists, Otilia and Gabita, represent “two poles of personality shaped by totalitarian rule.” The disc is rounded out with a deleted scene and two alternate endings, each of which offers a more explicit peak into Găbița and Otilia’s personal lives, both before and after the day on which the film takes place.

Overall

The Criterion Collection’s release of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is a tad light on extras, but its strong audio-visual transfer makes the long-awaited arrival of Cristian Mungiu’s Palme d’Or winner to Blu-ray well worth the wait.

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Cast: Anamaria Marinca, Laura Vasiliu, Vlad Ivanov, Alex Potocean, Luminița Gheorghiu, Adi Carauleanu, Liliana Mocanu, Tania Popa, Teo Corban, Cerasela Iosifescu Director: Cristian Mungiu Screenwriter: Cristian Mungiu Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 113 min Rating: NR Year: 2007 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak on Arrow Video

Guillermo del Toro’s gothic romance receives a significant packaging upgrade from Arrow Video.

4.5

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Crimson Peak

Crimson Peak may be the quintessential Guillermo del Toro film, as it compresses his fetishistic attention to detail into a single looming set where creaking floorboards, scores of dying moths, and the frequent intrusions of mutilated ghosts are just pieces in the giant dollhouse where the director merrily plays. The combination of gothic ghost story and harlequin romance doesn’t break new ground for either genre, but the intensity of Brandt Gordon’s art direction and Kate Hawley’s costume design reinforce the innate connection that period romance and horror share in how these genres so purely express their most profound ideas through ornate style.

Amusingly, the action of the film’s first act, the gamesmanship of high society’s courtship rituals playing out in well-lit parlors, is no less tense than the story’s eventual retreat into the dark confines of Allerdale Hall. The most dominant sound effects in these early scenes are the gasps and mutterings of New York’s nouveau riche as English nobleman Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) ignores the pampered bachelorettes trotted out before him. Instead, he homes in on the bookish Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), an aspiring horror author and the only child of a self-made magnate (Jim Beaver) from whom he seeks financing for mining equipment. Del Toro films a scene of Thomas and Edith waltzing for a gathered crowd of elites, all while trying to keep the flame from the candle they grip in their hands from going out, as if it were a circus stunt, the couple’s willingness to dance in front of a wall of judgment akin to performing acrobatics without a net.

Such flourishes are almost subtle despite their intricate blocking and rich color palettes, but when Crimson Peak finally arrives at the Sharpe family home in remote Cumberland, del Toro indulges his most freewheeling whims. Allerdale Hall itself appears to have been hand-carved out of blatant symbols: the dulled seafoam-green wall paint that points to its overgrown ruin; the dank corridors lined by ominously spiked stone pillars and arches; and the gnarled architecture, with rooms that intersect so erratically with other chambers that they become entangled with one another. Rot has claimed the roof, letting dead leaves and, eventually, snow coat the long-faded grandeur of the foyer. Meanwhile, the blood-red clay that Thomas mines from the property seeps up through the floorboards, occasionally giving the house the impression of bleeding from ripped-open sutures.

So precisely defined is every aspect of Allerdale Hall’s physical decay that even the people who dwell within it feel more like conduits for the manse’s soul than independent agents. If Wasikowska’s surprisingly fortitudinous naïf is meant to recall Jane Eyre, Hiddleston’s version of Rochester comes not from Charlotte Brontë’s classic tome, but the revisionist version found in Wide Sargasso Sea, a feckless brute who maintains a veneer of respectability just long enough to nab a wife he can exploit to boost his own faded status. Hiddleston’s best performances always hint at a bit of sleaze beneath a show of welcoming charm, and the hunger that fills Thomas’s eyes whenever talk of money arises lays bare the sham of his romance from the start.

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Jessica Chastain outdoes him, however, as Thomas’s even more mysterious older sister, Lucille, her face frozen in resentment and given to mirthless, thin-lipped smiles only in moments of extremely rare generosity. Perpetually clutching a set of ornate keys in her hands, Lucille is at once a judging matron, jealous sibling, and pitiless overseer. If Thomas embodies the house’s self-loathing and revulsion, Lucille is its unrepentant pride—neither the hole in the ceiling nor the sinking floor, but the decorated walls and lavish furnishings that stand defiant to the reality of their obsolescence.

Compared to the siblings, Edith lacks a memorable hook, and Wasikowska doesn’t get the chance to pore over her character the way that Hiddleston and Chastain do theirs. Nonetheless, most del Toro films feature a proxy for the director, and Edith’s ghost-seeing bookworm fits the bill here. As in the director’s other films, the supernatural is both real and imagined, clearly having a direct impact on a character’s surroundings while also pitched with sufficient ambiguity that some encounters suggest projections from the mind. Del Toro typically plays that line for maximum fairy-tale effect, but Edith’s tendency to continue to believe in the fundamental romance between herself and Thomas puts her in as much danger as her openness to the paranormal prepares her for the eventual confrontation with the truth of her new family.

Del Toro’s decision to explicitly underline the weaknesses of his proxy in Crimson Peak belatedly exposes prior stand-ins as equally shortsighted, and in the process the director clarifies a crucial thematic through line of his filmography. In retrospect, his fantasies are the opposite of escapes from harsh reality: It’s the real world, with its war and discrimination, that intrudes on the imagination, which can conjure up impressively detailed creatures and settings, but often struggles to map the complexities of emotion and history. Del Toro’s films tend toward the mythological, which is to say they’re timeless, rooted in a deep, era-nonspecific past. When social and historical context finally breach his microcosm, they expose the rifts of immaturity and sadness of a child who knows it’s time to grow up, but cannot face adulthood.

In that sense, del Toro may have less in common with the masters of horror than he does Wes Anderson, who similarly papers over his characters’ melancholy and displacement from the present with elaborate bricolage and immersion in esoterica. Crimson Peak, then, may be the director’s Life Aquatic, his fussiest, most compartmentalized construction, and therefore the one filled with the most powerful sense of repression and delusion.

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Or perhaps, more accurately, it’s his Grand Budapest Hotel, what with its deranged aristocracy fighting a losing battle against time by targeting the new stewards of capitalism, leaching from them in a futile attempt to be restored to the old pomp and wealth. In Anderson’s film, a fading way of life tries to remain relevant by ignoring the atrocities begat of its willful obliviousness. In del Toro’s more explicitly generic terms, however, it’s the old guard that directly commits those atrocities to stem the tide of progress, a strategy so all-consuming that only at the point of self-destruction can one character realize what a waste it was to cling to so rotten a home in the first place.

Image/Sound

This Blu-ray edition’s hardback book indicates that the transfer was “made available by NBC Universal.” Indeed, there are no appreciable differences between this transfer and the one on Universal’s 2016 home-video edition of the film. Only a few instances of noise exist in the darkest shots, but otherwise this remains a crisp transfer. The 7.1 and X lossless audio tracks are likewise pristine, perfectly balancing the film’s exacting sound design—so rich in creaks and ghostly whispers—relative to Fernando Vélasquez’s tense but mournful score.

Extras

Arrow Video has ported over all of the features from Universal’s original release, which contained mostly brief EPK documentaries and one of Guillermo del Toro’s indispensable audio commentaries. Arrow supplements these extras with some new—and meatier—goodies, chief among them “The House Is Alive,” a 50-minute documentary that dives deep into the film’s intricate production design and literary inspirations. Del Toro also contributes a new interview, while two new critical pieces are included. One is an interview with critic Kim Newman, who places the film in the broader context of gothic romance, the other a video essay by Kat Ellinger on del Toro’s entire filmography and Crimson Peak’s place within it. Arrow’s lavish packaging also includes production stills and a booklet with an interview with del Toro and critical essays by David Jenkins, Simon Abrams, and Mar Diestro-Dópido.

Overall

A slew of excellent new features ensures that this is, for now at least, the definitive home-video edition of Guillermo del Toro’s elegant haunted-house film.

Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston, Charlie Hunnam, Jim Beaver, Burn Gorman, Leslie Hope, Doug Jones, Jonathan Hyde, Bruce Gray, Emily Coutts Director: Guillermo del Toro Screenwriter: Guillermo Del Toro, Matthew Robbins Distributor: Arrow Video Running Time: 118 min Rating: R Year: 2015 Release Date: January 15, 2019 Buy: Video, Soundtrack

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