Crimson Peak and the Art of Gothic Perfection

October 19, 2015

“I will read you their names directly; here they are in my pocket-book. Castle of Wolfenbach, Clermont, Mysterious Warnings, Necromancer of the Black Forest, Midnight Bell, Orphan of the Rhine, and Horrid Mysteries. Those will last us some time. ‘
‘…but are they all horrid? Are you sure they are all horrid?’
‘Yes, quite sure; for a particular friend of mine, a Miss Andrews, a sweet girl, one of the sweetest creatures in the world, has read every one of them.”

-Northanger Abbey

Dear Reader,

Guillermo de Toro seems to have strayed into my bedroom and taken all the books off my gothic novel shelf, mixed them together in his mental stew, then recruited my favorite actors to bring the resulting screenplay to life. Excuse me while I gush. Crimson Peak- The Person I Am TonightFirst, Crimson Peak is not a horror movie. Horrific things do happen and ghosts do haunt the heroine’s steps, but they only serve to show her that something is very very wrong in her world. “The ghosts are metaphors” she prophetically declares early on in the film. The movie has been marketed as a horror movie for the Halloween season, yet the trailers contain almost every scene in which a ghost appears. As in Pan’s Labyrinth, the human beings are the monsters. The ghosts do little but point and sob and warn. Crimson Peak- The Person I Am TonightThe plot is simple and you have absolutely seen it before, which is part of the point. Edith Cushing (Maria Wasikowksa), American heiress and aspiring female novelist, falls deeply for Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) penniless baronet with a dream to use Edith’s money to restore both his family’s good name and their crumbling estate. He brings to the marriage a creepy overbearing older sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain) who mournfully plays the piano and offers tea and a remarkable lack of sympathy. Crimson Peak- The Person I Am TonightEdith and Thomas marry and he whisks her back to his immense gothic pile of an estate. The rest is an unraveling spool of gothic perfection. Blood (ok red clay) drips from the walls of the mansion, ghosts with meat cleavers in their foreheads point mournfully at locked doors and horrifying secrets (what’s behind the black veil???), and sexual hunger and deviance practically ooze from every pore. Edith tries to discover why she is seeing all these apparitions that no one else sees while trying to grow closer with her mysterious husband and chilly sister-in-law. So she wanders through corridors late at night, candelabra held high as snow drifts through the hole in the roof and the whole mansion sinks slowly into the bloody earth. Every shot of this movie is beautiful and terrifying, conveying lushness and tactile pleasure and internal rot. Crimson Peak- The Person I Am TonightBut as in every gothic story, the ghosts are mere signals that something is indeed rotten. Victorians and their predecessors wrote gothic stories in order to give voice to deep fears and fascinations. Thus they are really explorations of (often deviant) sexual desire, abandonment, child abuse, taboo, destructive love, progress and its consequences, poverty, and death. Take away the ghosts and the Sharpe siblings are simply two abused children who grew into damaged adults. Edith is pure and loving because she had a happy, though sexually innocent, youth. Their treatment of her and the resulting consequences of their actions are occasioned by fear of poverty and a loss of both home and heritage. Crimson Peak- The Person I Am TonightBefore I continue my gushing, however, I have to explain something about all this. My prediction (and some early reviews bear me out, although this one agrees with me in every respect) is that many people will dislike this movie. Del Toro has created an intricately crafted masterpiece with this movie but unless you have a fairly specific background, I think it will be hard to appreciate it or understand fully what he is doing. The plot is formulaic- but that is entirely intentional. Del Toro is referencing the original gothic novels of authors like Horace Walpole, Ann Radcliffe, and Matthew Lewis, the later gothic revivals of authors like Poe and Stoker, and mid-twentieth century cinema renditions of the same. His film is a house built on their foundations and without much deviation, this storyline is the storyline. It is the plot of RebeccaJane EyreThe Fall of the House of UsherThe Mysteries of UdolphoNorthanger Abbey, and many others. It is the story of an innocent in a house of doom and it can be found at the heart of the gothic tradition. And Del Toro treats it masterfully, making his heroine a beacon of light, dressing her in gorgeous gowns of gold and white, making her the archetype of the new twentieth-century woman with her facility on the typewriter, her interest in inventions and progress, and her desire to become an independent woman through her writing. Chastain’s Lucille is her perfect foil, a perfect pre-raphaelite goddess when she lets her neatly coiled hair down and bares her shoulders (and wields a knife).Crimson Peak- The Person I Am TonightCrimson Peak- The Person I Am TonightSir Thomas Sharpe is a younger, more handsome Mr. Rochester, something Del Toro winks at roguishly by having him recite practically verbatim a monologue Rochester delivers to Jane in the middle of the novel. Hiddleston plays him as the perfect tortured Byronic hero/villain who is torn between the dark and light sides of his nature. The whole movie begs to be analyzed by Victorianists and Hammer House of Horror lovers alike. It is simultaneously a nineteenth-century gothic novel and a twenty-first century dream of the Victorian era. Del Toro understands that gothic novelists created a myth of Victorian England in order to explore the uncomfortable, the obscene, and the grotesque. Crimson Peak is his addition to a well-established tradition that counts such luminaries as Poe, Stoker, Shelley, Hitchcock, Bergman, Marquez, Angela Carter, and Joss Whedon among its contributors. I fear that without an established interest in that tradition this movie will not land, but for those that it is aimed to enthrall, the experience is nothing short of a phantasmagoria of gothic perfection.Crimson Peak- The Person I Am TonightFor the uninitiated or the previously uninterested here is my advice: go into the movie expecting characters that are both carefully created individuals and also archetypes. Edith Cushing is an interesting character in her own right but she is also “the innocent heroine.” Lucille Sharpe may be a tragic and ill woman but she is also the “dark mysterious villainess,” and Sir Thomas is the “brooding Byronic antihero.” Del Toro slowly develops both characters and plot, so don’t expect to be watching a movie that is in line with modern pacing- this movie is slow and intricate like a Victorian three volume tome. It is meant to be melodramatic and stuffed with very obvious metaphor. It is meant to be a bit ridiculous. Gothic novels are supposed to be a little silly so that, while exploring your fears, you can also laugh at them. It is a spectacle- you could clearly see a Crimson Peak ride at Disney World. But its gorgeous horror reveals very human darkness, despair, hope, love, and survival. You don’t have to be a Victorianist to relate to that.

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  • Reply Boris October 20, 2015 at 6:58 AM

    Dear Author,

    Please accept the following trifle of a comment as a sign of my deepest admiration for your intimate understanding of the movie and the genre in question that is so sadly lacking in most of the modern media.

    I had the… exquisite (though I am, I confess, somewhat reluctant to sound like a character from Oscar Wilde) pleasure of, first, seeing the movie, and then, after a deliberate but fruitless search for some person of like mind who would have had the serendipity to use words “Jessica Chastain” and “Pre-Raphaelites” in one sentence (for, being a devoted lover of that particular school and period of art, I found the visual parallel most striking), chancing upon your, shall we, for the sake of not ruining the literary effort, say, ‘public diary’.

    Anyway, I had the utmost pleasure in finding your ‘reading’ of this ‘visual novel proper’ most consonant with my own humble appreciation. I hereby salute your refined taste in books and cinema alike,

    Respectfully yours,
    Boris, a guy from Russia who loves his English way too much.

    • Kathleen
      Reply Kathleen October 25, 2015 at 10:59 PM

      Dear Boris,

      Your love of English has made you a master of it, for you express yourself most poetically. I am so glad that we two in the universe are able to recognize Jessica Chastain’s true nature as a Pre-Raphaelite beauty (also Vogue in a rather stunning photo shoot a while back). Hopefully there will be other occasions like this one to mutually appreciate something this wonderful. Thank you for your kind words.

  • Reply Gunnar Thorsen March 15, 2017 at 8:26 AM

    Many thanks for your wonderful review of “Crimson Peak” and related insights into it. I’m another fan who was put in mind of the Pre-Raphaelites when first seeing Jessica Chastain in her role. I have nothing but good things to say about the film, but one bit related to the excellent movie sets did nag me. Allerdale Hall is Gothic-Revival in style, a style which became popular in the mid 19th century. The house had all the bells and whistles of later or high Gothic Revival style from the 1880’s, meaning that it was only some 20 or 30 years old by the year 1900, the period in which the film is set. How did a 20 or 30 year old house become so run down and dilapidated in that time span? Also, another thing: the house had an electric elevator, something which first appeared after it was patented in1887, roughly the same period that the house is from. Why an electric elevator – and modern plumbing – but no electric lights? Yes, I know, artistic license, but I do notice these things. (In other period films I’ve seen electrical cords coming out of oil lamps before domestic electricity existed, and in one film set in the dark ages, I saw a priest wearing his stole over his chasuble – something not done until the 1960’s. 🙂

  • Kathleen
    Reply Kathleen April 10, 2017 at 2:30 PM

    I agree there was some artistic license taken with the set, but I think I justify them by thinking back to how many anachronisms were present in the original source material. Gothic novels were constantly set in fantastical castles that made absolutely no sense for the time period, often fitted up improbably with some modern conveniences and entirely lacking others. Victorians loved to build artificially aged “follies” and ruins that they had ruined themselves, of course. I do entirely see your point, though.

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