Guillermo del Toro, director and co-writer of Crimson Peak (2015) would be the first to tell you it is not a horror film. Actually I take that back. The first person to emphatically state what Crimson Peak is not, is the film’s protagonist, Edith Cushing. In an early scene, when Edith’s manuscript is dismissed by a condescending publisher as a ghost story, she is quick to correct him. “It’s not. More of a story with a ghost in it.” It is not hard to imagine del Toro making that very same statement to the studio that insisted that Crimson Peak be a Halloween release. In fact, what del Toro created is a lush Gothic romance. While the distinction between Gothic romances and Gothic horrors can be as elusive as the ghosts that haunt them, it ultimately comes down to focus. Although passion and morbidity can usually be found in both, a love story is the driving force in a Gothic romance while the horror is foremost in a Gothic horror. This is not to say that a Gothic romance cannot be horrifying, scary, and deeply disturbing.
Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) lives with her father in Buffalo, New York in 1901. She is a well-educated and independent young woman whose devotion to her writing does not leave her time for matters of the heart. That changes when she meets English baronet, Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston). Thomas, along with his sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain), has come to Buffalo in the hopes of securing financing for the planned excavation of the red clay on which their family manor sits. Thomas is charismatic, rather mysterious, and shows a sincere interest in Edith’s novel. A shared waltz is really all it takes before Edith is completely smitten with the baronet. Failing to see or simply ignoring the peculiar and menacing is a common component in gothic storytelling so it is not surprising that Edith overlooks any eccentricities in Thomas and his sister. The Sharpes with their outdated clothes and quiet, knowing looks give off an almost sinister vibe. Sister Lucille is particularly distant and morbid. And yet all the brightly dressed, cheerful, and modernistic Buffaloites are entirely entranced by the Sharpes. Only Edith’s father has any misgivings toward the siblings. But the senior Cushing is not permitted to interfere. Edith marries Thomas and her and the Sharpes return to England.
If the courtship of Edith and Thomas seems condensed, that is by design. The scenes in Buffalo are necessary to establish the romance but they are a means to an end. That end is Allerdale Hall. Allerdale Hall is the Sharpe family estate and where Thomas and Lucille were raised. Once an opulent monument to excess, as the family fortune was squandered away, the mansion fell into a terrible state of disrepair. The bones of a once proud structure are still present but everything is worn and abandoned to entropy. The walls are literally rotting and the roof is afflicted with large holes allowing leaves, snow, and random detritus to constantly rain down into the multi-storied front hallway. And then there is the clay. Thomas did not misrepresent the fact that Allerdale Hall sits atop a clay mine. The problem is that the house is slowly sinking into that clay. Red liquid clay, warmed from below, oozes up between the floorboards and dribbles down the walls on the main floor.
Another distinction between Gothic romance and Gothic horror for del Toro is the symbolism of the haunted house. As he puts it, “In horror, the haunted mansion is Sentient and Evil. In Gothic [romance], it is a manifestation of the characters’ psyche or moral decay.” In Crimson Peak, Allerdale Hall is the mirror of Lucille’s soul. As we grow to know Lucille, we learn of the corruption of that soul. She suffers from a detached self-loathing, is haunted by her past, clings to a twisted version of love, and is plagued by her demons. So too Allerdale Hall sinks under its own weight, remains mired in the past, and fails to properly shelter the Sharpes. As Edith quickly learns, Allerdale Hall also harbours a collection of tortured spirits and distraught phantoms. As Lucille loses control and her grasp on sanity so do the ghosts of Allerdale Hall become more active and chaos descends on the house.
The oppressiveness of Allerdale Hall and its matriarch wears on Edith but she is far from a damsel in distress. In this area, del Toro has broken with the stereotypes found in Gothic romance. Edith is not a cliché and grows to be a stronger character in the hostile conditions she finds herself in. Although frightened, she never gives in to that fear and strives to find answers to the mysteries of the house and family. At one point, I was disappointed to realize the story was leading to a handsome hero charging to Edith’s rescue. Imagine my relief when that old trope was turned on its ear and the wannabe hero utterly failed to realize his goal. The only person that should save Edith is Edith.
There are scares to be had in Crimson Peak but the driving force of the narrative is the romance between Edith and Thomas. Despite the significant flaws in their relationship, their love and how it attempts to overcome the horrors of Allerdale Hall is the story that del Toro has chosen to share with us. That story is not a sophisticated one. Viewers may well see its twists and ending coming very early on. But if you interpret that as a flaw in the film then you have missed the point. The plot is simple but the world and the characters are complex. The actors and del Toro use every facet of the film to develop complicated characters. Del Toro is an artist with a reverence for art in all its forms. Crimson Peak is a tribute to how seamlessly diverse art disciplines can come together to paint a vivid picture. If you have the opportunity, listen to del Toro’s commentary on the film. You will learn how carefully he incorporated the lighting, and the colours, and the costumes, and the set design, and the music, and every little detail into an expression of the fable he wished to tell. Then go back and watch Crimson Peak again. You will be amazed by the difference a change in perspective can make.
Crimson Peak (2015) Directed by Guillermo del Toro; Written by Guillermo del Toro & Matthew Robbins; Starring Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, & Tom Hiddleston; Available on DVD and BluRay from Universal Pictures Home Entertainment.
This is my contribution to The Home Sweet Home Blogathon. My agoraphobic co-blogger has also written an article for the blogathon here. Please check out some of the other contributors by clicking on the image below. Our thanks to Taking Up Room and RealWeegieMidget Reviews for making us feel at home.