Crimson Peak Review: A Love Letter to Gothic and Victorian Fiction (Spoilers!)

crimson-peak-posterThere is an interesting story about how Guillermo Del Toro, the director of Crimson Peak, became obsessed with horror and ghost tales.

When he was a little kid his father won the Mexican lottery. So, having suddenly received a lot of money he wanted to build a new house, and heard that a rich person’s house should have a study with a big desk and a library. Being a car salesman, he didn’t know much about literature and in order to fill the library he bought books by the meter.

Del Toro’s father never used the room or sat at the desk, but young Guillermo did. He became enormously fascinated by a collection of gothic and Victorian novels, and books on Human anatomy (which informed the design of ghosts in this movie). He read and reread books by Ann Radcliffe, the Bronte sisters, Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe, Mary Shelley, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu etc. and this movie is his love letter to those authors.

Notably, when deciding to make this movie he didn’t want to adapt any of their works, he made his own story using the same story conventions and principles, thus, instead of being just a mere interpreter he becomes one of them.

Guillermo Del Toro
Guillermo Del Toro

One thing to bear in mind is that this film is not a classic horror, it is a gothic romance, which means that it indeed does have elements of horror, but it is not a full blown representative of the genre.When Edith, the main character of the story is asked whether the book that she had written is a ghost story, she answers, “No, it is a story with ghosts in it.” The same is true about this movie.

Ghosts are physically present, but they are a metaphor for the past, rather than monsters that try to kill you. Therefore, if you are expecting another The Conjuring, Sinister, or Insidious, that is not what you are going to get. What you are going to get is a visually stunning, thrilling and twisted gothic story about manipulation, incest, insanity, and ghosts with deep roots in literary and cinema tradition.

Edith (Mia Wasikowska) is a very independent young woman who refuses to get involved in traditional social games and to behave how it was expected of women to behave at that time. She is the archetypal industrial age independent woman, along the lines of Mary Shelley or Charlotte Bronte. In fact, when other women tease her for trying to be a writer by saying, “Jane Austen died a spinster!”, she replies, “I’d rather be Mary Shelley, she died a widow.” The movie is overflowing with literary references like this, even references to Del Toro’s anatomy books.

Tom and Edith
Tom and Edith

Much to her father’s disapproval Edith is wooed by Tom Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), a young British baronet and a budding engineer. After her father is murdered she marries him, and moves to his Lake District estate called Allerdale Hall, also known as Crimson Peak due to it being located on a red clay mine.

This is the first time we see the house, which, much like in the case of Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, is a major character or the story. It’s a very old but sublimely beautiful house in a state of semi decay. There is a huge hole in the roof because the Sharpe’s lack money to repair it, and as a result whenever wind blows it sounds like the house is breathing. Moreover, red clay is pouring from the holes in the wall making it look as if the house were bleeding. In a typically gothic fashion, the decay of the house is indicative of the decay of the people living there.

Allerdale Hall, the home of the Sharpes.
Allerdale Hall, the home of the Sharpes.

Tom Sharpe’s sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain), is the undisputed empress of the place, as illustrated by the fact that she carries the keys with her all the time. Moreover, as Del Toro stated in an interview, her costumes are made from the same details as the house’s décor. Hence, she becomes an indivisible part of the house, which stands as a symbol of the past, tradition, and power of their family. Interestingly, whenever she gets angry we can also hear Allerdale Hall breathing heavily.

Into that house comes Edith, an independent young woman of the industrial era, who is an emphatic symbol of the future. One of the main characteristics of gothic fiction is this struggle and fear to let go of the past and move into the future. Comparatively, Tom Sharpe finds himself in a twisted love triangle between these two women in the house, between the past and the future.

Lucille Sharpe
Lucille Sharpe

He has the desire to move into the future, but is unable to leave his sister and the house, the burden of the past is weighing too heavily on his shoulders. The ghosts themselves are a metaphor for the past, and Tom Sharpe’s past is full of dark secrets. Specifically, he and his sister have killed all three of his previous rich wives in order to finance the maintenance of their estate.

The same destiny was in store for Edith, however, the young baronet falls in love with her and refuses to participate, which enrages his sister who finally kills him. In the context of the genre he becomes a kind of a Byronic hero, a tortured soul. As the final act of redemption, he, in the form of a ghost, helps Edith kill his sister.

Edith

Crimson Peak ticks all the boxes necessary to make it a full blooded gothic tale. It has the tortured male hero, the virginal maiden (who becomes less of a virgin later in the story), an insane tyrant, supernatural occurrences, and the huge gothic mansion that seems to have a life of it’s own. It is a wonderful story that pays respect to tradition but manages to remain utterly fresh and original.

As far as craftsmanship is concerned, Guillermo Del Toro’s attention to detail is second to none. Whether it’s the costumes, the architecture, or lighting and camera movement it all just fits together perfectly. The camera is never handheld, it is always gliding steadily and elegantly through the halls of the house either on a crane, dolly or a steadicam giving the movie a stylized aesthetic. Handheld would introduce camera shake which would make it look too documentary and realistic, and this is exactly what the director wanted to avoid.

What’s important to emphasize in conclusion is that this movie should be taken for what it is, and be evaluated in that context. It is not a high brow art film, and it never tries to be. It is, as we have mentioned multiple times already, a gothic romance, and as such, it is as good as they get. It is an absolute triumph of visual storytelling, completely worthy of it’s place on our top list of must see movies of the end of 2015.

P. S. Here’s an interesting thought! A few days ago we talked about the new James Bond movie and the fact that it has become overly serious. With Daniel Craig on his way out, we think it would be interesting to see Guillermo Del Toro reboot the franchise.