Sympathetic Horror and the Undead Past in ‘Crimson Peak’
Note: Contains potential spoilers for Crimson Peak.
Crimson Peak is a splendid gothic romance — which is a huge bummer for audiences hoping for a straight-ahead horror movie. As the handful of white-knuckle sequences in this film show, director Guillermo del Toro still has the horror chops he displayed so amply in The Devil’s Backbone and the great Pan’s Labyrinth; however, it becomes clear early on that he is less interested in ratcheting up the scares than he is in composing a love letter to gothic fiction. Brooding men haunted by a dark past, vulnerable women exploring gloomy hallways by candlelight, fabulously decaying mansions — del Toro leaves no trope out in the cold.‘Crimson Peak’ features clear heroes and villains in its cast of characters, but the film’s true antagonist, which bedevils hero and villain alike, is the lurking past with its manifold sins.
In fact, if Crimson Peak has a fault, it’s that it hews a little too closely to these gothic conventions. One of its biggest surprises is how little of the film is actually surprising. Del Toro built his reputation on his talent for infusing genre tales with a distinctive personal flair, so his latest effort’s predictability, both in story and in style, counts as a disappointment. He distills gothic horror into its purest essence, but doesn’t do enough to entice viewers who do not already share his enthusiasm.
The upside of his approach is that pure, distilled gothic horror is mighty compelling in its own right, rich with complex themes and variegated emotions. Terror, sorrow, rage, and sensuality collide and form a single, sub-articulate tone, discordant and yet unified, like a minor-key chord played and held on a spiderwebbed pipe organ. In portraying the gothic in such an unadulterated form, del Toro manages to highlight the force that looms over and animates the entire genre. As William Faulkner, exponent of the Southern-gothic subgenre, once wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Crimson Peak features clear heroes and villains in its cast of characters, but the film’s true antagonist, which bedevils hero and villain alike, is the lurking past with its manifold sins.
This is where the ghosts come in. As Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) is quick to remind us in the film’s opening act, ghosts are a metaphor, interesting only inasmuch as they instantiate the woes of the past. Edith knows what she’s talking about — she experiences regular visits from the specter of her dead mother, who expired under traumatic circumstances when Edith was just a child. She will encounter other undead spirits over the course of the film, and as she delves ever deeper into darkness, the ghosts grow increasingly grotesque. They become manifestations not of a tragic loss, but of an evil history.
In true gothic fashion, Edith’s gateway into this world is her relationship with a mysterious aristocrat, Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston). Sharpe arrives in Edith’s American hometown to raise funds that will help him save his crumbling British estate, but it’s not long before he’s swept Edith off her feet and brought her to England as the new Lady Sharpe. It doesn’t take a genre aficionado to know that Thomas Sharpe and his sister, Lucille (a gloriously malevolent Jessica Chastain) are bad news — especially once we witness Lucille avidly caressing her own cheek with a dead butterfly.
The Sharpes’ home, Allerdale Manor, is another dead giveaway of the Sharpes’ true nature. Built atop a deposit of red clay, the dilapidated manse is slowly sinking into the earth like Poe’s House of Usher. The clay bubbles up from beneath the floorboards and seeps from the walls, as if the house is perpetually bleeding. The entrance hall has a ragged hole where its roof should be; snow, dead leaves, and plaster sift down to the floor in a continuous shower, signaling the stasis of the manor’s condition. It’s as if the house always has been and always will be this way. When the gory apparitions finally start to reveal themselves, they fit right in as the crowning touch to the manor’s decor.
Thomas Sharpe’s plan to save his home from this creeping decay is to harvest the clay below the mansion in order to start up a brickmaking industry. To this end, he builds an excavating machine designed to remove the soil and store it in vats for later use. There’s a wrecked nobility to his endeavor: his family’s dire past dogs his steps and haunts everything he does, yet still he is compelled to save the family name. He dredges up the bloody earth to expunge it, but he succeeds only in bringing it into the light. Like any gothic-fiction antihero worth his salt, Thomas is tormented by the secrets in his past, yet unable to leave them behind.
The mingled horror and tragedy of Thomas Sharpe’s situation is reminiscent of the biblical story of Cain, in which a horrific murder is concealed and the blood of the slain cries out from the earth. But even that story permits a small ray of hope — Cain despairs of escaping condemnation and reprisal, but God mercifully spares him from suffering the same awful fate as his victim. Crimson Peak, meanwhile, offers little succor to the guilty in its story: Edith is our hero, and her salvation means the destruction of those who would harm her.
And yet, because of the odd warmth of Hiddleston’s performance and the grandiosity of del Toro’s storytelling, it’s impossible not to feel some measure of horrified sympathy for the Sharpes. This is what ultimately distinguishes Crimson Peak as a gothic romance rather than a horror flick. When Edith finally uncovers the truth about Allerdale Manor’s shadowy past, our stomachs churn, but the film’s careful evocation of the gothic mode ensures that our revulsion is seasoned with deep sorrow over the evil that people commit. We shudder as we imagine an existence devoid of redemption, where the sins of the past are not dead and forgotten, but alive and active. We are disturbed by Edith’s closing pronouncement: that ghosts are real, and some of them will persist forever.
Ann Radcliffe, the eighteenth-century writer whose fiction paved the way for the gothic genre’s widespread popularity, believed that this sort of dread (which she termed terror) could elevate a story far above mere garden-variety horror. For her, the distinction was both obvious and vitally important: “Terror and horror are so far opposite, that the first expands the soul, and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life; the other contracts, freezes, and nearly annihilates them.” As forgiven sinners, Christians can resonate with the terrifying, dissonant music of the gothic; we share its strange compassion for evil people, even as we shudder sympathetically at the idea of sharing their fate. After all, we too once lived under the shadow of our own dark past. While Crimson Peak has its share of flaws, then, its striking blend of tragedy, romance, and depravity awakens the faculties in a way that most horror films can only dream of.
You can listen to Kevin McLenithan, Wade Bearden, and Blake I. Collier discuss Crimson Peak on episode 35 of the Seeing and Believing podcast.