I finally saw Crimson Peak—yes, I know I’m three weeks late to the party—and I could write a book about how much I loved it. While it’s true that I am a big fan of leading man Tom Hiddleston, my love affair with this sweeping film has more to do with its genre and script. Director and writer Guillermo del Toro created a haunting gothic romance influenced by classic gothic literature. Funnily enough, I’m a big fan of gothic lit.
But first things first: if you are looking for a run-of-the-mill horror or paranormal film, this is not the movie for you. While compromised of terrifying themes, the movie itself is not scary. This is not a ghost story, but, true to gothic form, a story with ghosts in it. If you are a fan of gothic fiction, suspense, or period pieces, then read on, dear friend.
The plot revolves around young Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), an aspiring American novelist who looks up to women like Mary Shelley. (Coincidentally, she can see ghosts, and was visited by the ghost of her mother when she was a child.) Raised by her father,
Bobby Singer Carter Cushing, Edith is more interested in writing ghost stories than in finding a suitable husband. But her small world is turned on its head when she meets a handsome English baronet, Sir Thomas Sharpe (Hiddleston). Thomas woos her, but his plans to propose are waylaid by Mr. Cushing, who had a detective dig up several undesirable facts on the Sharpe family. The next day, Mr. Cushing is brutally murdered. Edith turns to Thomas for comfort, and ends up marrying him and moving to the family home of Allerdale Hall. She soon discovers that not only is the house severely haunted, but that her husband and his sinister sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) are not all they appear to be.
If there are predictable plot twists, it is because we as an audience are familiar with gothic tropes. We are able to identify character traits and plot devices because of the following archetypes, which are staples of any self-respecting piece of gothic lit. These tenets can be found in the establishing works of the genre, such as The Castle of Otranto, The Italian, The Mysteries of Udolpho, The Monk, Dracula, Melmoth the Wanderer, and Uncle Silas.
Not only is Thomas off limits to Edith by the wishes of her father, but vast areas of Allerdale Hall are forbidden to her as soon as she arrives in England. Lucille is protective of her set of keys, refusing to make any copies for the new Sharpe bride. Edith is told to never visit the lower levels of the house, which, of course, means she does.
Isolation or Imprisonment
In addition to Allerdale Hall being out in the middle of nowhere in Cumbria, Edith’s new life is full of isolation. Lucille does not warm to her, and for some time, Thomas does not consummate their marriage. When Edith begins to feel poorly, she is confined to either her bed or a wheelchair. She becomes antsy and wants to escape the haunted house, but can’t.
Like most pieces of gothic fiction, there is an element of the supernatural. In literature, this can be anything from a ghost to an unexplained occurrence, or even something just plain weird (like a giant helmet falling on top of someone and killing them). In Crimson Peak, the supernatural is the existence of ghosts who are trying to warn Edith. As a child, her mother’s specter told her to “beware of Crimson Peak.” At Allerdale Hall, she encounters four skeletal ghosts attempting to communicate with her.
Innocent or Oppressed Women
While both Edith and Lucille are competent, interesting women, the film is not without its fair share of this archetype. Edith is innocent and naive during the majority of the film, and the ghosts of the women who haunt Allerdale Hall were oppressed by the Sharpes (and that’s putting it lightly).
Bloodiness or Self-Harm
Blood is often symbolic in gothic lit, as is the color red. Crimson Peak is, well…rather self-explanatory. For those who are also familiar with fairy tales, it is interesting to note the similarities between Crimson Peak and the stories of “Bluebeard” and “The Feather Bird”.
Punishment of the Wicked
It is no surprise to us that in fiction and film, those who do wrong are not allowed to continue in their present state. Both Lucille and Thomas meet grisly ends, despite Thomas’s attempts at atonement. Because of his former sin, he must pay the price of death at the hands of the woman he once loved.
Location as a Character
Like Manderley in Rebecca or Thornfield Hall in Jane Eyre, Allerdale Hall is integral to the continuation of the plot. In a way, the setting is a character itself, full of history and reflective of its inhabitants. Allerdale Hall is a crumbling mansion in barren, desolate stretch of land noted for its red clay. It is fitting that the looming, castle-like structure be vital to the story, since gothic lit got its start thanks to a certain type of architecture.
The Gothic style of construction dates back to the 12th century, and was popular for decades in Europe. Horace Walpole became obsessed with the style in the 1700s, and modeled his home, Strawberry Hill, after a Gothic castle. His best-selling novel The Castle of Otranto was directly influenced by Gothic architecture and its subsequent revival, and countless other novels followed suit. There are elements of traditional Gothic architecture present in Allerdale Hall, including pointed arches and pinnacles.
Crimson Peak embodies and embraces all these traditional aspects, while also introducing the budding modernity of the turn of the century by means of machinery and female independence. It is rife with stunning visuals and stellar performances, haunting music and flawless costuming. But in the end, enjoy it for what it is—a gothic romance for the twenty-first century.
I’ll be here, reading Crimson Peak fanfiction. (Yes, it already exists.)
Until next time,
The Collected Mutineer