Crimson Peak

(Guillermo del Toro, 25 September 2015)

“Where I come from, ghosts do not take things lightly.”

Like Mia Wasikowska’s Edith Cushing explains to a would-be publisher of her own novel, Del Toro’s CRIMSON PEAK is less a ghost story than “a story with a ghost in it,” and that is where its true beauty lies: so effortlessly couched in the sumptuousness of its gothic forebears, CRIMSON PEAK unfolds as overt homage, as well as a tale of fiercely complex female characters.

Following the death of the Cushing matriarch, the motherless Edith establishes herself as a rock of independence without hesitation, politely (but coolly) decrying a Jane Austen comparison by confidently intoning that she would “prefer Mary Shelley…she died a widow,” and opting to type her manuscript for fear that her handwriting may give her gender away. There is an innocent naïveté to Mia Wasikowska’s Edith Cushing as she pursues her fate among the red-stained moors of the titular Crimson Peak — formally known as Allerdale Hall — and yet this is more to serve as parallel to the icy, vindictive, and violence-soaked force of madness that is Jessica Chastain’s Lucille Sharpe than some failure of the writing, characterization, or handling of archetypal gender roles. The choices that international auteur Guillermo del Toro makes are most certainly overt, many orchestrated with an obsessive attention to detail (as is the case in his entire filmography), a man who himself has described CRIMSON PEAK as “a very set-oriented” and “classical…but at the same time, a modern take on the ghost story.” It was also of great import to del Toro that his film (conceived and written in collaboration with Matthew Robbins), honor those grande dames of the the genre, that is to say, to construct a story that was very much anchored in the female traditions and the female perspective — to explore the fictional worlds of not only THE HAUNTING’s Eleanor (played by Julie Harris) or THE INNOCENTS’ governess, Miss Giddens (played by Deborah Kerr, in an adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw), but also Joan Fontaine’s heroine in Hitchcock’s REBECCA, among others. We are in a world suffused with Gothic melodrama and all the trappings that connotes, a sumptuous universe where moths and butterflies fight for dominance, or at the very least, for a sustained sense of self that can survive in the cruel realities of the outer, grander world. The torment, fervent emotion, and furtive secrecy (stylistic staples of the gothic and Romantic tradition, as are ill-begotten familial intertwinement, cursed houses, madness, and the encroaching presence of the supernatural) that consume the screen as well as the characters are powerful components, but they are nothing if not for the women that pirouette through the phantasmagoria, especially Chastain, flitting through corridors like a crazed and bloodied moth. The long-dead ghosts — which include the looming portrait of the Sharp family matriarch, whose skull was long-ago cleaved in two — all hover and cavort with a lurid ghastliness that makes it clear that this story is a women’s tale…women both living and dead.

In addition to CRIMSON PEAK’s gothic pedigree, the film also owes considerable debt to Hitchcock’s REBECCA and NOTORIOUS, two more classic — and essential — films of women uncovering secrets, haunted both by the present and the past. Upon first seeing CRIMSON PEAK, genre storyteller (and son to the prolific master, Stephen King), Joe Hill, aptly offered that it is “del Toro’s blood-soaked Age of Innocence…a gloriously sick waltz through Daphne du Maurier territory.” Some have argued that it is short on innovative story, but the sheer power of del Toro’s film is not in breaking barriers but in revisiting a past previously established through almost two centuries of tradition; saturated in as much symbolism as it is color, costuming, and supernaturally-heightened meller, del Toro’s film is a welcomed return to another era. CRIMSON PEAK, therefore, is an ample text with which to celebrate Women in Horror, as Chastain’s composed, but emotionally feral, Lucille discloses, “the horror…the horror was for love…and it was a monstrous love, and it makes monsters of us all.” Truer words were, likely, never spoken, and like some spiritual “Fall of the House of Usher” commanding a division of our cinematic (and, maybe even, emotional minds), CRIMSON PEAK is one that can cleave us in two, and will likely be a film that haunts our subconscious for years to come.