'Crimson Peak' - Classical Gothic for Modern Times
Updated: Sep 15, 2019
The 'Gothic' or 'Other' is often personified through the use of grandiose, typically-medieval, architecture which, when combined with elements of the supernatural or dreadful, combine in order to craft a lingering, uncomfortable experience. It's often as if you've traveled to a dimension where the world moves slower, thus impending doom manages to last an eternity. Of course, this isn't true Gothic, but the eradication of the word's meaning has been a long time in the process and can be discussed to death (I did my dissertation on the very subject). I believe that the Gothic can be altered and changed depending on which medium it presents itself in.
For example, across architecture author Nancy Kilpatrick argues in her compendium of darkness The Goth Bible that Gothic architecture is that which 'took the inside of a building and made it the outside'. Pointed archways and spirals are now common Gothic practices, whilst in the music industry the 'Goth' subgenre has differentiate itself through the use of droning basslines and erratic, pessimistic lyrics which kickstarted an entire subculture. But we're not talking about that...
When it comes down to story, whether that be literature, poetry or film which we're discussing here, the Gothic presents itself as an amalgamation of tropes and signifiers sure, but it's all in favor of a desired emotional response from the audience. And that is why I'm arguing that Guillermo Del Toro's Crimson Peak is the perfect example of Classical Gothic within film for the last thirty years.
*You best believe there be spoilers from here on out*
In his forward to Crimson Peak: The Art of Darkness (a gorgeous book to get if you're even remotely interested in the behind the scenes/set design), Cowriter/Director Guillermo Del Toro expresses his desire to create a modern Gothic Romance. He counts the traditional steps that old texts took on and remarks that he wanted Crimson Peak to be a film where 'horror starts, not ends, with marriage'. Literary scholar Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) begins the film with a self-assured knowledge of the world around her - but this knowledge is from books alone. Intellectually she's faultless, but when a charming, out-of-town gentleman in the form of Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) arrives, she's quickly whisked off her feet and blind to the signs around her signifying his worrisome history.
Traditional Gothic fare can sometimes feel like a checklist, ready to be struck off whenever seemed fit. Lavish Victorian visuals? Check. A heinous but beautiful mansion ripped straight from a classic ghost story? Check. The winding and slow-burn of a truth reveal? Check. It seems at time like a 'greatest hits' compilation, an ode to a genre Del Toro has a deep penchant for. In fact, the budding romance of Edith and Thomas being interrupted by her father Carter (Jim Beaver) and her doctor/admirer Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam) primarily takes the form of a period melodrama the likes of which fill romance novels across charity shops worldwide. Again, it's a signature of classic Gothic Romance to sprinkle in its themes amongst a well-worn plot such as this, it's the thematic interruptions of darkness, madness, disease etc. that make them part of The Gothic Impulse.
But how do Del Toro and Robbins make such themes feel more modern? It turns out the answer is rather simple. Returning to his foreward again when dissecting his intentions for the film, Guillermo sought out to heighten a 'couple of elements that, traditionally, remained hidden beneath the surface: sex and
violence’. Now, it's very easy to make the claim that Crimson Peak is a 'modern' Gothic tale simply because it ups the violence and sex, that's now why it works. Instead it's how these elements are implemented into the film itself that differentiates them.
The Gothic includes both sex and violence, don't get me wrong, but they're usually either a result of the tale's climax or the purpose of the text's dread (for example, withholding sexual deviance driving a character mad). Del Toro lays the cards flat on the table, and the first instance of this comes in the form of Carter's brutal death. Not only is his skull fractured against a sink multiple times until it splits open, but the violence is gratuitous and blunt. The camera doesn't pull away and we see everything. What up until this point had been a charming period melodrama suddenly becomes a vacuum where everything around this moment is somehow affected by it. Everything but the ghosts of course. And oh boy, are they doozy's.
Crimson Peak was mismarketed as a straight up horror film, with the advertising placing emphasis on the crimson-red ghosts that haunt Edith and warn of her Thomas Sharpe's home Crimson Peak. Their jittery, ethereal movements and scenes are particular standouts thanks to the blending of practical performances and computer enhancements, but in terms of the story they're merely by products. They're leftovers from brutal acts of violence used to warn characters or dispel information and nothing more. To regard Crimson Peak as a supernatural horror does the film a disservice, when really the ghosts work their hardest to point towards the true evil in the film - sex (dun dun dun).
That's right. As it's revealed Thomas is actually engaged in a dependent, debilitating incestuous relationship with his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain), the sexual element of Del Toro's plan is revealed. This hyperbolic, modern nature of sex and violence is still limited to only a handful of passionate scenes, but it's enough to make Horace Walpole shake in his grave. Her deviant appetite controls Thomas and results in death at every turn, bleeding money from wealthy young women for her brother to seduce and bring to the dilapidated family home. The set design alone is enough to intensify these acts, as Edith catches the Sharpes midway through a late-night escapade, encapsulated in pale blue moonlight against filtered curtains. It can never be said that the film itself isn't gorgeous to look at.
Lucille is a moth, attracted to the darkness she's become accustomed to thanks to her brutal upbringing, and alongside that she's desperate to keep her brother from blossoming into a butterfly. This drives the primary conflict, as Thomas begins to indeed fall for Edith, putting their plan into dismay and of course having to pay the toll (it's blood, of course it's blood). The heightened elements of violence and sex are what drive a classical tale of forbidden love and deceit; it's a tale as old as stories themselves but told in the wrapper of a new, blood-soaked sexy chocolate bar (I don't know, I'm tired).
Despite being set in Victorian times, this is what makes Crimson Peak an updated version of the stories Gothic Literature always told. So when these elements converge in the films final moments, and the Sharpe's succumb to the ghost forms, they become embedded in the pantheon of the forgotten. The sheer dread of having to inhabit Crimson Peak for the rest of eternity is the true darkness of the tale, and it's what teaches Edith, by experience, how the world really works...making her a classical heroine.
Everything outside of these aspects is all working overtime too. The Gothic is known for its over-the-top level of grandeur and here that's not different. Whether it be lingering on a horde of ants devouring the dying moths of the season (symbolism, baby!), the red clay mines that paint the floors crimson giving the mansion its name (again), or...and I can never say this enough - the sheer amount of detail in the set/costume design! Every aspect of this film is over the top apart from the story, and I think that's a large part of what threw many people off when it was first released. Over the few years since however, it appears the film's beginning to earn itself a bit of a cult status and I'm glad to see it. So if you haven't yet had the pleasure (or even if you have and didn't think much of it the first time around) take a trip back to Crimson Peak and turn the lights down, because it's a Gothic Romance that screams out for your attention.
I like doing these explorations/analyses of films/television shows from time to time. If you have a certain show or film or text you'd be interested in hearing my thoughts on, or if you'd be interested in contacting me about potential writing work then give me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I'd love to hear what you think.
Next week I'll be looking at a film that does the opposite too, one that's a completely modern re-telling of the slow, difficult grind Gothic Literature can be.
Crimson Peak is available on Blu Ray & DVD.
Crimson Peak: The Art of Darkness by Mark Salisbury is available where...books....live.
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