We are approaching quickly what is sure to be a wicked weekend. The films released in the month of October, especially as we dwindle towards the end of the month, are divided between cheap horror thrills and early Oscar contenders. Last week we had “The Last Witch Hunter” and “Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension” which with their respective PG-13 ratings will be fare for audiences trying to get in the scares before All Hallows’ Eve. The film industry churns out the same franchises and fantasy action flicks every year, utilizing the same approaches to a genre that used to cause children to lie awake in bed at night, teenagers to face the threat of psychological terror, and adults to squirm uncomfortably in their seats. “Crimson Peak,” the new film from Guillermo del Toro which opened in the U.S. on October 16, surpasses these tropes as it takes us back to the gothic traditions from the turn of the nineteenth century.
Guillermo del Toro has noted that this, his eighth full length feature film, is actually a Gothic romance rather than the gory horror everyone thought it would be after the trailer was first revealed several months ago. Though I’m not sure that “Crimson Peak” is either a Gothic romance or a true horror at its heart—instead the film falls into a much more dark, delicious territory where it can scare you with both the supernatural and more earthly terrors.
Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) is a young writer who draws from her ghostly experiences after her mother’s death as inspiration for her fledging manuscript. After a chance meeting with the striking Sharpe siblings (Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain) she becomes betrothed to the brother Thomas in the wake of her father’s mysterious murder. Edith moves into Allerdale Hall in England, her husband’s childhood home, where the house and the spirits are restless with secrets from the past. The decaying spirits emerge and pass along warnings to Edith that her new family is not all that they seem. Allerdale Hall is exquisite in its thorough dilapidation as moths cover the interior, snow falls through the ceiling, and the ground bleeds due to red clay underneath the property coming into contact with the snow.
The greatest strength of “Crimson Peak” is the passion and allusions to Gothic horror traditions that influenced del Toro greatly. Gothic narratives usually feature individuals crossing over into dark and unknown territories, progressive actions at odds with the past, twisted eroticism, and moments of the uncanny. Edith proudly declares to a meddling society woman that instead of dying a spinster like Jane Austen, she would rather die a widow like Mary Shelley (who, of course, authored what may be the most revered novel of the Romantic period: “Frankenstein”). A long monologue on love by Lucille Sharpe in the third act resembles the emotions stirred by the damned lovers, Catherine and Heathcliff of “Wuthering Heights.” These are lovers who would rather cause the other to suffer eternally than be separated by forces that would tear them apart (not exactly the kindest or most selfless romance imaginable). In Daphne du Maurier’s book “Rebecca” the narrator marries the strange and enigmatic Maximillian de Winter as she enters her new home at Manderley where his deceased wife seems to remain very much alive within its walls. “Crimson Peak” is instantly recognizable from its billowing, aesthetically visual setting and thematic presence as belonging to the Gothic genre that blended modern realism with supernatural possibilities.
Mia Wasikowska’s role as the title character “Jane Eyre” in Cary Fukunaga’s 2011 adaptation of Charlotte Bronte’s novel would have led del Toro to see that Wasikowska has no trouble inhabiting young women who are determined and strong willed when faced with a looming threat. I can’t see Emma Stone, who originally was cast as Edith, being able to blend into such a lavish and exaggerated production design. Tom Hiddleston plays his part sympathetically as a despondent gentleman who is caught between his newfound love for Edith and his sister’s plans for their future. Jessica Chastain is a manic force with a nuanced performance that continues to show how as an actress she works to develop her craft and versatility.
I fell in love with the Gothic tradition when I was too squeamish to take on slasher films like “Friday the 13th” or “Halloween,” but wanted to be delightfully scared by what I was reading. In books I could choose what apparitions would remain to haunt me after the last page. Many a nightmare was caused by envisioning Peter Quint and Miss Jessel from “The Turn of the Screw” lingering in a corner of my bedroom or the thought that one of my friendly neighbors could be keeping a decaying corpse in the basement like in “A Rose for Emily” by Faulkner. As I grew older I adjusted to themes of the supernatural, grief, despondency, and a fierce amount of female protagonists that did not subscribe to being labeled damsels in distress.
Today the youth go to cider mills and haunted attractions to be chased around corn mazes by strangers wielding chainsaws. They have an abundance of low-budget horror films on Netflix which focus solely on how much gore or torture can be depicted in a 90-minute time frame. One of my favorite films “The Others” terrified me growing up as I was riveted by the atmospheric somberness and tension-filled buildup towards the ending’s big reveal. When I tried to show it to my little brother he became fidgety, asking when someone would die, when we would see the ghosts—which is exactly the opposite of what the Gothic tradition is all about. These books and films want their audiences to consider the violence, not only enacted on screen but in the minds of the character’s that are slowly unraveling. Ghosts are meant to frighten you, but what is it about the threat they pose that scares us? We cannot always explain why we feel uneasy when passing by a graveyard in the middle of the night. Or when we hear a sound coming deep within an empty house when you’re the only one at home. Hopefully “Crimson Peak” will be able to resurrect this archetype for cultivating terror so that we can stop focusing on a film’s body count and instead on how long the fear it instills continues to linger within us.