“Crimson Peak” (2015). Starring Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain and Tom Hiddelson. Directed and written by the big man himself, Guillermo del Toro. Edith Cushing, aspiring author, meets the charming Thomas Sharpe. After her father is viciously murdered, she marries him and moves with him to his home in England, the eponymous Crimson Peak. Soon after arriving, she discovers that the mansion is haunted and uncovers a horrible secret held by Thomas and his sister, Lucille.
Every time I read someone bitching and whining about “Crimson Peak,” from the story being linear (Really? Really? Are you freaking kidding me? What the hell is wrong with a linear story… oh wait. Sorry, you must be a Tarantino fan. He doesn’t do horror.) to “Oh, I didn’t realize that those were practical effects ENHANCED with CGI, it was too hard to tell.” (Huh? How could you not? The ghosts had weight, even when they were ephemeral.)
“That movie was too pretty and it didn’t have jump scares so it wasn’t scary, and there was romance in it and that’s yucky because feelings and seeing a woman’s bare ankles make me uncomfortable.”
What? What in the…you mean to tell me that random meaningless sex in a slasher film is OK, but romance in a ghost movie is not? You’ve gone too far.
Listen up horror hags, this is how it is.
“Crimson Peak” is a great movie. There. I said it. Because someone had to.
It is its own thing, and fits in its own subgenre, which is Gothic horror. In fact, it is a great example of a Gothic horror story. It hits all the main points required for it to be Gothic Horror. For you silly Nellies that don’t read, like EVER, Gothic horror has a very long tradition in literature, dating back to the Victorian era. If you don’t know when that was, look it up. I’m not here to teach you history, I’m here to school you on horror.
I’ll teach you a little bit about the Victorian era, because without this knowledge some things that occur in this movie are lost on the modern audience. You’re welcome.
Here’s the thing: if you were versed in Victorian social structure, mores, history etc. you’d know right away that Sir Thomas Sharpe being a Baronet meant that he was at the very bottom of high society’s totem pole. Even so, that title gave him a bit of privilege and social standing, so when he appeared at whatsherfaces ball thingy (those were super important social shindigs back in the day) with Edith, and not the host of the ball (that he was going to marry until he found himself falling in love with Edith), it was a huge snub on the family holding the thingy, and shocking one at that. Like, a scandalous one. Would’ve made all the tabloid papers and everything. It was a very big deal.
Back then, if you came from a family that had money, even if all that money was since long gone, you could borrow, lend, trade etc. because of your family name and your own social standing. Which is why Sharpe managed to con so many wealthy women out of their inheritances, even though he was so poor that he couldn’t even afford to fix the roof on his home.
Edith’s father, Carter Cushing, being a Captain of Industry (another important social figure type of the age) had more money and thus more power and social standing than Sir Thomas Sharpe, which made his threats meaningful. They had serious weight and repercussions. Between his threats and the Sharpe’s need for money, there was a reason for Edith’s father to be killed. And he was murdered in the most horrific way.
Don’t believe me?
Someone walks in on old Pop-pop while he’s shaving at the Men’s Club (a crucial social venue of the era where deals were wheeled and companies traded, lives were ruined and fortunes were made behind the scenes), someone walks up behind him, grabs him by the head and smashes his face into the porcelain sink, repeatedly, until the sink breaks and his lifeless body is tossed to the floor. Ouch!
After the murder, the man’s private investigator Holly (a Pinkerton to you newbs), is sent to look into the Sharpes, and Edith marries Sir Thomas and is whisked away to England, to the Sharpe estate, which is known as Crimson Peak.
Why is it called that? Because the clay the family mines is red. Bright blood-red. It seeps into the snow and turns the entire hill the house sits on red, like it’s bleeding. The muddy clay even seeps through the walls because the house was built over the clay mines and is sinking into them. It looks like the walls are crying blood. How cool is that?
Come on! That’s freaking awesome imagery right there.
Anyways, where was I?
“Crimson Peak” is a Gothic horror film, which means that it has a picturesque setting, a monster such as a ghost, vampire/revenant, or some other supernatural entity, and a remote house/mansion/castle that has a personality of its own– it’s kind of like the precursor to the City being a character in a noir film.
It is told from an innocent person’s point of view (POV). This person may be of either gender, with a curious nature. They tend to be willful SOBs that never turn down a challenge, whether it is social or physical in nature. There is often romance and love threading through these types of stories, and often romance is one of the main driving forces for the plot.
The main character’s love interest is tormented. Some can be saved, but others turn out to be irredeemable, even though the reader comes to care for him/her, it’s too late for them and they must pay for their vile behavior.
In the case of “Crimson Peak”, we have a Gothic horror movie with ghosts and a haunted manse in it. Its focus, as with all Gothic Horror stories, is character development. CHARACTER. DEVELOPMENT. That means that you get to know the characters as they go through an internal journey of discovery, where they either find the strength to move past a tragedy, or give in to despair when they see that they themselves, are the real villains. This often happens while they are trying to solve a mystery or figure out the source of the supernatural entity/monster of the story.
A doomed romance is often part of the tale, such as a tormented male protagonist that may be the villain or just a poor sod that got screwed over by someone else (metaphorically and/or literally), and skeletons in closest, i.e. hidden secrets that could be deadly if they are revealed. The monsters are often a physical representation of a sickness of the human mind. Which, when you think about it, is pretty damn cool, and rather sophisticated story telling.
Crimson Peak is a Masterpiece. Here’s why:
1. Strong Female Lead Characters
The main character is a woman who gets into trouble (i.e. becomes a damsel in distress) and then saves herself. Even though the young doctor (another person with a good social standing) whom is in love with her comes to rescue her from the evil Sharpes, Edith winds up saving him from them as well. And she fights to survive. FIGHTS. Like fisticuffs. That kind of fighting, not a cat fight or a pillow fight or throwing things like books at the bad guy, we’re talking mano-e-mano. Or would that be womano-e-womano? Whatever.
Her character actions are not an over-used cliché. In fact, her actions break the mold. And I totally respect that. It’s hard to find romantic plots that subvert and deconstruct a genre’s tropes.
While Edith may AT FIRST appear to be another shrinking violet, she is anything but the sort. She is intelligent, clever, caring, virtuous and above all, she has a strong will to survive. Once she realizes that not everything is as it seems, she starts digging to find clues that will lead her to the dark truth of the manse, and it’s denizens. She takes action, her character is an agent of change. She doesn’t sit and wring her hands and wave a hand fan while waiting for a knight in shining armor to rescue her. No. She charges right ahead, discovers the truth, and lets out her inner Amazon warrior.
Two of the main characters are strong-willed women that pit themselves against one another, Edith Cushing and Lady Lucille Sharpe. And it gets freaking vicious.
Don’t let the frilly dresses or the proper speech fool you, those chicks are butch as hell and they kick the living crap out of each other during the movie’s climax. I’m serious. It gets nasty. Knives, shovels, you name it, they use it. Yikes!
2. The Ghosts
The main ghosts are played by none other than master actor Doug Jones. He’s so good, he can play a female ghost and no one knows that it’s him! AHHHH! AWESOME!
Let me just spell it out for you right now. The movie tells you EXACTLY WHAT IT IS ABOUT within the first act. It’s a story about ghosts, and the ghosts are metaphors. Did you catch that? No? That’s fine. I’ll wait.
How about now?
Let Den Mother Cassie tell you how it is:
Edith is simultaneously afraid, and curious of the ghosts she runs into.
But, what are they?
Are the ghosts real? Are they all in her head; a product of an over-active imagination, which novelists often suffer from? Or are they simply metaphors for something else (as the movie flat-out told us), such as the loss of innocence and an inability to see past the facade of a handsome face to the true monster that lies beneath it?
All three options work, they can all be correct and occurring at the same time, and that is why this movie is so great. It’s layered. A movie with that much plot texture is always a winner in my book.
And yes, the ghosts are all practical effects, with CGI overlay, like icing on the cake.
3. People are the Real Monsters
Fortunately, “Crimson Peak” ain’t no “Paranormal Activity” crapfest where the main leads are annoying douche bags that are ASSHOLES FOR NO REASON, nor does it suffer from JUMP SCARE syndrome. This is a mature, grown up ghost story, which unfolds in a twisted, dark fairy tale. It has supernatural elements, but the real monsters are the people. The living people in the movie. Not the ghosts. The ghosts aren’t there to scare anyone. They’re there to warn Edith. They’re there to help. And even though their visages are frightening, they’re not meant to scare the audience. They aren’t the part of the movie that is scary. It’s the Sharpes. It’s the human monsters. Which, by the way, is a common theme in Guillermo del Toro’s works.
Man is a bigger monster than any other entity in his stories. And that is what is scary. What the villains do to people who cross them, what they are willing to do for love and to keep their love a secret from the world, is far more heinous than anything any of the ghosts do in the film.
4. The Visuals
“Crimson Peak” is a visual feast of eye candy. Elaborate sets, period costumes, awesome unique ghosts, the works. The setting, and what appears in each home, is a direct reflection of the characters that reside in them. I love that kind of imagery!
The hallways of Crimson Peak are shaped like keyholes. Keys are a symbol of Lady Lucille, and her desire to be the head of the household. Even after Edith marries her brother, she refuses to relinquish them and retains the power to keep Edith locked out of certain rooms, rooms that hold secrets so horrifying, that to learn of them would mean your death.
Even a character’s clothing can be a foreshadowing of a future event in the movie. How cool is that?
PASSIVE AGGRESSIVE SPOILER ALERT.
IGNORE THE FOLLOWING PARAGRAPH IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE MOVIE. READ AT YOUR OWN RISK. OR NOT. IT’S UP TO YOU REALLY. WE WON’T JUDGE YOU IF YOU DECIDE TO READ IT BEFORE WATCHING THE MOVIE. Just don’t come whining to us when you see that it spoiled a major plot point. Do what you want. It’s not like we like you or anything…
For instance, Lady Lucille wears a red dress with a ribbon braid down the back that lays against the spine. It has a skeletal quality about it, and it is quite prominent in a shot when she sits down to entertain guests at the ball shindig thingy and plays the piano (This was a custom back in the day as well. If you had money, you had time for leisurely pursuits and for learning the arts. So those involved in such things were expected to show off their skill). This shot is mirrored in an end sequence, when she is a ghost and sitting at her piano at home and plays it. The skeletal aspect of the dress is a visual clue that Lucille will be dead by the end of the movie. And I think that is just freaking genius.
5. The Metaphors
Crimson Peak was built over clay mines, and the Sharpe’s fortune was made by selling the fine clay on the hill where the manse resides. There’s nothing like it anywhere else in the world. The family’s coffers ran dry after a series of calamities, and the house, like the family, is slowly sinking into decay, ruin, and obscurity. Sir Thomas Sharpe’s last desperate hope is to con women into marrying him, using his important sounding title as bait to the lower-upper class nouveau riche. Once he brings them to his home, they find that it’s a crumbling, decaying mess. And it’s dreadfully cold. Not someplace that you’d want to raise a family in.
The bright red clay represents death, and murder. The blood of innocents shed by nobility in a desperate act to keep what little they have left. The ghosts that appear in the mansion are the same color, and appear to be fluid and drippy, like blood, or the wet clay that is bubbling up from the depths of the mines.
Then there’s the butterfly/moth=death leitmotif.
Here’s an example of the dialogue where the death moth symbolism takes place.
Lucille Sharpe: [Looking at the dead butterflies] They’re dying. They take the heat from the sun, and when it deserts them, they die.
Edith Cushing: How sad.
Lucille Sharpe: No, it’s not sad, Edith. It’s nature. It’s a world of everything dying and eating each other right beneath our feet.
Edith Cushing: Surely there’s more to it than that.
Lucille Sharpe: [Looking at Edith] Beautiful things are fragile… At home we have only black moths. Formidable creatures, to be sure, but they lack beauty. They thrive on the dark and cold.
Edith Cushing: What do they feed on?
Lucille Sharpe: Butterflies, I’m afraid.
See how sinister Lucille is? Yikes!
“Crimson Peak” is a fantastic movie. It sweeps across continents, and immerses us in a period piece unlike anything I have ever seen. It is a unique work of art. And maybe that’s the problem. It’s so special, so different, that like Edith herself, it is misunderstood and looked down upon. At least, until the knives come out.
If you didn’t give this movie a chance, you might want to watch it again, with these points in mind. That is, unless you can’t stand the accents and the way of talking those crazy Victorians had. If you can’t, well…I can’t help you with that. Go watch “Tales from the Hood” or something and leave the mature Victorian ghost stories for the adults. Thanks.