not in our stars, but in ourselves
The heroine of Crimson Peak, Edith Cushing (later Sharpe), tells us that ghosts are real – she’s seen them all her life. At the same time, she’s writing a novel, in which the ghosts are a metaphor for the past. In literature as in life: she’s right. Crimson Peak is exactly the kind of movie the Brontë sisters might have written, had they been alive about 100 years later, in which romance, death, nature, dysfunctional families, and secrets in the attic (and in the basement) all conspire to break the tale’s female protagonist. It’s distinctly old-fashioned, in the best possible way, and I will open by saying that I loved it unabashedly.
When she was a little girl, Edith’s mother died. One night, some weeks after the funeral, her mother’s frightening apparition warns her, desperately: “Beware of Crimson Peak.” In 1901 or so, a grown-up Edith (Mia Wasikowska) lives in Buffalo with her widowed father, Carter (Jim Beaver). She lives a happy life as an avid reader, an aspiring writer, and a devoted daughter. Her childhood friend, Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam), is plainly in love with her – but Edith seems not to notice. When an acquaintance snips that Edith will end a spinster, like Jane Austen, she claps back (if “clapping back” had been a concept in 1901) that she’d rather end a widow like Mary Shelley. Clever Edith. A brother-sister pair of nobles, Sir Thomas (Tom Hiddleston) and Lady Lucille Sharpe (Jessica Chastain), arrive in Buffalo. Thomas wants to try to convince Mr. Cushing and his industrialist cohorts to help him finance an invention of his own design, one to dig up the rich red clay on his property in England. Cushing declines, citing Thomas’s failed attempts to raise capital in London, Edinburgh, and Milan; but Edith is impressed by Thomas’s earnestness, and by his evident poverty: she notices that brother and sister both wear clothes that were obviously well made, but several generations out of fashion, and even more obviously worn out. Thomas, for his part, finds Edith impressive as well, and begins courting her. Neither Cushing nor Lucille likes that very much. Cushing bribes the Sharpes to leave Buffalo and return to England without Edith – but I bet you can guess what happens. She goes to England, as Lady Edith Sharpe. There, she finds her new home: Allerdale Hall, an ancient estate that’s crumbling and sinking into the red clay underneath it. Before long, Edith sees frightening ghosts – many of whom seem to have died horrific deaths. Her terror ratchets up to eleven when she finds out that the locals refer to Allerdale Hall as “Crimson Peak,” because the red clay seeps through the snow and makes the hill a deep red instead of the soft white surrounding it. Thomas and Lucille try to convince her that it’s nothing, that she’s seeing things, but Edith knows better. She learns what the Sharpes have been up to all these years, and – well, it isn’t pretty.
Crimson Peak was written, not by the Brontë sisters or by Mary Shelley or by any woman at all, but by director Guillermo del Toro and Matthew Robbins. Why does that matter? Perhaps it doesn’t, but I think it’s commendable that we have a film whose point of view, ethos, and consciousness are all unmistakably female. Edith isn’t a one-dimensional cipher. She’s interesting, active, and – in the end – the one who saves the day, despite being scared almost out of her wits. More than the main character, even, is the very premise of a living female who’s haunted (and eventually advised) by female ghosts. I re-read this article, “The Feminist Power of Female Ghosts,” every Halloween, and I’d recommend that you do the same:
When you can pause for a moment between waves of stomach-churning heebie-jeebies, you realize that not only are these women sympathetic characters, but they’re all the more terrifying because they have every bit of anger that makes living women sources of fear, but none of the societal restriction.
In this way, ghost stories are often protofeminist tales of women who, if only in death, subvert the assumptions and traditions of women as dutiful wives and mothers, worshipful girlfriends, or obedient children by unleashing a lifetime’s worth of rage and retribution. […]
And yet, even as ghosts, such women are often anxiously managed by the gendered rules of the societies they’ve departed. Traditional Korean folklore features stories of women who die before being married and having children and thus cannot pass peacefully into death, but will linger around to haunt their family, a problem that is often resolved by the phenomenon of posthumous marriage. There’s a Chinese tradition of stories involving female ghosts who can be resurrected by having sex with a living man. And American ghost stories and folktales are chock-full of greedy, vain female spirits—like The Conjuring‘s Bathsheba—who feed on the youth and beauty that they cannot accept is no longer theirs. Indeed, elderly female ghosts are, in movies at least, played for the most abject horror. In The Shining, when the sexy nude woman who appears to Jack Nicholson’s character turns into a withered crone before his eyes, it’s particularly horrific.
Crimson Peak plays on the expectation that the old crone ghost is jealous of the young new bride, quite cleverly. I don’t mean to sound too strident from my feminist soap box, but the conception of a bitterly jealous old woman, desperate to cling to her lover even as he finds sexy comfort in someone fresh and lovely, isn’t one that women devised themselves. It was dreamed up by men, men who perhaps wanted to demonize their jilted lover in order to justify their wandering eyes or self-absorption or what have you: it’s a more extreme version of “my ex is so CRAZY, but you’re so chill, not like my CRAZY ex.” In Crimson Peak, however, the female ghosts are all trying to warn Edith. The ghost of her mother warns her outright against the Sharpes (albeit with a reference Edith understands too late), and the various female ghosts of Allerdale Hall warn her wordlessly (and, it must be said, quite menacingly at times) against the Sharpe siblings’ intentions. What can I say? It’s nice to see some feminist* solidarity with the dead and the living. These ghosts aren’t vengeful. They’re trying to help. By the end of the film, we probably have another ghost who won’t be especially helpful in the afterlife – but she seems tied to one place, so perhaps she won’t bother anyone.
Del Toro has insisted repeatedly that Crimson Peak isn’t a horror movie. Despite some scares, he’s right. Of course, since most film reviewers are white men, and since most of them don’t seem to like or understand a genre as frequently feminine as Gothic romance, the reviews and box office haven’t been nearly as good as they should have been. Don’t listen to them. Even only as a visual feast, Crimson Peak is worth sinking your teeth (or, uh, eyes) into. Sheila O’Malley notes in her review on RogerEbert.com that the film
uses a lot of old-fashioned camera tricks like wipes (as transitions from scene to scene), and there are also multiple iris wipes (where a circular shape surrounded by blackness homes in on one small image). Del Toro is old-school in his framing and camera moves, in his understanding of spatial relationships. There are times when Edith hugs Thomas, his black coat taking up half the screen, and as the camera moves to the side Edith is slowly engulfed by blackness.
The final act features a couple of monologues, as secrets pour out, and some audience members may find them too expository. But again, in the long tradition of cinema, suspenseful films often featured such final-act monologues. There is strong precedent for the effectiveness of these devices, and they’re effective here too. Kitchen-sink realism is a recent phenomenon, and Del Toro’s films are not bound by those requirements, although the emotions in his films are always real.
The comparisons to Hitchcock’s Rebecca and other classical Hollywood thrillers about naive young wives in big, scary mansions are all spot-on. This isn’t a naturalistic world, nor should it be. This is a precisely lit, expertly framed, world; one in which the hysteria lurks in the mise-en-scène (until it boils over in the form of the ghosts); one in which the costumes tell their own story; one in which the gorgeously decaying production design seems sentient.
In short: Crimson Peak is beautiful. It’s feminist. Its pedigree goes from the Brontës and Shelley to Wharton and Du Maurier, right up through Hitchcock. Don’t believe the hype. Go see it.
*One more feministy observation: when Thomas and Edith consummate their marriage, it’s made clear that everything they do together is for Edith’s pleasure. Thomas has a great time, too, of course – but he goes down on her, he lets her mount him, he makes sure she’s very well looked after. Oh, and she’s nearly entirely clothed throughout, while we get to see a blissful shot of Hiddleston’s pale little butt while he gives her everything he’s got. Sex scenes in scary movies are usually a bore, and usually feature lots of jiggling boobs, and usually indicate a seemingly pleasureless affair; so this one, brief as it is, feels awfully refreshing by comparison.