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Crimson Peak: A (Feminist) Gothic Romance

Crimson Peak (via Legendary Pictures) Crimson Peak (via Legendary Pictures)

Warning: major plot spoilers ahead.

Writer-director Guillermo del Toro’s most recent work, Crimson Peak, is not just the horror film it is depicted as in trailers. Yes, the work is full of its fair share of jump-scares and ghosts as well as a few graphic murders, but ultimately del Toro seems to be using these elements of horror to convey a broader social statement about women and love.

The film is set in the late 18th/ early 19th century, an age of industry, invention, luxury, and early Victorian feminism. The female lead, Edith Cushing (played by the fair-skinned blonde Mia Wasikowska) is an aspiring young writer who falls in love with inventor Sir Thomas Sharpe (played by the Englishman Tom Hiddleston) and moves from Buffalo, New York to live with him and his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) in the isolated, gothic mansion “Allerdale Hall” (which, did I mention, del Toro took seven months to physically build). During her time at the mansion, Edith is haunted by her mother’s ghost who warns her to “beware of crimson peak.” As Edith soon discovers, crimson peak is a name used to refer to the site of the mansion because of the blood-colored clay that stains the top of the ground red.

Toward the beginning of the film, Edith states twice that the ghosts which are characters in her manuscript should be read as a metaphor del Toro tells his audience outright that Crimson Peak uses horror for a purpose beyond horror itself.

Elements of horror throughout Crimson Peak might be described as horror that perverts the intimate, utilizing specific choices in cinematography, setting and dialogue to create a deep sense of discomfort within the viewer. A few examples:

In one scene, Lucille and Edith are sitting outside talking, and Lucille takes notice of one of many dead butterflies lying on the ground and remarks to Edith “beautiful things are fragile,” as she touches the dead insect to Edith’s cheek. The film cuts to a detailed close-up of a very loudly buzzing swarm of flies slowly tearing away at the eye of one of the butterflies. The camera rests on this image until the next change of scene.

A similar image occurs when Edith is inside the mansion: another close-up of dead and dying flies on a wooden countertop.

In one of the graphic (almost) murders, Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) looks Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam) straight in the eye and asks him where he suggests would be the best place to insert the knife because Dr. Alan is in fact a doctor. Thomas stabs McMichael with unflinching deliberateness.

Perhaps the best example of this kind of “horror” occurs in the scene where Edith is asked to identify the half-missing face of her dead father. Unbeknownst to Edith, her pain and vulnerability are taken advantage of as a foundation for Thomas to carryout his sister Lucille’s and his plan to manipulate her, marry her, and steal money. This sentiment is reflected in Sharp’s immediate assumption of the role of Edith’s source of (masculine) dependency when he says “I’m here for you now, I’m here.”

Each of these four examples in one way or another mix an element of closeness (either emotional or literal, as in the camera zoom-in’s) with some kind of perversion of that intimacy. Ultimately, this violated, twisted closeness is exactly the kind of romantic love that is provided by the film’s lead masculine role—both in Thomas’ strategic manipulation of Edith’s emotions and in the perverted details of his rejection of another female character (I won’t give this one away).

Some of the final dialogue of the film concludes that “the horror was for love” and that “This love [the love experienced by the two lead woman in the film by the same man] burns you and mains you and twists you inside out.”

Miles Greenstone ‘19, who saw Crimson Peak at Kalamazoo’s Alamo Drafthouse, said he “liked how at the end of the movie the ghost was still bleeding from the same wound.”

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Crimson Peak: A (Feminist) Gothic Romance