Considering Crimson Peak

To round-off the Autumn Semester in style, Sheffield Gothic assembled for a festive film screening of Crimson Peak (2015). OK, it might not be a Christmas classic, but it does feature plenty of snow. The film is a visual delight – and that’s not just because of Tom Hiddleston. Guillermo del Toro’s meticulous attention to detail as he pays homage to the Gothic romance makes this the perfect choice for a discussion on the theme of Gothic aesthetics and archetypes.

Starring Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Charlie Hunnam, and Sheffield Gothic favourite, Tom Hiddleston (yes, there were fangirl screams every time he uttered the words ‘Gothic romance’ during the press tour), Crimson Peak tells the story of Edith Cushing, a young American heiress, as she uncovers the dark secrets behind the warning ‘Beware Crimson Peak’, prophetically issued by the ghost of her mother. Working in the Radcliffian tradition, del Toro experiments with the concept of the explained supernatural. In Crimson Peak the ghosts are real, but they serve to provide a warning as the true threat lies with the living, not the dead. Rather than present medieval Europe as a place of danger and degeneracy, England becomes the archaic site of transgression.
Edith, an aspiring author who eschews saccharine romances in favour of writing ghost stories, is immediately (and understandably) drawn to Thomas Sharpe, the dashing if somewhat mysterious English Baronet who has travelled to America in search of an investor to back the invention he hopes will maximise the profits from the rich deposits of red clay lying beneath the family seat. Not only is he a tall, dark and handsome aristocrat, but he’s well-dressed, a great dancer, has really soft hands – and he loves his sister, Lucille. You know what they say: if it all sounds too good to be true, then it probably is! Struggling with the burden of inheritance, in terms of the ancestral house and the secrets it contains, Thomas is one of a dying breed and stands in direct contrast to the successful, self-made men in America.

After marrying Edith, he duly takes his new bride back to his crumbling Gothic pile, but Allerdale Hall is slowly sinking into the blood red clay it stands upon. It’s all very ‘Fall of the House of Usher.’ Rich in literary allusion, it’s not hard to spot the references to texts including Rebecca and Jane Eyre, in fact you’d think Thomas’ declaration of love, paraphrasing Brontë’s cord of communion speech, would have set alarm bells ringing for someone as well-versed in Gothic literature as Edith. Thinking about it, this would have been the perfect opportunity for a game of Gothic Reading Group Bingo! It ticks all the boxes you’d expect as del Toro takes the staples of the Gothic romance to make a visually arresting film.  Cue Gothic heroine with great hair fleeing from an isolated country house in her blood-stained, white nightgown.

Acknowledging the centrality of the architectural setting to the genre, del Toro set aside seven months for Allerdale Hall to be built. The level of craftsmanship expected from the set designers results in a beautiful rendering of a terrifying space. Multiple items of furniture were replicated so that larger versions could be used to make Edith appear to be diminishing in stature as she weakens. Similarly, her costume sleeves balloon as the film progresses, swamping her tiny frame. Although Edith may physically deteriorate, she remains mentally strong, retaining her will and resolve. This is very much a female-centric narrative, appealing to the female gaze. Edith and Lucille are successfully used to illustrate conflicting types of love without either woman being depicted in the role of a passive victim. It is Thomas who turns out to be ineffectual as either hero or villain. Lucille is the powerful force, using him as attractive bait to drive the plot. Whilst that plot may be predictable, the high production values of this beautifully shot film means that you can still revel in the set and costume designs even if you can guess where the narrative is going.

The focus on aesthetics is not intended as mere eye candy. Del Toro jokingly refers to his use of ‘eye protein’; the content is not merely beautiful, it tells a story. However, when the film was released back in 2015 it disappointed those hoping for a horror film, with many film critics commenting that it was a clear case of style over substance:

‘Aflame with color and awash in symbolism, this undeniably ravishing yet ultimately disappointing haunted-house meller is all surface and no substance, sinking under the weight of its own self-importance into the sanguine muck below.’ (Peter Dubruge, Variety)

‘The film is too busy, and in some ways too gross, to sustain an effective atmosphere of dread. It tumbles into pastiche just when it should be swooning and sighing with earnest emotion.’ (A.O. Scott, The New York Times

‘It may be a little overwrought for some tastes, borderline camp at points, but if you’re partial to a bit of Victorian romance with Hammer horror gloop and big, frilly night-gowns, GDT delivers an uncommon treat.’ (Dan Jolin, Empire)

As it turns out, we are partial to a bit of Victorian romance (and the frillier the nightgowns, the better), but then we are pretty much the perfect audience for Crimson Peak. Our discussion led us to conclude that a certain level of understanding of the development of the Gothic romance is needed to fully appreciate the nuances of del Toro’s vision. Crimson Peak didn’t prove to be a hit at the box-office, grossing just $74 million worldwide against its $55 million budget, largely, we suspect, due to the film being miss-sold as a horror.
On a final note, if del Toro wants to direct an adaptation of Radcliffe’s Udolpho, we’d be totally on board!

Hannah Moss is a PhD researcher at the University of Sheffield exploring the figure of the artist in Eighteenth Century Literature. With a passion for all things Eighteenth Century, Gothic, and art related, Hannah especially loves country houses, but has yet to encounter one quite like Crimson Peak in real life (although looks forward to the day where she will encounter Tom Hiddleston in one!)