“Crimson Peak” isn’t horror…it’s something far more sinister
The difference between Gothic and horror stories is found in the stylistic treatment of the theme. A horror story is meant to shock in a powerful, visceral sense. It tears at the senses, stops the heart, and screams into the void.
A Gothic story always suggests more than insists. It simply creeps at the edges of the sensible, lingers the hallways of darkness, and whispers an unsettling truth in ears of the audience. In short, the horror story is interested in showing with action whereas the Gothic focuses on hinting with the setting.
That the Gothic genre has found a peculiar home in the southern United States should not be surprising—the similarities between the South and Victorian England are vast. Each has a troubled past filled with crumbling manors, taboo familial relations, and violent aristocracies.
Each has a society based on strict rules of conduct and a devotion to keeping up appearances. The Gothic was not born here, but it was enthusiastically adopted by writers like Flannery O’Connor and Truman Capote.
“Crimson Peak” is not Southern. It was directed by horror master Guillermo del Toro and stars actors from around the globe. However, fans of the genre will find nearly every element common in the Gothic story represented in the film, from unhinged families to unexplained illnesses to unsolved mysteries dripping with dramatic irony. Death and despondency are on hand for an excellent October ghost story.
“Crimson Peak” is being advertised as a horror film, but in reality the film is far from it. Director del Toro billed his latest film as a “Gothic romance,” meaning that ghosts in the film are merely incidental to the greater story. As heroine Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) would tell you, the ghosts are metaphors for the sins of the past.
Edith is an aspiring writer and daughter of wealthy self-made businessman Carter Cushing (perpetual 19th-century American Jim Beaver). She believes in ghosts due to an unfortunate childhood experience of an unannounced visitation by her recently deceased mother, who warns her to “Beware Crimson Peak!” without giving her context for the warning.
(It seems supernatural beings tend to collectively speak in vague riddles. A two-minute explanation could often save many a character from a world of grief.) Many years later, Edith is courted by Baronet Thomas Sharp (Tom Hiddleston), who is in America with his sister seeking funding for his clay-mining machinery. The Sharp siblings are cursed with a failing legacy built on the remains of red clay, which seeps through the ground and crevices of their collapsing home, Allerdale Hall.
Through a series of ill-fated events, Edith ends up married to Sharp and living within the decayed walls of Allerdale, where secrets and misery reign and breathe with each gust of the east wind.
Such a film might seem strained in the hands of another director, but because Guillermo del Toro is such a capable filmmaker, “Crimson Peak” is a wonder to behold. Every scene is breathtaking in its beauty. Ordinarily, my interest is in strong, engaging stories that take no shortcuts in developing the narrative. By that measure, “Crimson Peak” is mediocre at best.
However, the artistry on display serves to enhance the story so much that the overwrought Gothic clichés fit perfectly with the story’s tone. There is a distinct, captivating elegance to each camera angle. If a Gothic story is meant to be developed by setting, plot contrivance can be easily forgiven when the sets are designed in such exquisite detail. I have yet to see a film by del Toro that I haven’t fallen in love with.
For this reason, I would encourage any fan of film to see “Crimson Peak.” It is not horror. It is not scary, in the sense that men with chainsaws leap from dark corners wearing the skin of their victims. It is meant to unsettle, to prick at the back of your mind, to make you wonder about the creaking of a stair or the moaning of the wind.
The images of the film will stay with you long after the details of the plot fade from memory. Weeks from now, you may wonder why the patches of snow in your dreams have deep shades of red. Guillermo Del Toro will know.