There are magical moments in pop culture when the time is right, the stars align and a piece of entertainment falls onto your lap that you could almost swear was created explicitly for your personal pleasure. Hollywood’s production machine is tailored to appeal to the widest audience possible, and as such tends to dilute the idiosyncratic into something more palatable for the masses. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – the well-oiled Marvel machine has created several highly entertaining films that all fit their specific mould – but it can leave a predictable trail.
Crimson Peak, the latest film from much loved director Guillermo Del Toro, isn’t so much wildly original as it is a passionate homage to the classics of gothic romance and horror. That in and of itself helps it stand out amidst the expected pre-Halloween jump scare releases, but its precise focus and inimitably feminine stance make it the very definition of a “Me Thing”.
American heiress Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska, who seems to have been made to wear puffy sleeves) knows ghosts exists: she saw her mother after her death, warning her to ‘beware of Crimson Peak’. As an adult, she has turned to writing to free herself of the past, writing stories featuring ghosts as a metaphor. When a mysterious aristocratic sibling duo (Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain, giving her best performance ever) turn to Edith’s father for a business investment, she finds herself drawn to the handsome Thomas and soon their attraction turns to love. Of course, that’s where the nice stuff ends.
Don’t go into Crimson Peak expecting a following week of sleepless nights. There are a number of effective scares – particularly one moment involving a crawling spirit – but this is not the horror epic sold in the trailers. This is firmly a call-back to the age of the gothic romance, with loving references to everything from Mary Shelley to Rebecca, The Changeling, The Shining and The Haunting, with a few paperback historical romances thrown in for good measure. Like the pioneering works of the genre, such as Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, this is a work of pure emotion, often in its most heightened forms. Fortunately, Del Toro has the capabilities to handle moments of near soap-opera expression.
His style has often been very stylised and visceral, and here is no exception. The ghosts are smoky presences, often semi-crumbling with the causes of death evident, their forms the scarlet colour of the red clay that oozes from the walls and seeps into the foundations of the crumbling Allerdale Hall. The house itself, the perfect setting for a good old fashioned ghost story, is a majestic mansion crumbling to pieces from top to bottom, and full of monsters of every form. The colour palate of the film alone is work admission price. There’s no questioning of how high the stakes are here.
There’s an amazing Bela Lugosi quote I always cite whenever people (usually men) are surprised that I enjoy horror as much as I do: “Women love horror. Gloat over it. Feed on it. Are nourished by it. Shudder and cling and cry out – and come back for more.” Perhaps a touch self-aggrandising given the source, but it’s always rung true for more, and while Crimson Peak may not solely fit the horror mould, it does exude an appeal I can only define as explicitly feminine.
The unease of the story is centred in common feminine concerns of past and present, from fear of hysteria to the power of carnal desire and competition between women. The female gaze is all over this film – the gorgeous costumes, the heightened emotions, the wholehearted dedication to the romance, the fact that the characters with the most agency in the story are the women while the two men mostly mope, and of course the men themselves.
Anyone who’s read a historical romance will recognise Thomas Sharpe and Alan McMichael (played by Charlie Hunnam). You have the genteel yet haunted nobleman with a dark past and a genuine desire to be loved, versus the hard working doctor with detective skills and a lifelong dedication to the woman he evidently holds a candle to. Love drives the story, in all its beautiful and twisted forms. The sex scene alone, with all it represents in terms of female sexual agency, the female gaze and subverting the power dynamics of marriage, is worthy of a thesis (and yes, you see Tom Hiddleston’s arse. Indeed, you see more of Hiddleston’s skin than you do of Wasikowska’s, which in and of itself is a mainstream movie rarity).
For a long time, gothic romance and horror was seen as a woman’s realm, with writers like Ann Radcliffe leading the pack as the genre developed. This led to many snorts of critical derision and mockery of the women who gleefully consumed these works, which is the entire plot of an Austen novel. There are exceptions throughout the decades that refute this, but horror has now become defined mostly as a male driven form, divorced from its roots and wilfully ignorant of its appeal beyond the limited demographics Hollywood fetishizes. Crimson Peak feels like a direct challenge to that status quo: a loving gothic horror-romance that wears every influence on its puffy sleeve and welcomes women with open arms. It’s not for everyone, but for those it is for, I can’t think of anything as wonderful as this.