Gothic is the New Graphic: Crimson Peak is Not a Horror Film and That’s Wonderful
When I first saw the trailer for Crimson Peak, my initial thought was: Not for me. Dammit.
This is because the trailer SUCKS for someone like me. The film’s marketing presented to us this dark, creepy story in this dark, creepy house full of dark, creepy creatures that were constantly after a woman who was neither dark nor creepy. The trailer indicates that there are other potentially dark, creepy characters, but at the center is poor, waifish Mia Wasikowska in a sumptuous nightgown running from all these frightening humanoid things that come through walls and floors during loud, cacophonous string and horn chords to torment her.
I don’t like horror. I don’t get a thrill from being frightened. I don’t like movies in which the featured draw is having things pop out at you all. damn. night.
But as time went on from my first discovery of the film, I knew that at some point, I would be watching this movie. It was gorgeous. I could tell just from the three or four minutes in the two trailers I saw that it would be visually supple and well acted. I still wasn’t sure about seeing it in theaters—I don’t like exposing dozens of strangers to my ten-foot leaps and high decibel screeching. But I was coaxed to go on a Wednesday night, when only a few people would see my shame, and I went.
And it was amazing. Spectacular, even. I actually said that as the credits rolled: “That was spectacularly done.”
This is because Guillermo del Toro has produced the ultimate work of Gothic Horror.
While Gothic hearkens a certain period of time, a work of Gothic Horror can take place at any time, which is why the twentieth-century Edwardian setting of Crimson Peak is perfectly delightful. It is not your average English Regency or Victorian period film, but it’s also not a stylized period-unknown fright-porn fantasy.
Its definitive setting is part of what makes it a wonderful Gothic Horror. The other highlights of a Gothic tale—a dark, old house, a mystery, and the inability to differentiate between the real and the imagined—are all present, in a very traditional way. The key to a true tale of Gothic Terror, something like Frankenstein or The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, as opposed to the earlier Gothic novels like Udolpho and Otranto, is a depth of psychological self-assessment by the narrator or protagonist. Whether we read The Turn of the Screw or Rebecca, we can never be sure if the narrator has a legitimate reason for their fear, and really, neither can either of the unnamed protagonists. In any of these stories, whether on the page or the screen, when you combine the protagonist’s lack of clarity with a limited amount of sharing with the spectator, there is a level of suspense that does not need to be exacerbated with cheap thrills and shocking reveals, although there are plenty of the latter in Crimson Peak.
But the final element of the Gothic is an embracing of the supernatural, which we are asked to buy into very early on in the film. It is this early buy-in that allows subsequent appearances of potentially supernatural beings to more fluidly work in the architecture of the film, instead of being jaggedly inserted for fright’s sake—either on the part of the characters or the viewers.
The movie itself is crafted in the usual del Toro way: he has an idea, he builds it out into a story with meta resonances, and then drapes it with beautiful sets, music, visual effects, and people. It is never just one kind of story, and the expected is always the unexpected. While there are no bad roles in the film, the women are truly those who carry the story; Charlie Hunnam (once again presenting us with an Ambiguously American accent) and Tom Hiddleston (with his ever sumptuous voice) are an added bonus. While Mia Wasikowska portrays a delightfully not TSTL heroine and Jessica Chastain is perfection in the role of Lady Lucille, the real star of the movie is the house, Allerdale Hall, with walls that ooze with the blood-red clay that gives the estate its nickname.
It isn’t about Guillermo del Toro coming up with a completely new story. It’s about him (and his fellow writers) taking elements of stories we all know and telling the result in a completely different and aesthetically marvelous way.
I’m not going to tell you more; the best part of experiencing this movie is watching the events unfold from beginning to end, and making the most outrageous guesses you can possibly come up with.
Just remember: There are ghost stories, and there are stories with ghosts. Similarly, there are romantic stories, and there are stories that have a few chapters of romance. The benefit of a movie like Crimson Peak is that we can combine all of these things to create a suspenseful thrill that is all its own.