DECEMBER 18, 2015
A SPECTER is haunting Hollywood — the specter of the gothic romance. From remakes of Jane Eyre to Twilight and its spiritual successors of all shades, directors and film executives seem entranced with stories of young, innocent women meeting handsome strangers who harbor dark secrets. Latest in the string of gothic revivalists is Guillermo del Toro, who promised that his latest film, Crimson Peak, would stay faithful to the 19th-century genre while updating it for the modern era, particularly with respect to gender relations. Indeed, the setup of this ghost story appears almost derivative. An aspiring writer in turn-of-the-century Buffalo, New York, Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) meets an aristocratic vestige of the old world, the Baronet Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), and his sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain) — siblings who are basically the children from The Innocents, all grown up.
In the inevitable whirlwind, Edith is swept across the Atlantic and into the equally windswept family seat of Allerdale Hall. In the decaying, labyrinthine mansion, where the rest of the film takes place, Edith is revealed to be much more than a guileless waif, as she finds her way, candelabra in hand, through corridors packed with dark secrets, ghosts, and belabored metaphors. Yet as del Toro’s focus shifts increasingly from Edith’s mental turmoil to the red clay seeping through the earth underneath the mansion, and the impeccably color-coordinated clothes of the leads, the film’s gender politics reveal the extent to which classic gothic romance is not as dated as we might want to believe; and the degree to which even contemporary filmmakers can blindly embrace sexist tropes, provided they make for a visually stunning show.
Much of the movie’s marketing has focused on its sexuality, and Tom Hiddleston’s naked and imminently GIF-able behind. For once it is not the female body that is used to sell films, as the actresses are fully covered up, even during sex scenes. Edith’s sexual desire — if not her sexualized form — is crucial to the plot and celebrated within it. Even the most transgressive acts are always shown as consensual, and female pleasure takes primacy over male satisfaction: the money shot is not the man’s orgasm but an image of a woman’s face climaxing. For all this, the steamiest parts (and bits) are in the trailer, and there are, ultimately, more scenes of Edith waking up to an empty bed than of her passionately falling into one. Although nominally about her sexual awakening, the camera lingers on representations of her virginity, like her white nightgown, to suggest the appeal of her innocence for the older and more experienced Thomas Sharpe. Eroticism in Crimson Peak is ultimately much less explored than its scenes of violence, making sex a herring as red as the clay underneath the film’s eponymous house.
This clay is, at first glance, a symbol for blood and death so obvious it seems comical. As Thomas’s new bride first sets foot in the Hall she steps in its red goo, just in case we haven’t caught on yet that Very Bad Things had happened there. Yet the use of clay as a visual metaphor highlights a central tension in the film. Although del Toro promises us a three-dimensional portrayal of his female characters, Crimson Peak worryingly often falls back on visual and narrative cues that draw on tired images of women as emotional and inescapably subject to their biology. Thomas first presents the clay in a lipstick tin to a room of industrialist men, who deem its excavation frivolous. Lucille sees the clay as an extension of the Sharpe bloodline, the substance that ties her family to the ground it inhabits, and considers it her reproductive duty to maintain that connection. Clay and blood — virginal, menstrual, tubercular — seep onto the snow and the white nightgowns at a similar pace, echoing the 19th-century view that mental illness in women relies on the ebb and flow of their bodily fluids. Crimson Peak’s crimson is matrilineal, whether in its presentable, refined form, or oozing, primal, through the floorboards.
Relationships between the female leads, too, aim for complexity, but fall back all too quickly on aesthetics drawn from 19th-century stereotypes. The primary conflict in Crimson Peak is between Edith and Lucille, between light and dark, new world and old: a 19th-century Taylor Swift versus Katy Perry. Like Hitchcock’s Rebecca, Crimson Peak relies on a variant of the virgin-whore dichotomy, in which the ingenue is pitted against the house’s previous mistress. Del Toro expresses this through an oft-invoked distinction between the fragile butterfly and ravenous moth, an animal metaphor that is built into the characters’ wardrobes. While Edith dons bouffant balloon sleeves, Lucille favors dark, rigid corseting — her textile exoskeleton. As the film progresses, one seems to become the other, as the younger woman’s sepia-tones evoke moths and Lucille bursts forth from her satin chrysalis in brilliant hues. By having Edith assume the no-frills moth persona, the film attempts to argue that women are not decorative drawing-room objects, their value not inherently tied up with the way they look. In spite of this inversion, women’s characters are still mainly signaled through appearance and not direct action, all subsumed within del Toro’s hyper-aestheticized universe.
The depth of the human characters is only skin-deep; del Toro’s real break with the genre lies in his treatment of ghosts. This reflects his long-standing interest in seeing the sublime in the monstrous, and the monstrous in the sublime. Lucille’s undying, obsessive love for Thomas produces a murderous reality in the backwaters of Victorian England, endangering not only Edith but also several young women. By contrast, the souls of the dead, who inhabit the world beyond as blood-red wraiths of bone and mangled flesh, turn out to be Edith’s allies, not enemies. The ghosts in Crimson Peak resemble those in The Devil’s Backbone, del Toro’s 2001 meditation on the weight of wartime atrocities, where spirits are described as “emotion[s], suspended in time, like a blurred photograph, like an insect trapped in amber.” But the emotions that have trapped these wraiths in limbo are not revenge or hate, as horror lore would demand, but love and longing. They are more interested in saving Edith than they are in punishing those responsible for their deaths.
The film’s horror is entirely physical rather than psychological, which is where it departs most directly from the genre it celebrates. “Ghosts are real, this much I know,” Edith proclaims at the very beginning, and in the prologue she is visited by her dead mother. The viewer is immediately asked to take these apparitions at face value, and not as the figments of anyone’s imaginations. Del Toro’s genius lies in making these melancholic ghosts appear as terrifying yet mesmerizing creatures, like something out of A Nightmare on Elm Street if it had been directed by Paolo Sorrentino. The logic of a conventional horror story is about making our fears material, imagining a world where the creaking of the door is not just the wind. For del Toro, ghosts and men are equally real, but the latter are the ones we should really fear.
Instead, ghosts, Crimson Peak argues, are a way of seeing the world, intimately connected with the history of cinema. The house itself is a repository of memories and specters. This is not only spiritual, but mechanical, as gramophones replay the secrets of the past, paintings capture the severity of a gaze, and Thomas’s inventions seek to penetrate into the ground to recapture the wealth and influence of his ancestors. In this way, Thomas and his workshop of wonders is reminiscent of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, which drew out the links between early cinema with toy-making and the haunting effects of nostalgia. Edith’s other suitor, an optometrist, is also an amateur photographer, who shows her how spectral projections can be captured on film. Throughout the movie, the camera focuses on other lenses, on magnifying glasses and spectacles. The audience knows to distrust the Sharpe siblings as soon as they show up wearing matching sunglasses on a cloudy day.
Allerdale Hall thus becomes not only supernatural storage site for the characters’ pasts, but also for the many direct cinematic and literary references from the gothic romance genre. Edith’s last name is a nod to Peter Cushing, the Hammer horror Frankenstein, there is a madwoman, as well as an attic, and scenes of nocturnal staircases and crawling insect life seem taken, almost verbatim, from The Innocents. Playing a number of in-jokes with itself (Edith’s dog, for instance, is a papillon), Crimson Peak becomes narratively as well as thematically incestuous. It is a giant on literal clay feet, sagging under its referential (and reverential) weight. Del Toro wanted to make a straight gothic romance for the modern age, but might have benefited from turning his homage into a pastiche, granting it some of the lightness it desperately requires. And aren’t all the best genre pastiches homages at heart?
Part of the problem is that del Toro has straw-manned the very genre he wishes to celebrate. Few gothic heroines have been unequivocal damsels in distress, suffering fainting fits at every turn. Indeed, Edith’s arc of self-fulfillment mirrors almost exactly that of Jane Eyre (who, in yet another nod, was also played by Wasikowska in its most recent film version), where a young woman establishes an independent sense of self in the shadow of an older man. Although the gothic has historically been used to reinforce certain gender and class roles, through a palatable mix of romance, exoticism, and titillation, its tropes have had an equally long history of being inverted by the Brontës, Mary Shelley, and Jane Austen. And even the most maligned of modern iterations of gothic romance, such as Twilight, center on female lust and a man’s unwillingness to consummate a sexual relationship, rather than stereotypical Victorian tropes.
Ultimately, however, del Toro’s noble failure is not his alone. His experience is instructive, as Hollywood mines its history for projects with a built-in audience infused with nostalgia, and more artists become interested in playing with forgotten genres. Whether it’s the return of gothic romance, the revival of Twin Peaks, or the all-female sequel to Ghostbusters, the central challenge is to avoid overburdening the films with meta-text, at the expense of subtext. Crimson Peak is a gorgeous construction, a joyous bricolage of visual and narrative references put together so seamlessly that it remains enchanting even to those viewers who have never seen Rebecca or The Innocents. Yet despite del Toro’s claims, it offers little that classic gothic fiction has not explored in more depth, and through its embrace of the genre’s aesthetics, it succumbs to many of the genre’s problems as well.
While their layers of external references are dense, taken on their own, del Toro’s visual and narrative metaphors are remarkably thin. “The ghosts are metaphors for the past,” Edith exclaims, and the same obvious transparency applies to many other visual cues. The butterfly stands for innocence, the red clay for female emotion. The problem is that rather than framing the story anew, and inviting a richer exploration of the concepts for which they stand, the power of these images ends with the immediate comparison. They are not metaphors, they are similes. For a ghost story about mystery, secrets, and things that go “boo” in the dark, Crimson Peak is so familiar it neither scares nor stirs.