Crimson Peak [2015]

My supervisor was an occasional advocate of “pugilistic” critical writing, where you basically take on the erroneous critic and point out where they’ve gone wrong in their wrong-headed praise/dismissal of whatever rubbish/brilliant artwork you’re talking about. In the case of Crimson Peak almost all the reviews I’ve browsed appear to be satisfied that they’ve spotted it’s more of a throw-back to a “Gothic Romance” than the “Horror” we were all sold by the studio in advance. They’re ably abetted in this endeavour by Guillermo del Toro and his cast, who’ve been reasonably consistent in the interviews I’ve seen in saying that it’s not a “ghost story”, it’s a “story with ghosts in it”. All of which means that most reviewers are in need of a good punch in the nose, on the one hand for thinking their job ends with making a genre determination, and on the other hand for being just plain wrong about most of the basic events of the narrative; things like who the story is about, what’s happening to them, and what it all means, seem to have gone largely unremarked.

The Gothic is a genre that once may have been a proud flagship genre but now sits slightly awkwardly between several other genres: horror, the ghost story, the urban fantasy, magic realism and romances-as-such. I’m not too surprised that they’ve had a little trouble marketing this story, instead selling it as a Ghost Story and putting trailers for horror in front of it. That makes Crimson Peak something of an orphan in genre terms, which is why nobody has interrogated how the genre works, or how it approaches things a little differently from its nearest relatives. At one end, we could look at its degenerate cousins: Twilight and Sookie Stackhouse are often sold as “Urban Fantasy” when “Gothic Romance” is probably a better fit in their aesthetic and intent. At the other end, we have Jane EyreWuthering Heights and Northanger Abbey, where the demonic forces wracking the characters are their own overwrought emotions.

In the monstrous gothic, the monsters in a way are rendering literal the subtext of the overwrought gothic. Heathcliff’s passions and problems drive the action in Wuthering Heights; a fairly conventional reading of the novel would position him as the destructive force that prevents happiness, essentially as he is unable to experience it; Twilight renders his metaphoric monstrousness into a literal truth. Heathcliff is a difficult character to understand or even sometimes to feel empathy for, and there is in some way no adequate explanation for his troubles or his successes – Edward is a far less compelling figure in part because his vampirism provides the determinative force in his (and Bella’s) fortunes that is missing from Wuthering Heights. I think one of the reasons for the Gothic’s fall, as a genre, is probably the appropriation of this metaphoric tool away from purely Romantic story objectives to a more general treatment of society; The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll &  Mr Hyde eschews the romance elements of the gothic architecture that it appropriates in order to think about Science ™ and Progress ™, and it is clearly exorcised by the terrible dual nature becoming apparent as Victorian society schismed and passed away. It may not create, but does establish, the metaphoric template that I think all horror since follows.

The ghosts in Crimson Peak obfuscate the central Gothic Romance, so that the simple-minded, and advertisers, think of it as a ghost story or a horror. But why even have the Ghosts? While they prompt key moments of insight in Edith [Mia Wasikowska], they actually don’t materially affect anything until they distract Lucille [Jessica Chastain] at the crucial moment, and even then I think it’s likely Lucille was just as happy to be killed as to be the one killing. Truly angry ghosts inhabiting the domain of their killers could surely cause all kinds of problems for the Sharpes, from breaking the machinery to warning each successive wife of her impending doom. The one wife for whom they provide this service is the one who believes in Ghosts, who writes Ghost stories, who is primarily an imaginative being. They are in effect projections of Edith’s own understanding of the world, trying to warn her about the things a cautious or perspicacious person might observe on her own. It is clear that at least one other wife discovers the truth, but is unable to extricate herself from the Sharpes’ deadly trap. The reason this story has those ghosts is thus precisely the opposite reason that ghosts usually exist: to warn of danger rather than to be the danger, to prevent their own tragedy repeating rather than to endlessly repeat it, to save a victim rather than exact revenge. They are there, I think, as one of the crucial factors leading to Edith’s survival after the others’ deaths, they are there because for Guillermo del Toro, the monsters are never the problem; precisely what made Hellboy 2 so very good, and precisely what made Pacific Rim an oddity in his oeuvre.

Once looked at in those terms, there are really two ghosts left in the film who do fit the usual bill: the Sharpes. They are trapped in their rotting mansion, re-living the same experiences of seduction, entrapment, poisoning, engineering and finally bitter disappointment. They are expressions of their family’s ancestral needs – the needs of the house, and the needs of the machine. When Thomas [Tom Hiddleston] begins to form an attachment to Edith, he is as much betraying his machine and his house as his lover. They are the ones he plans to leave behind, rather than her, though of course that notion is completely unworkable. At first, thinking about the house as a character might seem silly, but the film works hard to help us reach this conclusion, as it colludes with its family and expresses itself. In a film touched by the supernatural, the house’s decrepit appearance and peculiarities can’t be understood in purely metaphorical terms, but even if they could, the metaphor is clear.

What this gives us on first viewing is a film with few contemporaries that nonetheless feels unsurprising. I’ve seen quite a few dismissive comments about the film on that basis. One friend said she’s thought Pacific Rim was dumb until she saw this, which is brutal, but not easy to refute in terms of plot complexity. Again, I would stress that noticing this simple structure is the beginning of your critical work, not the logical end-point: the plot’s simplicity is deliberate, and I don’t think it’s simple because del Toro believed the audience would be confused if he made it more complex. It is something of a cliche to write of a simple tale, well told, but there is something about the economy of focus which allows the really important things to fully manifest and receive the attention from the audience that they need. Put it this way – I can’t recall ever hearing criticism of this sort levelled at The Shining. We have developed an obsession with complexity and novelty that’s tragically constrictive and which hasn’t been the case historically for many of the great periods of artistic flourishing.  It always strikes me as odd for a culture whose most venerated poet is 400+ years old, and who consume mass-produced media in such vast quantitates, that when it comes to critical thought we should be so demanding of NEW NEW NEW! What we get in Crimson Peak is a different paradigm, from a different culture, PERFECT PERFECT PERFECT! Instead of trying to reinterpret this film as a highly wrought and complex horror story, we should be focusing on the visual design and the quality of the actors’ delivery. Guillermo del Toro and his cast deliver all that could be hoped for in these spheres. Attacking it for perfectly accomplishing its own goals is the very height of missing the point.

The more interesting questions for me devolve down into the choice of content. The Sharpes have travelled the world picking up heiresses to finance their crazy scheme of bringing industrial might to bear on their ancestral inheritance of clay. Why is it that Sharpe succumbs to the charms of an American? del Toro could have picked any rich heiress, and we could regard each of Sharpe’s dead wives as similarly failing to meet the criteria del Toro had for the wife who would succeed. The question here must also surely reconnect to our discussions of Ghosts, because the New World is through historical fiat not as steeped in folklore, mythology, or Ghost Stories as the Old World is. The decay, the odd restrictions, and the warnings of the Ghosts, strike the American far more forcibly than other pseudo-aristocrats from similarly decaying landscapes. Edith had to be a yankee, because Crimson Peak would have fit perfectly in the rotting American South of, say, Fevre Dream or Interview with the Vampire. The symbolic power Edith has is quite simply not to do what she’s told, what I think the Americans would consider their defining trait, and it is this which allows her to get as far ahead of the curve as she does, summarised most perfectly in the lines which finally win Thomas to her side: “You keep looking in the past, but you won’t find me there. I’m in the present”. The other places Thomas found wives are all in the past too.

Crimson Peak is not, I admit, a work of breathtaking originality to match Pan’s Labyrinth, but when I read phrases like Vanity Fair’s dismissive “overindulg[ance] in spectacle at the expense of story”, it really seems to me like they’re missing the point. Complex story structures are just one aspect of film, and I think based on numerous discussions of complex films that have been completely misunderstood, not the most important by far. Vanity Fair has treated the actual aesthetic product as an unwanted byproduct from producing “the story”, missing the deeper symbolic significance of the house, the true nature of the ghosts, the tragic aspect of the siblings, or something I haven’t found space for in this 1800 word review to discuss: the importance of the Industrial Revolution in Thomas’ psycho-pathology. They were so busy looking for what they expected to find that they missed the genius sumptuously on display all around them. This film’s plot may be simple, but there are layer as yet undreamt of by their reviewer in the visual symbolic language and in the mythological resonance of the whole story design. I really think anyone who felt that this film was a lesser work should go back and watch it again, listen to it again, and try to use their emotions rather than their intellect to understand what’s going on.

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