Crimson Peak trips over cliché after cliché. A young heroine, headstrong and unconventionally willful but soft and conventionally beautiful, a glorious representation of typical turn-of-the-century feminine beauty, stands smack in the middle of a dark tale that threatens to swallow her up. A handsome outsider, dark and kind, his traditional masculine authority softened by a curious combination of modernity and youth, creeps in to the scene, her space — suddenly, purposefully, as if by fate.
The film, directed by Guillermo del Toro and starring Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain, is a self-labeled Gothic romance — an orgy of period costumes and aesthetic juxtapositions that seduce us into a world where ghosts, as our heroine Edith Cushing (Wasikowska) claims, are real. Just like the Gothic tradition it is born from, it toys with the line between terror and horror, that is, the physical presence between anticipation and disgust. Fear is real, fear has a shape, fear is tangible, and, perhaps most importantly, it only exists because it is part of us, the part of us that despite (and because of) our best efforts, we cannot control. More than an aesthetic wonderland, Crimson Peak is an exploration of fear and control and the gendering of such forces — fear as a part of the body as much as it is part of the mind. It is a movie that constantly insists that it is about secrets, about how under strain and repression secrets mutate and become monstrous creatures that end up controlling us. But secrets are the product, not the cause, of fear. It is fear that makes us act, that suffocates us, that renders our bodies into shapes we would never recognize. It is a movie about alienation.
In Crimson Peak, fear, like desire, may foster empowerment or corruption, but is also the mother of ghosts, and it is the desire for control (and the inability to acquire it) that makes ghosts dangerous. For ghosts, fear is only the power of corruption in physical form; for humans, the film suggests that fear gives us a choice to either take control or recklessly and futilely pursue control. While ghosts are as pernicious as they are physically manifest, they are also passive creatures that do not exist of their own accord and are dependent, too, on our attachments to them. We create ghosts. They are fear unleashed from the body, twisted not by the inability to control but from the pressure created by attempting to control too much.
If fear has a gender, there is probably a strong argument for it being female (in terms of the times contemporary with the advent of the Gothic novel). What is fear but weakness made visible, palpable? And control would be a male force, the corset boning that bridles his lady’s waist, the walls that contain her domestic felicity.
These are, of course, clichés (perhaps tropes is a better word) that the Gothic novel embraces, and that Crimson Peak, sneaky film that it is, inverts. I don’t mean to imply that the female characters in the film do not experience fear, as fear is the film’s universal constant that no character can escape, but instead that fear does not imply weakness, and that control is not inherently masculine. In fact, for a Gothic film to be the subversive, modern film we demand in a society that is considerably less likely to arrange a marriage, control must be feminine. Masculinity must yield. The film, like all art, must be a mirror through which we view our own modernity.
But more than fear, Crimson Peak asks us to work within a series of tropes and interrogate them. Where Gothic novels often give us heroines who are active readers (and inspired by many active imaginations), Crimson Peak gives us a heroine who is an active writer. Gothic novels function on heterosexual relationships with disparate power, and Crimson Peak certainly delivers — spoiler alert — in the form of incest.
By these means, del Toro creates a film that is as unpredictable as it is formulaic. It is human and supernatural carnage clothed in silk and brocade. It trips over cliché after cliché because it puts those clichés in place that it might trip over them, as if to look into the camera and say horror is not an act of God. It is not sublime. It is the refuse of our own souls.
For it was an unjust mirror, this mirror of his soul that he was looking at. Vanity? Curiosity? Hypocrisy? Had there been nothing more in his renunciation than that? There had been something more. At least he thought so. But who could tell? …No. There had been nothing more. Through vanity he had spared her. In hypocrisy he had worn the mask of goodness. For curiosity’s sake he had tried the denial of self. He recognized that now.
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde