I have found it difficult to start this review and not just because procrastination is my middle name. In part the difficulty arises in trying to vocalise my disappointment at what had the potential to be an excellent movie and, more pertinently, in trying to work out what it was that left me cold (but not in a Gothicly disturbed way). I will do my best to elucidate my concerns. Please be aware: “Here be Spoilers”. For all the press and interviews with the cast and director informing me that the film was ‘Gothic romance’, I’m not entirely sure that this is the case. Instead Crimson Peak feels more like a Gothic pastiche which lacked any real bite or humour; rather Gothic tropes are shoe horned in at such a rate, and with such little exploration, that the film suffers from being all surface. Without a doubt the movie ravishes you visually and the set is by turns decadent, degenerate, and gorgeously over-stuffed with metaphor but without a strong sense of its aim, the film flounders under the weight.
The opening of the movie is tongue-in-cheek with the comparison of the New World to the Old. Mia Wasikowska plays Edith Cushing, the daughter of an American industrialist who has earned his wealth through manual labour – he takes pride in showing his manly, rugged hands. The juxtaposition of America as a land of promise and innovation lit with the fires of industry with a Britain which wallows in the mire of class and bloody history is amusingly self-aware. My only complaint is that I’m not sure how ironic this is meant to be especially given the bloodied history of the New World and the legacy of American Gothic. A more satirical edge to the film rather than pastiche would give a sense of discomfort to the viewer rather than a comfortable knowing smile. This was just one of the moments in which I felt the movie was trying to include too many types of Gothic texts which muddied the clarity of the sensations the film was meant to invoke.
Edith is an aspiring novelist who prefers the pleasures of a ghost story to one of romance. On hearing of the arrival of the charming Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and his sister, Lady Lucille Sharpe (Jessica Chastain), Edith is incredibly scathing about the British aristocracy describing them as blood-suckers and repeating almost verbatim Marx’s critique of the landed gentry. Indeed Sir Thomas and Lady Lucille are delightfully vampiric, arriving swathed in black, deep reds and purples and sporting an opalescent skin tone that could only belong to the undead. Hiddleston excels at being dangerously seductive and Chastain oozes melodramatic hauteur – though they are both swamped by the excessive scenery and CGI ghosts. Soon enough Edith falls for Sir Thomas’ charms despite the unsavoury mystery surrounding him. Her father discovers this dark secret only to be brutally murdered making way for Edith to return with Sir Thomas to his family abode, Crimson Peak.
Early in the film, Edith mentions that ghosts are ‘just a metaphor’ for emotional trauma which raised a chuckle from the audience. Unfortunately the rest of the narrative then hammers this home with all the subtlety of a meat cleaver. As the tone of Crimson Peak quickly becomes melodrama with little pathos from humour, repeatedly explaining that the haunted house is a metaphor (something undertaken by all the characters) becomes tedious and suggests that the audience wouldn’t otherwise understand this. Given that the house oozes red, blood-like goo and the pure white snow is stained with blood-red clay, it seems unnecessary to repeatedly mention the violence that is inherent in the Sharpe’s history. More annoyingly, the use of ghosts became tired and unnecessary when the house itself is, quite literally, sinking into a crimson miasma. (At this point it was clear that despite name-checking Ann Radcliffe during the press tour, this film was made with no consideration of her essay ‘On the Supernatural in Poetry’ (1826). As the Queen of Explained Supernatural, I wasn’t sure why she was being used to talk about a film which featured so many ghosts who were entirely supernatural entities).
Ultimately Crimson Peak is a pallid re-interpretation of a wonderful and rich genre. It lacks restraint when invoking terror resorting instead to the overused ghosts and shies away from graphic detail at the most disturbing points. The sudden and rather aborted introduction of the disfigured baby who is the product of the incestuous relationship between Sir Thomas and Lady Lucille is one example of a woefully underused storyline. Rather than portray the ghost of the baby it would have been more effective, and affective, if the audiences had just heard its cries echoing through the house and for Edith to discover the paraphernalia which comes with a new born. Equally though the discovery of the incestuous siblings is disturbing, if a little obvious, this is undercut by the more overt scene of conjugal bliss between Sir Thomas and Edith. Rather than waste the 15-rating on the portrayal of marital sex, it would have made the film more shocking had the incest been the more passionate relationship. Or simply work on making the tension between the siblings more uncomfortable. Chan-woon Park’s Stoker (2013), in which Wasikowska also starred, centres on an incestuous relationship between a niece and uncle. The most intense scene involved no removal of clothing and was just a piano duet but was so well directed that my stomach curls even thinking about it now.
I think the biggest issue for this movie was its attempts to appeal to everyone. Though it professed to being purist in its Gothic intent, Crimson Peak panders to a more populace audience leading it to lose its way. Had it been restrained enough to receive a 12-rating it may have resorted to less horror and been all the better for it. Alternatively had it been brave enough to restrict its audience by making the violence and sex worthy of an 18-certificate, then the Gothic horror may have been allowed full reign and led to some deliciously disturbing scenes. If I am being fair, I would say that the movie was relatively enjoyable with enough metaphor and symbolism to fill a 20 minute paper at a conference. But enjoyable is not what I require from the Gothic or at least not enjoyable in a straight-forward sense. I want my Gothic to leave me a quivering mess; I want it to insinuate itself into my nightmares; I want to leave that Other world unsure whether I am thrilled or appalled. Whilst it is wonderful to see a movie which harks back to early Gothic and makes an effort to consider female Gothic especially, in handling the subject matter so badly it only means that it might be a while before someone makes another Gothic romance.