I’ve never watched a horror movie in my entire life. My imagination is such that what’s already horrific or gory on screen becomes a hundred times more in my mind. I won’t be able to sleep for days, agitated over what smells like a cadaver in bed with me. Or, to look at myself in the mirror without expecting an appearance of a half-bitten face staring back at me. So no horror films for me.
Exception: Crimson Peak.
The film I learned is not a ghost story per se, but of the gothic romance genre. Think: Wuthering Heights. That, and for me I readily associate the genre to Victoria Holt whose books I diligently collected in college.
With work I’m not readily familiar with, I browse up on interviews first and if I like what I hear I go ahead and watch the film. In an interview that Google Talks hosted, director Guillermo del Toro (of Pan’s Labyrinth and Pacific Rim fame) mentioned that much of the unhappiness in the supporting characters, Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), and his sister, Lady Lucille Sharpe (Jessica Chastain) is a result of bad parenting and that if children up to 10 or 12 years old are parented well there’d be less problems in the world.
Familiar words. That is the rationale behind early childhood care and development (ECCD). But what exactly did del Toro refer to as unhappiness in the characters? Who are these characters? And why Crimson Peak? The only way I’d know is to watch the film.
I did and I’m blown away.
The story is set circa 1901 in winter, a perpetual winter it seems. We come to Allerdale Hall it’s grandiose and foreboding dark frame contrasting sharply with the pristine vast whiteness that is Crimson Peak. I don’t know why but when the estate is first shown ‘gulag‘ was the first thing that popped out of my head. When I was a child, I watched a couple of films which featured the gulag in Siberia and what stayed in my memory is the landscape– white bleakness everywhere and nothing warm anywhere. The camp, the only protrusion in the landscape, is not fortified because administrators are confident that the harsh elements of the place will do it’s job: deter prisoners from making an escape. Allerdale Hall in the wilderness of Cumberland, England evokes the same response: the residents are deterred from leaving it.
What adds to the oddity of the place is clay, which percolates out of everywhere. It’s color, crimson red, jumps out at you because on the snowy white grounds it’s like spilled blood. A lot of blood.
Thomas Sharpe makes it his duty to continue mining the clay as is his inheritance but with a more efficient machine. An engineer, he spends his days inventing this ideal machine.
The residents leave the Hall only when they go in search for “prospects” in the world’s cities. In Buffalo, New York, the siblings find a wealthy builder in the person of Carter Cushing (Jim Beaver). This wealthy builder has an only child, a daughter, Edith (Mia Wasikowska), a budding writer who is unmarried at the time. Women single her out for remaining unattached but Edith doesn’t let herself be bullied.
Mrs. McMichael (mother to Edith’s suitor): She’s our very own Jane Austen. She died an old maid, didn’t she?
Edith: Actually, I’d rather be Mary Shelly. She died a widow.
Soon after, Edith meets Sir Thomas. To the audience and Edith’s father he appears waxen and a bit off, more like Edward Cullen’s sinister-looking non-vegan cousin. But Edith doesn’t see that. She is smitten. Failing to get Mr. Cushing’s financial backing on his invention, Sir Thomas nevertheless had Edith’s heart. And after the sudden and tragic death of her father, she happily married the English baronet.
The newly-weds leave Edith’s New York for Crimson Peak where their shaky romance is threatened by the horrible secrets of the Hall revealed in stages to Edith with some help from apparitions she’s able to see (I skimmed through the parts where ghosts appear) and at first terrified by. And in keeping with the spirit of goth romance the two female characters, Edith and Lucille, set themselves up in an unspoken bid for the man’s attention and care hence a place in the house, their clash representative of the war between right and wrong, good and evil. This arc is kept up between the two until the ending.
Meanwhile, in Buffalo, Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam), Edith’s long-time suitor, with help from the Cushing family’s solicitor, had pieced together the puzzle of the Sharpe siblings’ sudden appearance in their circle, Mr. Cushing’s sudden death afterward, and Edith’s sudden marriage. Armed with the incriminating proof, he rushes to Crimson Peak hoping he’s not too late.
Rotten Tomatoes classified the film as ‘horror’ and if you watch it expecting just ghosts, violence, and screaming which is the commercialized form of ‘horror’ by the way you’ll be disappointed because really the story’s much more than this commercialized definition. Edith tells her editor that her mention of ghosts in her story is a “metaphor of the past”, a past, we discover, that’s filled with all manner of horrors i.e. abuse and neglect, incest, murder. We discover that the real horror is not those creepy apparitions but that of the human being’s capacity for the most terrible of actions and the most twisted of emotions; to become monsters.
It is a many-layered story and essentially explores within the religious and social context of that period personal baggages resulting from damaged childhoods as distinctively experienced by either gender alongside complexities of human emotions particularly love and dis/connectedness– why do I do what I do? how did I become who I am? what is suffering and must I suffer? what connects me to another human being? to my natural and physical environment? why do I meet who I do? why do I love as I do? what divides love from monstrosity? what do I fear? why do I fear what I fear? what is right? what is wrong? when is right wrong? when is wrong right? is there such a duality? are there ghosts? life after death? karmic justice? redemption?
To be able to weave all these without watering down on cinematic entertainment and creative representation speaks of genuine and rare talent. The only sad part is that the film, it’s director, and cast did not get a more enthusiastic response it deserves from the public and awards bodies.