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Gender, Genre and the Ghosts of “Crimson Peak”

Thursday, April 30, 2020 | Opinion

By: Gregory Mucci

At turns compulsively romantic and uncompromisingly haunting, Crimson Peak is ultimately Gothic, a torrid affair of 18th century sensibility married to the modern trappings of love, death and the afterlife. Like most works of Gothic fiction, there lies a dark fate at its centre, a looming estate tucked away in the midst that reaches with outstretched hands to draw in the stories troubled figures. It can be seen on hundreds of paperback covers – The Lady of Glenwith Grange by Wilkie Collins, The Weeping Tower by Christine Randell to name a few – pushed back against the ominous night yet seemingly omnipresent; a single light lit near the eve or within the attic that’s all knowing yet mostly foreboding. Their exterior may be made of brick and mortar, wood and nails yet every inch of these stark membranes are designed in black blood, corroded veins and a beating heart; a menacing beast that aches with ghosts of the past.

Except writer and director Guillermo Del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth) isn’t so much interested in the past as he is in the future; a peculiar tendency for a visionary whose flourishes evoke the radiance and decadence of a bygone era. Films rooted in the playfulness and dispirit of what once was – the Spanish Civil War enveloping the innocent in both The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, the Cold War circumscribing the world in The Shape of Water, or the obsolete strength of a nation in Pacific Rim; a futuristic film overflowing with creatures of his – and cinemas – past. All embrace the discarded, the forgotten and the rejected, yet speak to the evolving dynamism of not just a visionary, but a reactionary. Here, Crimson Peak stands as Del Toro’s crowning achievement of subversion, a Gothic curio of timelessness and Bava-esque macabre that looks to the future.

Set during the hustle and bustle of the new 20th century, Crimson Peak introduces Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowski), a burgeoning young writer whose own work of fiction tells of courtships and ghosts, figures that have haunted her since the passing of her mother when she was just a child. After an English baronet by the name of Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) – accompanied by his decadently brooding sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) – seeks investment from her father, businessman Carter Cushing (Jim Beaver), Edith becomes entangled in a relationship that sends her to Cumberland, England. Arriving at Allerdale Hall, an opulent estate known for its primordial red clay oozing forth from the ground – Edith soon finds herself troubled by ghosts; ghastly vestiges that quickly reveal the dark and troubled past of Crimson Peak.

It’s a sumptuous and haunting history that evokes the breathlessly tenebrous atmosphere of two literary adaptations: David Lean’s Dickensian adaptation Great Expectations and William Wyler’s tailoring of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, a work of Gothic fiction set against class and lost love. Both classics begin where they end – the former a cracked book recounting the upbringing of common boy Pip (played as an adult by the youthful John Mills), while the latter against turbulent weather that obscures the vision of a deceased woman (the ethereal voice of Merle Oberon calling out). Del Toro uses these frameworks to weave Crimson Peak’s superlative tapestry as the opening credits close on the resplendently green cover of a book with the same name – Edith’s published opus – before revealing our heroine cast against the aftermath of its fervent events.

We’re told that ghosts are real, a reminder that hangs suspended over a snowy landscape as Edith, bloodied and teary-eyed, stands enshrouded by mist; a proverbial mantle of the unknown. Del Toro then fans the stage in order to take us back to the films provenance. Back to Edith’s childhood, to tell the tragic passing of her mother – a victim of cholera – who returns that night as a blackened ghost to warn of the unfamiliar, to “beware of Crimson Peak”. A chilling introduction to the foreboding ghosts that offers a glimpse to the past that warns of the future; an entanglement of stages, characters and genres that reveal a deep affection for storytelling.

Before whisking us off to the cold and deathly landscape of Allerdale Hall, our curtain opens in Buffalo, New York, the economic and industrial hub that brought forth the emergence of hydroelectric power. It’s an innovation that lines the unpaved streets as well as the halls of Edith’s home, illuminating the ghosts that cling to the pages of her own writing. A talent that fosters strength and determination, separating the stripped down yet seemingly idealistic characterization of femininity most 19th century upper-class women adhered to.

When Edith is ridiculed a Jane Austen by a gaggle of parochial women – retorting that “actually, I’d rather be Mary Shelley; she died a widow” – Del Toro happily curtails subtlety by presenting his leading lady as a chiseled effigy of womanhood. Mud-caked feet and an ink stained complexion are only two of the illustrative pieces to Edith’s elegant framework, a demureness that pales in contrast to her stalwart core. She’s a hardened creation of a tormented past, an upbringing that has haunted her since the death of her mother, a maternal figure replaced by authors and their literary creations; women who helped pave the way for not what the heroine is, but who they are.

Like many of Del Toro’s works of the fantastique, Crimson Peak is a film that isn’t so much concerned with who Edith is, but what she becomes. Similar to the blossoming industrialism presented in Del Toro’s turn of the century – unpaved roads and oil lamps set against steam engines and burning filaments – Edith is a fusion of the old and the new. A framework of modern femininity compounded with the refined modesty of its time. Her work of fiction within Crimson Peak represents this, evoking the classical romance with a tinge of progressiveness, of the supernatural – “It’s not a ghost story, it’s a story with ghosts in it!” she tells the cities publisher, Ogilvie (Jonathan Hyde), who suggests just a bit more of what sells; love. Her resolve? To type it, masking her seemingly discerning penmanship despite her father bestowing upon her a new pen – a tool that will soon become a weapon of empowerment that evokes the kitchen knife housemaid Mercedes (Maribel Verdu) uses to slice vegetables, as well as the mouth of her tyrannical oppressor in Del Toro’s masterpiece, Pan’s Labyrinth.

When Edith first hears of Sir Thomas Sharpe, a self-described business man with the confounded title of baronet – “a man that feeds off land that others work for him, a parasite with a title” as our heroine so aptly states – her dismissive bluntness works parallel to the local women of high society. They embody the pettiest and fiercely money hungry side of Wuthering Heights’ Cathy (Merle Oberon), a woman who falls prey to her destructive craving for riches. Who, against her unyielding love for childhood friend Heathcliff (Laurence Olivier), becomes betrothed into money. For Edith, the only currency she wishes to marry into is that of self-determination.

She’s a worker of sorts, like her father whose hands reflect years of strenuous labor; a symbol used against Thomas Sharpe during a meeting with Mr. Cushing, who expressly categorizes the baronet’s hands as the softest he’s ever felt. His un-calloused palms reflect, not the inability to endow, but the capability to love; a trait his sister exploits for their own dark bidding. It frightens Edith’s father, who correlates the hardships woven into one’s hands with the ability to provide, to protect, and in doing so to love. Hands play a vital role in Wuthering Heights, which Heathcliff – tending to stables on hand and foot – bloodies after thrusting them through windowpanes; an act that sees a man hung from love, abusing the very things that have failed to provide an adequacy for Cathy’s affection.

But we would be limiting ourselves to assume Del Toro is only concerned with the possessive and antiquated qualities behind that of the male hand, as the director is much more fascinated by the metamorphosis of gender. How the traits of men and women harbour the power to evolve, to become something greater than what old literature would lead us to believe.

There’s Lucille, a woman who runs analogous to Edith yet parallel to Great Expectations own Estella (Jean Simmons), a young girl with “no sympathy, no softness, no sentiment.” Lucille’s contemptuous and contemplative rage, like Estella, lies as dormant and vacuous as the very manor in which she resides. Her pale frame hides behind threadbare gowns laced with moth motif’s courtesy of costume designer Kate Hawley (Pacific Rim, Mortal Engines), who fashions the somber with the sophisticated. Lucille’s raggedly threatening attire evokes the richness of the old, a piece of what the Gothic genre represents; the grim, the horror and the fear against the romantic vibrancy that radiates from Edith’s modern gowns. Garments that are as intricately detailed as the interior of Crimson Peak, lined with butterflies as an obvious symbol of her inevitable rebirth.

Unlike Edith, Lucille is very much that moth, that nocturnal creature born from the old and cloaked in gloom (“they thrive on the dark and cold”), and like a moth to a flame she is summoned by her brilliance, which under Lucille’s piercing gaze glows like a gas lamp irradiating the path ahead. Del Toro, hardly one to adhere to boundaries, sees to “play with the conventions of the genre,” as he proclaims in an interview with Deadline, abandoning the established rules born from the very genres that raised him.

It’s a dismissal of what fuels the Gothic romance that’s further reflected in Sir Thomas Sharp and Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam), a childhood friend with a mutual interest in the supernatural, who looks to win Edith’s approval as well as warn her of what’s to be – “proceed with caution, is all I ask.” Both love interests – one of her future and the other from her past – court the idea of manliness, of the refined hero who gallantly saves the lady in distress on a proverbial white steed. Except Thomas, radiant and discernibly beautiful beneath a top hat of subversive masculinity alters the genres edict on ruggedness and virility, courting his love with none other than a dance; more specifically, the waltz.

When the baronet attends an evening ball with Edith, he invites her to demonstrate such a dance, publicly displaying his affection against the flicker of candlelight – a flame that dances with jealousy in Lucille’s eye. It’s a sexually fueled act that stands as one of Del Toro’s most masterful scenes – thanks in large part to cinematographer Dan Lausten (Silent Hill) – moving with a majestic sensuality that illuminates the courage and will of Edith, who despite never performing such a dance, nervously does so with eyes open.

Rather than allow Thomas to lead, Edith exudes a sense of confidence that unabashedly upends the stereotypes of the genre; timid, co-dependent, frail to name a few. Examined further when they consummate their love as Edith exerts dominance by climbing atop Thomas’ pinned body. Each of these separate yet equally erotic acts unveils the love Edith shares with Thomas, who against the better judgement of his and Lucille’s plan – a get-rich-quick scheme of marriage and murder – discovers that he has, in fact, fallen in love.

Del Toro’s display of sweeping romance counterpoints the rather dour and brutally candid dance between Pip and Estella (now played as an adult by Valerie Hobson) in Great Expectations, one that’s filled with far less courtship and even less cavorting. Reeling from years of pining over Estella, Pip moves on the heels of jealousy as his eyes trace a male admirer. One who Estella dismisses with the same upturned nose given to Pip since he was a young boy, whose newfound riches pollute the air with a false sense of entitlement. He firmly believes that he is owed what he rightfully deserves, while Estella brazenly looks to “wreak revenge on all the male sex” as Pip’s friend Herbert (Alec Guinness) so punitively puts; a macabre machination of Miss Havisham (Martita Hunt), whose pallid hand guides Estella like a broken marionette.

She’s a venomous and alienated widow, the films matriarchal revenant, who sits under a ghastly guise of frayed grey hair and suffocating dust – “I’m yellow skin and bone” she breathes – who is among the living, yet exists like a spirit loitering long after the gates have closed. She mirrors the blanched contours of the Sharpe’s mother, who after a cleaver to the head occupies Crimson Peak as both an ill-omened painting and a ghost marred with rusted skin. Trapped within the wailing walls of Allerdale Hall, writhing forth from creaky floorboards to warn Edith of the grizzly fate that awaits her.

After the brutal murder of her father at the hands of a mysterious figure, Edith elopes with Thomas and rushes off to his dilapidated yet opulent estate, its decayed decadence a reflection of Miss Havisham’s palatial estate in Great Expectations. Exposed paneling and corroded paint line the membrane of Crimson Peak, a deconstructed skylight ushering in falling snow or leaves as it peers upon its bleak cavity. A living thing built from the ground up as a marvel of set design that gives the film tangibility, one necessary in allowing Crimson Peak to feel a boundless within the genre. 

It’s here where Edith becomes frail and literally suffers (a symptom of poison, nonetheless), ceasing in many ways to exist as she leaves her writing back home. The expressive independence of her novel – safe from the noxious touch of any editor – is what keeps Edith alive; a Gothic self-defence manual that she now unwillingly lives. Without her creative outlet she’s merely the heroine in need of rescuing, and Crimson Peak frankly doesn’t cater to those tropes.

Shortly after moving to Allerdale Hall it becomes apparent that the Sharpe’s have been incestuously entangled, a taboo flirtation that first arose in The Castle of Otrato by Horace Walpole, an over two hundred year old novel about a blood line trapped between lust and longing. Lucille and Thomas – wrapped around her finger like an incestual corkscrew – hide their wanton yearnings like the women they slowly poison. Victims who are buried beneath the manor in vats of clotted red clay before haunting the grounds with twisted faces and pained eyes, their wails echoing the halls like trapped wind.

These ghosts, lurching forward with a disfigured grace courtesy of long time Del Toro collaborator Doug Jones, represent the estates macabre history. “In literature, the ghost is almost always a metaphor for the past” says author Tabitha King, and that remains gravely true within the framework of Crimson Peak. Murdered women that haunt the halls, fallen victims of love who lose themselves to a sickly marriage that eventually destroys them from within. Their demise at the hands of Lucille, no less instilled by jealousy, fits the mysterious Gothic molding of lecherous love, as victims of the Sharpe’s scheme fall prey to poisonous tea, leaving behind recordings that serve as the films shocking reveal.

Edith, following in similarly fatal footsteps after arriving at Crimson Peak, gradually finds herself dwarfed by the extravagant and detailed Baroque high chairs that adorn the musty rooms of Allerdale Hall; a marvel by the films nearly 80 crew members of the Art Department in what amounts to Del Toro’s obsessive eye for detail. The only thing that stands magnanimous among the looming furniture is Edith’s will to live, an indescribably heavy turn from Wuthering Heights, which sees Cathy laying bedridden as she beckons for deaths icy embrace. She clings to the notion that her unyielding love for Heathcliff, like a blistering fever, will never subside or vanish into the moors. For Cathy, the only true resolution lies in death, because despite yearning for what she’ll never have, she is faithful only to the Gothic genre, her very existence resting on the necessity for true, unbridled love.

Edith, raised by the dead through her mother’s ghostly forewarning as well as her father’s paternal knee, is the counter weight to this traditional crutch of dependency. She constructs a foundation of empowerment and identity lacking from the countless women of Gothicism, and unlike the walls of Allerdale Hall – corroding and decayed – remains fortified by her understanding of the very genre in which she writes. Her yet unpublished work reflects not just her defiant self-determination, but her role in Crimson Peak, a sort of meta-omnipresence that further reveals Del Toro’s acute affection for the future of the genre. Her lack of dire and almost medicinal need for a man in order to exist – a necessity as seen through Cathy’s worsening physical state – relieves the heroic duties of the male saviour.

Men who, woven within the boundaries of Del Toro’s rich fabric, run against the thread of classical gender tropes, portrayed in romantic literature as robust figures with buoyant chests and drastically long hair; gallant men who sweep up the damsel in distress with lumbering arms. Here, the men of Crimson Peak carry soft hands, respectful voices and a shared interest in the hobbies of our lady in waiting. They, in fact, are the ones who need saving.

When Dr. McMichael – riding in on the wisps of winter wind – shows up in England to rescue Edith from the desperate and deathly grip of the Sharpe’s, he finds himself overpowered by Lucille, who wields a blade like the climactic killer within the dorm room walls of an 80’s slasher. Del Toro shovels bits of the often maligned genre like coal to a furnace, cutting through the slasher with a bloodstained razor while playing up Gothic horror with a sickening glee. A mad marriage between the often deteriorating slasher, accompanied with the enduring refinement of the ghost story.

In playing up the slasher element and treating men like the genres innumerable co-eds, they are, for better or worse, disposable beneath the blade of the killer. Men like Thomas, Dr. McMichael’s and Edith’s father – whom we discover Lucille murdered in lurid detail – are all fodder for the slaughter, driven by the slashers pejorative taste in gender equality. That – for nearly 50 years – has been feeding off the excess of toxicity that consumes women like the scarlet clay beneath the foundation of Allerdale Hall.

This isn’t to say that the male figures of Crimson Peak don’t matter, because they do, tucked into the endearingly warm coat pocket of domesticity. For Edith, it’s her father and his benign embrace, who softly and reproachfully champions her foray into fiction writing. Who – while possibly overprotective – cultivates an atmosphere of opportunity, one that contrasts with that offered by Thomas. Whose delicate nature and love for Edith narrowly penetrates the unscrupulous dark cloud cast by Lucille. His complexities are what make him such an enigmatic figure, an anti-hero of the refined type who feels perpetually stuck between the past and a future he glimpses with Edith.  Thomas’ blunt rebuttal over the latest chapters of her novel – “You know precious little about the human heart or love or the pain that comes with” – acts not only at the request of Mr. Cushing that he “break her heart”, but as a warning; one that declares his love for Edith as both terribly problematic and very real.

Each of these pieces act as molding that inevitably shapes our characters into the flesh and blood that, despite all their undoing’s, love just as equally. Exhibited through the maternal love that sees a mother, even after death, guide her daughter to safe ground. Or a taboo love that remains between brother and sister, unrestricted by the very blood that spills forth within the walls of Crimson Peak. A love that remains dominated by a festering jealousy that sees Lucille stab Thomas with a letter opener simply because, if she can’t have him, nobody will. It’s an emotionally fueled act that sees a sister murder in cold blood in what amounts to Del Toro’s typical flair for the gruesome.

Then there’s the true love between Edith and Thomas that defies masculine stereotypes, reaching out with a hand, no matter its softness. One that sees Thomas give Edith the choice to run or stay, to wait for a love that couldn’t be or to escape for a future that can only be. A stark contrast to the veil of inevitable death that lies draped across Wuthering Heights pallid love interest, as Cathy takes one last look out at the moors before expiring in Heathcliff’s arms.

Bronte’s work never really allots Cathy the choice though, nudging her right up to the edge of life’s rocky precipice, the unending option being destitution or death. She’s a victim of love who remains trapped within the walls of Wuthering Heights, waiting to be rescued from her fiancé – played meekly by David Niven – who blindly overlooks his new wife’s desolation. Cathy endures, torn between the fantasy of Heathcliff, of this oceanic castle that conceals another life in which love is written in stone and not the wind. It defines the women of the Gothic genre, consuming their flesh till there is nothing but a ghost that traverses the land, searching and waiting, and for Edith, there is no waiting.

Thomas’ choice is what separates Del Toro’s vision with that of the old Gothic, of love that remains unshackled and free to run uninhibited into the new. That sees Edith, despite her weakened condition, hang onto the very essence of her being; a woman who defies Gothic gender tropes by writing her own. She’s unaided, alone save for a wounded McMichael’s, and like her real life literary heroines, embraces the feminine curve of her “revealing” penmanship by attacking Lucille with the very instrument gifted by her father; a violent reworking of the damsel in distress with a weapon that yields a power both on and off the page.

Such distress can be seen written in the eyes of Edith, now pursued by Lucille into the cellar where she finds herself among the stacks of sarcophagus like clay, their sanguine contents acting as ichor for the film’s final girl. And like most final girls there lies a conflux, a point where distress turns to declaration. For Edith, this comes when she emerges into the shrouded landscape of her oppressive cradle; the crimson stained cellar acting as a gestating womb where she is reborn and renewed. Even Edith’s weapon, a shovel used to excavate the grounds of Allerdale Hall before crushing Lucille’s skull, glints with the new, with the ability to dig out a path for not only our heroine, but the gender, genre and ghosts of Crimson Peak.