I have thoughts on Crimson Peak

So last weekend I went to see Crimson Peak and it was everything I hoped it would be. Oh, first the caveat--if you don’t want to read spoilers, stop reading now and come back on Tuesday. I’m serious; I’m going to spoil this like nobody’s business.

I should start by saying that I’m old-fashioned. I believe in judging something by what it was intended to be, not what you wanted it to be. Crimson Peak was clearly not supposed to be a straight-up horror film, so if you’re into heaps of gore, it’s going to disappoint. There are a few cringe-worthy moments. I peeped through my fingers twice, but let’s be clear–there’s nothing in this film to TOUCH an average episode of Game of Thrones.

It also doesn’t try to make you leap out of your own skin. While it does begin with a decent hit on the creep-meter, the movie spends a fair bit of time setting up an atmosphere of seeming benignity before taking a macabre turn. But, as one of my Twitter pals pointed out, the scares are always well telegraphed, so if you’re a scaredy-cat (like me!), you’ll have a good idea of when to turn away. It’s beautifully designed, and even though the history isn’t perfect–the waltz was not new to Americans in the 1890s–the lush details more than make up for it.

If you grew up, as I did, reading Gothic novels, this is like watching one of your favorite novels come to life. This is Gothic in the most traditional sense of the word–Ann Radcliffe and Monk Lewis as opposed to Victoria Holt or Mary Stewart–and it’s lavish in its unabashed love of the genre. There is a touch of classic Hammer in this one, and I say that as someone who ADORES Hammer films.

So, here are a few of my favorite things about Crimson Peak:

*I’ve already mentioned the look of it, but in particular Allerdale Hall, the decaying mansion at the heart of the film is spectacular. It’s a desolate pile, as all good Gothic settings should be, but it’s a heartbreakingly beautiful desolate pile. There is not an inch of the house that hasn’t been crafted with obvious care and devotion, and the sight of snow falling softly into the grand hall through the broken roof is majestic and poignant. (If you’ve ever read Lisa St. Aubyn de Teran’s accounts of her houses, you’ll remember when she invokes the Marchesa Casati who lived in stylish decrepitude, preferring a roofless palazzo to a snug modern flat. She would have felt right at home in Allerdale Hall.) From the butterflies to the heavy keys, the sumptuous costumes to the delicate tea set, it’s a beautiful film.

*It’s not too beautiful. Just when it’s about to tip into overly-luxurious, something truly nasty happens–like moist red soil seeping up through the snow to look like spongy blood. Also, the ghosts? NOT PRETTY. They’re shown in advanced stages of decay, mostly skeletal, and dripping with gore. They aren’t shown in detailed close-up, mercifully, but the sight of them manages to make everything just a bit less pretty.

*There’s no gratuitous female nudity. Too many times, directors will default to showing the heroine in a state of undress to highlight her vulnerability and her role as victim. Crimson Peak doesn’t go there, even when the heroine takes a bath. The only nudity comes from Tom Hiddleston’s rear end–and I’m given to understand that he asked for it on the grounds that actresses are always being made to get naked and he felt it was fair. (If that’s true, we love him even more.)

*The cast. Jessica Chastain was utterly splendid, while Tom Hiddleston was exactly what you wanted him to be–by turns charming and enigmatic. The weak link in these stories is often the heroine who is usually so young and unnervingly naive you’re rooting for her to be pushed down the stairs. Not this time. Mia Wasikowska was the perfect choice. Her character IS young and naive, but she is also inquisitive and tenacious, daring to stand up for herself as she gains confidence.

*The fact that I want to see it again. I have no doubt I missed things–LOTS of things. I’m sure there are all kinds of delicious tidbits tucked away in each scene for me to discover on rewatching. This is going to become a regular on my Halloween rotation for decades, right up there with the silent classic Vampyr: Der Traum des Allan Grey, Hammer’s The Gorgon, and Universal’s Bride of Frankenstein.

*In the end, the heroine saves herself. We could quibble a bit about this one since the heroine’s old friend and former suitor comes to take her away. But Crimson Peak redeems itself because ultimately the heroine has to save them both. It’s a truly powerful moment for a type of character who usually lies around waiting to be rescued. To give the heroine actual agency is refreshing and unexpected. And if you’re a true fan of the Gothic genre, there’s not much about this that will surprise you otherwise. The beauty of Crimson Peak is not that it’s innovative, but that it’s an homage to a genre so many of us truly love and that seldom gets this kind of attention. It’s the type of film no one makes any more, and I’m so tremendously delighted that someone did. Bouquets of kudos to Guillermo del Toro for this love letter to the Gothic.

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