The genre of Gothic romance thrives from the late 1800s to the early 1900s, particularly in England. Although the genre still exists today, it is far from a popular genre. An early prototype of the genre was Edgar Allan Poe’s 1839 short story “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Another early work is Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s novella Carmilla, which is also considered an early vampire novel. As the genre developed, writers such as Charlotte Bronte and Daphne de Maurier helped establish the genre’s familiar elements. Such novels moved away from lurid horror and instead focused on mystery and romance, with supernatural elements serving as metaphors (in a vein similar to the ghosts in A Christmas Carol, a novella by Charles Dickens). The romance angle typically involves a young, spirited woman and two men, one light and handsome and one dark and usually harboring secrets.
In 2015, none other than Guillermo del Toro tackled the Gothic romance genre with the movie Crimson Peak. Co-written by del Toro and Matthew Robbins (who also worked with del Toro on the anticipated but unlikely At the Mountains of Madness) and directed by del Toro, Crimson Peak certainly came as a surprise, as fans of del Toro had grown accustomed to the writer-director’s penchant for creating summer blockbusters from genre fare, such as Blade II, Hellboy, Pacific Rim, and an ancillary role in The Hobbit trilogy. What few may remember is del Toro’s more subtle horror and dark fantasy movies, often produced in Spanish, such as Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone, and Pan’s Labyrinth. Before taking a chance on Crimson Peak, a viewer should go in understanding that this is another of del Toro’s “quiet” films, although one bestowed upon with an incredible budget.
The story concerns Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowski), who grows up under her father Carter (Jim Beaver), a blue-collar man turned business tycoon in early America. Edit is haunted by the hideous ghost of her mother (played by Doug Jones), a blackened skeleton in funeral regalia. In truth, her mother serves as a portent, warning her from ever going to a place known as “Crimson Peak.” As Edit comes of age, she begins to work as an author, writing her first gothic romance, which is later revealed to be titled Crimson Peak. As a woman of the 18th century, she is considered little more than a woman of marrying age, which frustrates Edith no end.
Edith’s fortunes take a dramatic turn when she falls under the spell of charismatic English inventor Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston). Always in the background of this couple’s growing infatuation are two other characters, namely Sharpe’s sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) and Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam). Edith’s father is horribly murdered, paving the way for Thomas to marry Edit and whisk her away to England to his dilapidated mansion, known as “Crimson Peak.”
While at Crimson Peak, Edit beings to unravel numerous secrets closely held by the Sharpes. There are various ghosts in the mansion, and while at first they constitute possible threats, Edith soon discovers that they are really trying to help her unravel the secrets. As the story unravels, so do the secrets, among them incest, conspiracies, and decades of degradation and murder.
Those familiar with the genre will find all the trappings are on display. As a result, the many ghosts in the movie serve as facets of the past, as secrets longing to be revealed. The supernatural takes a diminished role in the movie, with all-too-real human horrors taking center stage. The manipulation of love serves as a counterpoint to Edith’s naiveté on the emotion, with the character of Lucille exemplifying the other extreme, with forbidden love used as a conduit to baser emotions, such as selfishness and anger, which lead to exploitation and murder. Fans not familiar with the genre may be disappointed in the storyline here, which is relatively straightforward. There is little horror and the suspense is slow to build, with the final reel giving the payoff.
The cinematography, locations, sets, colors, and costumes are lavish and a feast for the eye. Not since Italy’s Dario Argento has color been put to such effective use in a “horror” movie. The special effects are also beautiful, which itself should say something about the lack of overt horror and gore. Both the principal and supporting cast turn in solid performances, with Wasikowski and Hiddleston keenly aware of the roles they play.
Fans of del Toro’s quieter works, particularly the fairytale quality of a movie like Pan’s Labyrinth, will enjoy Crimson Peak. Those expecting another blockbuster will be disappointed. For the latter, watch it again, this time with some understanding of the genre, and be prepared to be swept away by some of the most carefully thought out and sumptuous production design in a movie that has not been seen for a long time indeed.