Hammer Horror, the Gothic Novel, and a sense of humour: Crimson Peak Review [Spoilers]

Review: Crimson Peak [Spoilers]

We're not alone in this house. Mia Wasikowska and Tom Hiddleston star in #CrimsonPeak.

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I’ve been desperately clutching my copy of the September/October ’15 edition of Little White Lies, with it’s Crimson Peak prelim in endearingly Victoriana design (complete with antiquated minuscule columns and adverts for ‘Camel Tours’, ‘Wasikowska Portraits’, and ‘Newest styles from Madame Bovery’) for weeks now. I’ve almost been wary of the seeming inevitability of a let down, due to the level of my enthusiasm. However, in del Toro we trust, and thankfully, in Crimson Peak, that trust feels well placed.

In this film, Edith Cushing, a writer who marries Sir Thomas Sharpe, and moves from New York to England to live with him and his sister Lucille, begins to see ghosts. Monstrous ghosts; creatures that threaten and deliver prophetic messages of danger.

Although the real monsters hide in plain sight in this story, the visuality of the creatures immediately points viewers in the direction of Hammer Horror. Brutalized bodies claw their way out from the floorboards and rise up from clay pits – but despite this obvious gore, there’s a humorous undertone, an awareness of the film’s invocation of the ridiculous.

Crimson Peak embraces the farcical. Not only essentially a film-long reference to the melodrama of Edgar Allen Poe, it takes every trope employed by any Victorian gothic romantic novel which features either an echoingly empty house or a Madwoman in the Attic of the Gilbert and Gubar degree, and blows it out of the water.

Edith is The New Woman, with small glasses perched on her nose as she writes, and Lucille, the English sister-in-law, is the woman with the meat cleaver. Edith is the Woman in White, whereas the threat of the asylum actually looms for Lucille.

Much like the protagonist in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, who is imprisoned by the walls which breed manic women and ghostly presences, Wasikowska’s Edith is trapped within a house that spills over with the otherwordly. The floors bleed ruddy clay, the walls evolve into an eclipse of moths, the ceiling perpetually showers the tower’s floor with damp wood, leaves and snow, and wronged women emerge split-skulled from the bathtub.

Hammer Horror is given a twisted Pre-Raphaelite makeover in this film, where the medieval architecture, maidens with flowing hair of every colour, and romantic undertones are contrasted with the sheer hilarious brutality of the whole thing.

There’s also a touch of the ridiculous in the semi-steampunk nature of the whining machines Sir Thomas Sharpe creates to gouge the red clay from beneath his house. It’s even tongue-in-cheek about the historical period itself with references to the ephemeral – Edith’s fungi-like design on her dress referencing contemporary trends like Pteridomania, and the sheer claustrophobic overload of the rooms, seemingly every wall hung with all but the kitchen sink, alluding to the Victorian compulsion to collect and archive. Spirit photography is proof of the metanatural in Crimson Peak. Houdini turns in his grave.

But this is what makes the film so good. It’s entertaining because of its ability to invoke these themes – which are visually delicious and gloriously entertaining – and yet acknowledges its own position within a cinematic and social history. It’s unapologetic, indulgent, and an utter treat to watch.

I can’t watch this film without thinking of Rick Geary. Del Toro has visited the graphic novel format before in his Hellboy films, and I can’t help but feel Crimson Peak shares some sort of thematic heritage with Geary’s comic book retellings of sensationalist murders from the 1800s. The cups of poisoned tea which pass inconspicuously under our noses arrive straight of of Geary’s retelling of The Case of Madeleine Smith, an upperclass woman who likewise murders a gentleman of lower standing.

This huge web of subtext and references is only one aspect that makes this film so enjoyable; it’s busy, chaotic, tensely paced and elaborate. Thankfully, however, this complexity works only in the favour of the viewer’s experience of the film, a cinematic element which, unlike the bloody foundations into which the Sharpes’ Allerdale Hall steadily sinks, hoists the film onto yet higher ground.

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