‘Shadows, and creaks, and groans’: Re-presenting the past in Crimson Peak

[This story was published on August 19 on the BAVS Neo-Victorian blog. Read the original story at victorianist.wordpress.com/2016/08/19/neo-victorian-review-shadows-and-creaks-and-groans-re-presenting-the-past-in-crimson-peak]

This is a rewrite of a piece I wrote last October after first watching the film. You can read the original version here: emilyjessicaturner.wordpress.com/2015/10/16/hammer-horror-the-gothic-novel-and-a-sense-of-humour-crimson-peak-review-spoilers/

Crimson Peak 1

For weeks, I’d been desperately clutching my copy of the September/October ’15 edition of Little White Lies, with its Crimson Peak preliminary interview illuminated with endearingly Victoriana design. I was almost 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 felt well placed. I mention the magazine article because, with its antiquated columns and adverts for ‘Camel Tours’, ‘Wasikowska Portraits’, and ‘Newest styles from Madame Bovary’, it seems to well encapsulate the consciously self-aware reconstruction of the past that the film embodies.

Crimson Peak 3

1901, the year of Queen Victoria’s death. Edith Cushing, a writer who marries Sir Thomas Sharpe, and moves from New York to Cumberland in 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 visual representation 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 the obvious gore, there’s a humorous undertone, an awareness of the film’s invocation of the ridiculous.

In neo-Victorian media, particularly media which reimagines a historical present, such as technologically-driven steampunk, often the past is reformulated based upon speculation from that historic era. Modern re-presentations of the nineteenth century are inspired by and limited within the popular viewpoints or discourses of the day – a technological and medical world operated by steam and mechanical engineering (such as in the Newbury & Hobbes series by George Mann), evolving ideas surrounding socialism and suffrage (evoked in Sarah Waters’ Tipping the Velvet), and an advocation or critique of Empire. Such a discourse is explored in Michael Moorcock’s work, which argued that ‘technology would almost always be used by governments for suppression’[1]. As Moorcock said of his own writing, his stories ‘were intended to show that there was no such thing as a benign Empire’.

However, Crimson Peak inverts this neo-Victorian conceit, and instead creates its depiction of the past through alluding to modernity, including self-aware and self-referential allusions to the viewpoint of the present day audience – and particularly contemporary perceptions of the Victorian period. Not to imply that a nod-wink irony within modern representations of the Victorian period can’t allude to an in-text “hypothetical reality” that we inhabit (such as in the opening scene from the video game Red Dead Redemption, in which aircrafts are dismissed with the speaker’s assumption that ‘only angels can fly’), but instead of using the past to reimagine an alternative historical “present”, Crimson Peak uses the contemporary present to reimagine the Victorian past.

"We're not alone in this house." Mia Wasikowska and Tom Hiddleston star in #CrimsonPeak. via https://www.instagram.com/p/7_aZoSoI-f/

This is foremost exemplified in how Crimson Peak embraces the farcical. As a neo-Victorian piece of media, we can easily trace the impact of post-nineteenth century representations on the creation of this film. These sources are varied, and unite here to create a vision of the era through references to differing media forms which have generated unique perceptions of the Victorian period in the modern mindset. Hammer Horror’s representation of the Victorian period is an entirely different entity in the modern mindset to that of, say, the 1995 BBC version of Pride and Prejudice, which made the opulent ball a necessity in modern Victorian romances, a trope which is also represented in a pivotal scene in Crimson Peak.

I would argue that the film seems to be constructed from these modern reflections of these times, more so than “genuine” historical perceptions of the period itself. For example, Crimson Peak is not only essentially a film-long reference to the melodrama in Edgar Allen Poe’s tales, but it also takes every trope employed by any Victorian gothic romantic novel which features either an echoing empty house or a Madwoman in the Attic of the Gilbert and Gubar degree, and blows it out of the water.

As inhabitants of the twenty first century, and particularly as Victorianists, we associate Poe’s beating heart under the floorboards and Bertha screaming in her hidden room with the ridiculous, the trope, and the referential. The film is constructed through references to these conceits – such as the bleeding floor and Lucille’s bloody raving in the attic – creating a multi-layered process of historical interpretation and re-interpretation.

Crimson Peak remains very conscious of its contemporary role within this unfolding chain of historical interpretation. Edith represents 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. We recognise these tropes and their inversion makes sense to us as a modern audience within the reimagined metatextual space – whereas Edith is the Woman in White, the threat of the asylum actually looms for Lucille.

"Beauty is fragile", via https://www.instagram.com/p/8TNSa8oI_6/

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 devolve into an eclipse of moths, and the ceiling perpetually showers the tower’s floor with damp wood, leaves and snow, whilst wronged women emerge split-skulled from the bathtub.

Mary Russo suggests in her book The Female Grotesque, depictions of the female body is specifically associated with the ‘low, hidden, earthly, dark, material, immanent, visceral’[2], a description which embodies the ambiance of the house, the stereotypical female domain, in Crimson Peak. Anthropomorphised, the Sharpes’ Allersdale Hall, like Amityville in the 1979 film, is ‘a house that breathes, bleeds, and remembers’, and represents the fearful, unknowable female body, connection often made to the narrative device of the haunted house.

Horror tropes are indeed played out to the nth degree in Crimson Peak, with skeletal creatures clawing their way up from the floorboards, screams as demonic children laugh, and the ubiquitous pit of blood – a well of red clay which hides the thing lurking in the deep, the massacred body which rises from the depths. ‘Ding dong dell, pussy’s in the well’, says Sir Thomas.

The ghostly incarnation of a person reflecting the violence which ended their life is likewise a recognisable reference within the horror genre, and in this film, the spirits themselves visually embody their personal narrative. Edith’s mother, who perished of black cholera, is depicted as a coil of charcoal smoke surrounding a skull, leaving an infection-like imprint on the door she fades through. Sir Thomas is as white and rusty as his snow-covered machines, emitting smoky steam from his stab wounds. Lucille’s ghost is as black as her hair and her heart.

"A fierce loyalty bonds Lucille to her brother Thomas", via https://www.instagram.com/p/8yKbMNoI-g/

With its repeated use of recognisable iris wipes, del Toro references the production of narrative within cinema. History of the medium is also referenced, as with The Shiningshot of the bathroom – first with the beautiful young woman, and then of the dead, aged mother emerging from the bathtub. Del Toro references his own role within cinematic history – as Pacific Rim’s Mako Mori reverses the male gaze by surreptitiously watching the man she is interested in through her shatterdome bunk lock, Lucille spies upon her brother through the ornate keyholes of Allersdale Hall. The ghosts also visually echo the creature in Mama (2013), which was produced by del Toro, with Edith’s mother’s long fingers emerging as a shadow on the wall, reflecting the physiology of the eponymous mother in the horror flick.

Arguably more complex and metatextual than historiographic metafiction, and less like satire than a love letter to the Victorian gothic, Crimson Peak is not so much a fantastical representation of the nineteenth century but more of a re-presentation, an amalgamation of contemporary conceptions of Victoriana. This is exemplified with the film’s continual intrusion not only of Victorian themes considered tropes in today’s view of the period, but also through post-Victorian representations of the late nineteenth century.

https://www.instagram.com/p/76XHNxoI9r/embed/captioned/?v=7

Allersdale Hall is a house that has stood for centuries, transcending the time period in which it is set, including the eras that the film subtextually refers to. Entering the front door of Crimson Peak is like entering a medieval Gothic chapel, with dark, mahogany wood, tapestries hung from the stairs, and painted altarpieces. Demonstrating the conflated and amalgamated sources which form this re-presentation of neo-Victorian sources, Hammer Horror is given a twisted Pre-Raphaelite makeover in this film, where the medieval architecture, maidens with flowing hair of every colour carrying candlesticks, and romantic undertones are contrasted with the sheer hilarious brutality of the whole thing.

Even the depiction of violence is subverted, playing on the audience’s knowledge of established tropes about Victorian murder. As Edith’s father walks alone around his club’s washroom, we know he is soon to reach his demise. He drops his shaving knife, an object straight out of a Sweeney Todd penny dreadful, and we anticipate that his throat is to be slit – and yet as he stands up, his head is bashed by his assailant against the sink.

"The man and his machine", via https://www.instagram.com/p/8jrP7soI73/

The clockwork toy in Sir Thomas’s industrialised laboratory uses distraction to perform its magic trick, whilst simultaneously drawing attention from what is really happening in the house. Likewise, there’s also a touch of the ridiculous in the semi-steampunk nature of the whining machines Sir Thomas creates to gouge the red clay from beneath his house. Unstable, it malfunctions, vomiting blood onto the white snow, a scene straight out of Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber short story collection. As Sir Thomas says to Edith, ‘I’m afraid nothing gentle ever grows in this land. You need a measure of bitterness not to be eaten’, it echoes Carter’s retelling of Little Red Riding Hood as The Company of Wolves: in response to the wolf’s ‘all the better to eat you with’, ‘the girl burst out laughing; she knew she was nobody’s meat. She laughed at him full in the face, she ripped off his shirt for him and flung it in the fire, in the fiery wake of her own discarded clothing’[3]. This is further echoed in Edith’s sexual interest and control later demonstrated in the film, reflecting modern re-interpretations of Victorian female sexuality as empowered, not demure. The hypocrisy of Victorian repression is highlighted, both through the explicit fore edge illustration images shown by Lucille to Edith, and by the revelation of Thomas and Lucille’s hidden sexual relationship.

This tongue-in-cheek re-presentation of the historical period is furthered 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. It is revealed that Lucille has kept a lock of hair of all the women that she has killed in a sample box, archiving their deaths.

"The motif of the butterfly versus the moth, as personified by Edith and Lucille (@chastainiac), was another of Guillermo del Toro's great thematic and visual ideas for #CrimsonPeak", via https://www.instagram.com/p/81ZfOcoI0z/?hl=en

The era’s tension between spirituality and science is also highlighted by the scene with the field of dying butterflies, as Lucille explains the Darwinian struggle for existence and co-existence, referencing the black moths at her home which feed on butterflies. In the attic room of Crimson Peak, the living moths on the walls form an inverse variation on the taxidermy lepidoptery displays favoured in Victorian households. Green light and green wallpaper permeate the rooms of both Edith’s home in Buffalo, New York, and the shadowy halls of the Sharpes’ Allersdale Hall, referencing the green arsenic wallpaper which mysteriously poisioned hundreds during the late Victorian period.

Spirit photography is proof of the metanatural in Crimson Peak. Houdini turns in his grave. Edith is repeatedly defined by her need to look, to understand: “Black cholera has taken her, so father had ordered a black casket, told me not to look” […] “I don’t want to close my eyes. I want to keep them open.” Dr McMichael, the eye doctor, shows Edith the spirit slides on his magic lantern. The ophthalmologist explains how the ‘chemical compounds’ form ‘latent images’ – the ‘minerals in the earth […] maintain the impression of a person who is no longer living’, forshadowing the ghosts of Allersdale Hall, who manifest as red clay monsters. Likewise, the minerals in the earth also very literally channel disembodied spirits from the dead by the way of red wax cylinder recordings, leading Edith to solve the mystery of Crimson Peak.

Heavy-handed, and yet 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 simultaneously acknowledges its own position within a cinematic and social history. It’s unapologetic, indulgent, and an utter treat to watch, particularly as the film invites us to creatively interpret and find the humour in continual allusions to nineteenth century tropes and post-Victorian representations of the period.

https://www.instagram.com/p/2mExWMII17/embed/captioned/?v=7

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 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 out of Geary’s retelling of The Case of Madeleine Smith, an upperclass woman who likewise murders a gentleman of lower standing. As the house vomits red clay from every wall, Edith coughs up blood.

This thematic heritage, evoking Victorian tropes and themes encapsulates everything from literary theory to B-movies from the 60s, and is what positions the film as this reimagined Victorian past, the inverse of the conventional neo-Victorian. This is no The VVitch (2015) – a fantastical tale, a folk story supplanted into a world which faithfully echoes the language, the hardships, the scriptural priorities and the sheer claustrophobia of life in New England in the 1600s.  It is instead a postmodern, modernised view of the past, imagined through the lens of various retellings of the Victorian period.

Crimson Peak is metatextually introduced as a novel, a fictional narrative platform within the film itself, and is later shown to have been written by Edith herself. ‘The ghost is just a metaphor’, she says, both the author and the protagonist of multiple ghost stories. Edith is shown to exist within a heritage of female writers: ‘Our very own Jane Austen…although she died a spinster,’ ‘Actually, I would prefer to be Mary Shelley. She died a widow.’

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.

______________________

[1] Vandermeer, Jeff, Critiques of Empire, from Clanking Metal Men, Baroque Airships, and Clockwork Worlds, from The Steampunk Bible: An illustrated guide to the world of imaginary airships, corsets and goggles, mad scientists, and strange literature, (USA, Abrams Image: 2011), 56.

[2] Russo, Mary, The Female Grotesque: Risk, Excess, and Modernity, (Great Britain, Routledge: 1994), 1.

[3] Carter, Angela, The Bloody Chamber, (London, Vintage: 2006), 138.

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