Beyond all the gothic pageantry and heightened romanticism of Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak, one specific image changed my entire perception of the film and produced a most unexpected sensory overload.
In October 2009, I spent an afternoon exploring the grounds of Dachau Concentration Camp, a sobering experience, and it all began with a walk through the infamous gate reading “Arbeit Macht Fre (Work Makes You Free).” By the time Mia Wasikowska’s Edith Cushing has been whisked away to “Allerdale Hall” in Crimson Peak (a place she’s been warned about by her mother’s ghost), the imagery conjured up memories of my Dachau visit and the location’s history. In del Toro’s film, Edith doesn’t necessarily know the landscape of her adopted home, or even the property name, but she’s been assured that everything will be just fine. After all, life is beautiful at “Crimson Peak,” a location accented by oozing red clay, a metaphor for the past and certainly for the inevitable spilling of blood.
Opening in Cushing’s native Buffalo, Crimson Peak wastes no time engaging the viewer with a fantastical declaration by the protagonist that “ghosts are real.” Edith’s a writer, and through a meta-commentary by del Toro, she reminds that her own literary ghost tale is actually “a story with ghosts,” and that ghosts are “a metaphor for the past.” Unsurprisingly, Edith has a close relationship with spirits, which is highlighted through a polished sequence of interior close-ups and long, evocative takes to set the narrative into motion. With the elegant Wasikowska as the purveyor of unassuming innocence, Crimson Peak initially takes a voyeuristic approach from the ghost’s perspective while simultaneously presenting Edith’s POV, instilling a further sense of doom within the viewers’ subconscious.
After traveling the world in support of his “ideas” (or personal propaganda), Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) arrives in America and takes a liking to young Edith. Much to his chagrin, the elder Cushing doesn’t easily impress, thus setting the stage for the star-crossed lovers to co-exist, somewhere, somehow (even if they don’t really know much about each other), oh, and with Thomas’ mysterious sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain). Already visually grandiose, Crimson Peak is about to become even more extravagant, a spectacle to distract Edith from the truth.
On the surface, one may not easily identify a darker subtext within Crimson Peak, well, at least given that most of the narrative takes place inside the stylized yet crumbling mansion, complete with majestic imagery and colorful costumes. But that’s what accentuates the limited exterior shots — del Toro’s commitment to exploring the physical space of the interior. From a classical perspective, one can lose themselves in the visuals of Crimson Peak, thus losing themselves in the romanticism. The terrifying ghost lends the necessary amount of horror, but let’s talk about that enormous, crawling ghost — an emaciated ghost — one who moans with such agony that it’s atypical of your classic movie spirit. Seriously, there’s something behind that suffering (more than the plot can reveal), but Edith hasn’t figured it out. Once she discovers the property’s nickname and puts the pieces together, her eyes well up with tears, but nothing rolls down her cheek. The fantasy lives.
Functioning as the dominating presence of Crimson Peak and “Allerdale Hall,” Chastain’s Lucille roams with a watchful and menacing eye. She’s clearly bad news, yet Edith views her as the protective sister, the protector of the land. By way of yet another long-close-long sequence, Crimson Peak highlights the obvious power dynamic of the household, as Lucille looms over Edith’s bed. A “care-giver,” the sister relates her past experiences lending affection, even if the past itself would tell a different story.
When the gore comes in Crimson Peak, it’s effective, much like the collective visuals and tone of the film. By contrast, the love scene between Hiddleston and Wasikowska contains a natural eroticism while still managing to present an idyllic romanticism. As a result, the lovers share a mutual bond, a mutual space, albeit temporarily. Early on in Crimson Peak, Thomas is forced to disparage the emotional integrity of Edith (along with her writing), and in a way, the moment represents his own dissociation with true love. He’s been raised to not only accept his deeply flawed sense of romance, but also his geographic isolation. Life is beautiful, or so it would seem. Thomas can recognize the errors of his ways, but history has a way of repeating itself, and even a change of heart can’t destroy the lasting imprint of evil. Therein lies the problem for Thomas and Lucille, the devoted commanders of “Crimson Peak.”
Inside, Wasikowska’s Edith may experience a distorted sense of truth, but outside, she has even more difficulty identifying what’s real and what’s not, large in part to her perpetual seclusion. Once Edith experiences a startling realization within the broader (and white) exterior confines of “Crimson Peak,” a tear finally drops, as she now understands that life is beautiful, and that she has lived, even if her memories are painted in black and red.
Q.V. Hough (@qvhough) is a freelance writer and founder of Vague Visages. He graduated from Concordia College (Moorhead, MN) in 2004 with bachelor degrees in Communication-Mass Media and History. From 2006 to 2012, Q.V. (Quinn) lived in Hollywood, California and now resides in Fargo, North Dakota.