Thursday Rethink: Crimson Peak is a sumptuous gothic romance and horror

Both critics and audiences have been lukewarm about Guillermo del Toro’s gothic passion project, Crimson Peak. The Rotten Tomatoes consensus reads: “Crimson Peak offers an engaging—albeit somewhat slight—diversion driven by a delightfully creepy atmosphere and director Guillermo del Toro’s brilliant knack for unforgettable visuals.” The “slight” comment stands out the most, offering a backhanded compliment to the film as if to say it is nothing more than a visually splendid diversion. Of all the criticisms one could levy at Crimson Peak, “slight’ holds the least water.

Del Toro’s genre adherents are less enthusiastic about the film than the lukewarm critics. They haven’t rallied to it like they did Pacific Rim and most horror fans decry the film’s misleading marketing campaign, which positioned it squarely as a haunted house film, when it’s more so a gothic romance. The film’s box office is even more dour: its domestic haul sits at $31 million as of this writing, against a $55 million budget. It likely won’t make its money back, which doesn’t bode well for del Toro pitching passion projects in the future.

Much of the problem with Crimson Peak’s reception potentially stems from del Toro’s own corrective measures to counter the overwrought marketing campaign. Before the film’s theatrical release, he used his new Twitter account to plead with audiences to not interpret Crimson Peak as a horror film. Del Toro’s campaign was a success, as he mostly drove away the genre audiences that turn up on opening weekend for new horror flicks. In doing so, he might have overestimated the box office sway of fans of gothic romance, as very few viewers filled the vacancy left by the horror fans.

The presentation and reception of Crimson Peak is one of those bizarre circumstances where all parties involved have misinterpreted the work. The critical consensus has over evaluated the film’s admittedly magnificent design in relation to its emotional and thematic considerations. Genre fans have allowed the film’s focus on gothic romance to scare them away from enjoying a delightfully creepy mood piece. And del Toro himself has overemphasized the film’s literary inspirations, as if to say the film’s affection for the past makes it unsuitable for the average genre viewer. After scarcely more than a month in release, the film is in need of a serious reconsideration.

The following are my three corrections to the pop-culture conversation surrounding Crimson Peak, suggesting a rethinking of the ways both the public and the director have viewed the film.

Crimson Peak is most definitely a horror film.

For all of Guillermo del Toro’s protestations that Crimson Peak is not a horror film, you’d think the marketing was way off. It sort of is, but not entirely. The marketing almost entirely ignores the romantic angle, which commands the film’s emotional focus, but it is correct in demonstrating what a striking mood piece Crimson Peak turns out to be. Almost every shot in the film oozes atmosphere, emphasizing the haunted world the film’s characters inhabit. Del Toro’s camera is always moving ever-so-slightly to insinuate the lurking stillness of the house. It’s always pushing slowly into bedrooms and bathrooms, spying in on Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) and the other occupants of Allerdale Hall as if the camera stands in for the ghosts that make many appearances throughout the film.

It’s true that Crimson Peak’s sole intent is not to scare the viewer (the prime directive of any pure horror film), but it does provide the viewer with more than a lingering creepiness. The ghosts might be barely more than metaphors (as Edith so often refers to the ghosts in her own novel). But when del Toro chooses to start his film with a terrifying vision of Edith’s mother returning from the dead to tell her to “beware of Crimson Peak,” complete with the sight of her spectral fingers wrapping around her child’s shoulder, the notion that Crimson Peak isn’t horror has to be dismissed.

But it’s also a romance.

Still, del Toro should be credited for nailing the essentials of the gothic romance. Most obviously inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (itself adapted from the Daphne Du Maurier novel) and Charlotte Brönte’s Jane Eyre, Crimson Peak is driven by literary convention. It has the mousy, intellectual protagonist charmed by the Byronic stranger and swept off to spend her romantic idylls in an overwhelming geography that personifies the stranger’s buried secrets. It’s primarily concerned with the romance between a worldly man and a naive woman. It explores the colonial implications of their romance, envisions their marital bliss as something akin to adultery, and explicitly connects sexuality with death. Its first 40-or-so minutes are almost exclusively focused on developing the romance between Edith and Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), so anyone expecting a straightforward horror film would be baffled by the extended focus given to the scene where Thomas demonstrates the waltz (European style!) with Edith as his partner.

Just as Edith is the film’s protagonist, drawing the majority of its focus, romance is the film’s primary genre. To be sure, Crimson Peak has other generic concerns just as it has other characters to focus on. But its heart lies with its romance narrative and the wide-eyed naïf at its centre.

The bigness of its production design matches the bigness of its emotions.

There is nothing shallow or slight about Crimson Peak. The grandness of its production design—and it is grand, as Allerdale Hale, with its creaking chimneys, exposed roof, rickety elevator, and blood-red clay, has to be instantly canonized as one of the great movie mansions—cannot be divorced from the grandly passionate emotions Edith feels for Thomas. This is no mere exercise in style. Del Toro is not disguising a bravura fashion and architecture show as a gothic romance. He’s as equally passionate about the story conventions and their ensuing emotion as he is about the intricate design. His passion is as evident in the dance scene between Edith and Thomas (the film’s standout scene) as it is in the vision of Edith’s dead mother or in the frenzied finale that takes us through all the magnificent areas of the house, showcasing their design.

Crimson Peak is a passion project. It has no guile or irony. Del Toro has no intention to satirize the conventions of the gothic romance, nor to use them as empty vessels for opulence or horror. Crimson Peak displays del Toro’s love for the films and books that inspired it. It’s a film of big stakes and big emotions in an overwhelmingly big house.

Viewers should seek out Crimson Peak. But they should seek it out with clear eyes, unclouded by the misguided perceptions that have framed the film’s release.

Crimson Peak (2015, USA)

Directed by Guillermo del Toro; written by Guillermo del Toro and Matthew Robbins; starring Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chasten, Tom Hiddleston, Charlie Hunnam, and Jim Beaver.