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 The world is a parable – the habitation of symbols-the phantoms of spiritual things immortal shown in material shape.

– J. Sheridan le Fanu, Uncle Silas (1864)

For millennia, the storytelling tradition has been bound up in tales of the unspeakable, the unknowable, and the unexplainable. The hushed conjuring of demons, spirits, and all things wicked were direct counterparts to our own frailties and secrets – the horror that lies within. The gothic movement in the mid-18th century to the end of the late-19th century was the culmination of such conceits, with literary, artistic, and architectural manifestations of the terrible and wonderful – macabre, sinister, and wholly sensational at times.The gothic tradition extended from the Romantic one, as radical artists broke free from the lofty ambitions of the Enlightenment, and decreed a manifesto dedicated to all things wild, unbridled and, above all, concerned with death. The popularity of gothic fiction rose to apical heights in the Victorian era, and its preoccupation with death, sex, and the psychosexual imagination was rather scandalous to those decorous Victorians and their moral propriety; unsurprisingly, enthusiasm for tales of swooning heroines succumbing to dark and mysterious terrors in the candlelit shadows of foreboding castles was unbridled. Such is its influence, the gothic imagination has persisted over 250 years since its original appearance in Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, as tales of dark stormy nights have assured their place in popular culture.

Guillermo del Toro is a dedicated enthusiast of the genre, and his love for the fusion of gothic-romantic-terror could not be better encompassed than in Crimson Peak. Like El laberinto del fauno (Pan’s Labyrinth), it also shares a preoccupation with the nature of storytelling and imagination; the darkness which terrifies us as external manifestation of our own psychological disharmony. Visually, it is Gothic perfection (all late-19th century bodices, hyper-baroque ostentation, del Toro’s signature lurid excess of primary colours, endless trains of jewel-toned silk and lace, and its bloody, beating heart: the decrepit house), but the striking cinematography and dedication to gothic abandon fails to entirely conceal a prosaic and caricaturistic pastiche of a narrative, never quite treading into original territory despite its subject matter.

Crimson Peak is a Gothic aficionado’s dream. The references to literary hallmarks of the genre are nearly too many to count, taking cues from such works as Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, Beckford’s Vathek, du Maurier’s Rebecca, Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, M.R. James, Edith Wharton, Edgar Allan Poe, and of course, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. However, it feels less like homage, and rather more like facsimile – Thomas Sharpe’s (Tom Hiddleston) romantic confession to Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) is lifted almost verbatim from Rochester’s own to Jane: “…it is as if I had a string somewhere under my left ribs, tightly and inextricably knotted to a similar string situated in the corresponding quarter of your little frame. And if that boisterous channel, and two hundred miles or so of land some broad between us, I am afraid that cord of communion will be snapt…As for you, – you’d forget me” (Edith and Jane’s answer is of course, “I could never!”, made all the more amusing by the fact that Wasikowska uttered those same lines portraying Jane Eyre in the 2011 adaptation). The characters themselves are counterparts to stalwarts in the gothic tradition- Edith Cushing’s name is a nod to both Edith Wharton and the actor Peter Cushing of Hammer horror fame, while her character is clearly modelled after literary authoresses Jane Austen and Mary Shelley: the educated young woman who wishes only to write and escape conventions of proper English society. The film takes further cue from Rebecca, identifying Cushing as the naive ingenue, Thomas Sharpe as the enigmatic Maxim de Winter, and his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) as a rather more deranged Mrs. Danvers. The story is one and the same: a young woman is taken as a bride by a mysterious gentleman to a ominous grand house which has its own secrets: del Toro’s version of Manderley, Thornfield Hall, Northanger Abbey, Hill House, and Otranto Castle all in one. Despite such conspicuous placement of his characters and narrative vis-à-vis their forebearers, there could yet still be place for an original narrative to emerge – sadly, it is not the case.

At the centre of the film is Allerdale Hall, the bleak manor house within which are buried secrets of a most sinister nature (incidentally, a region called Allerdale above Derwent actually exists in Cumberland, while one of its prominent parishioners was named Huddleston – coincidence, surely!). The house itself is a masterpiece of gothic architecture, clearly influenced by Walpole’s own residence of Strawberry Hill, renowned for its “settings of Gothic ‘gloomth'”. It is a marvel of dark, winding staircases, banisters, and corridors, all lined with prescient portraits, lush velvet drapery, and foreboding hues of deep jewel tones. Its centrepiece is the magnificent foyer over which the roof rots and through which leaves and snow waft, giving the house a sense of being a living, breathing entity. Indeed, the house is a monster in itself – one which not only breathes, but which suffocates and entraps its inhabitants, weighing down with the ghosts of the past. Gothic arches and ornamentation are on full display, including the breathtakingly ornate corridor in which a number of malevolent occurrences take place. The augmented sharpness of the architectural features only add to the malignant character of the house, giving the impression of teeth which bear down upon the characters, threatening to engulf them at any moment. As any proper ghost story ought to, much of the film takes place in the dark, but del Toro’s ingenuity is beginning and ending the film with striking scenes of white, white snow – a pale and otherworldly landscape stained by the hyper-contrast made by the red of the clay and ore seeping up from the ground as though from the mouth of hell itself. I need not belabour the significance of the colour red in the horror and gothic tradition, and del Toro adheres strictly to the placement of red – it only ever appears in the presence of the dead and ghosts.

del Toro does something else quite remarkable – not content with merely a ghost story, he places the film in the framework of the emanating Victorian penchant for engineering and invention. Electricity and the significance of the machine age hover surreptitiously around the borders of the film, from the lantern projectors to camera obscura and its latent exposure revealing the ‘ghostly’ presence of figures in the background (‘spirit photography’, something which endlessly fascinated Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and someone whose novels are mentioned in the film as well). In this way New York and America – and indeed, Edith – represent modernity and progressiveness, while the Sharpe siblings and their house are mired in the mediaevalist traditions of the past. Mirroring the story’s own progression, Thomas’ mining contraption is metaphor for his will to escape the crumbling ruins of the past and its ghosts, while Lucille desperately clings to it. It is no surprise, then, that it is Thomas’ ghost is the one to fade to the winds in the end, while Lucille remains, a lingering final scene of her seated at the piano.

Despite its visual feast and inexhaustible allusions to precedents of the gothic tradition, Crimson Peak feels ultimately hollow. The sumptuous imagery of del Toro’s vision of the house’s dark, doomed beauty is undercut by the predictability of the script. While gothic literature was often sensationalist and relied on plot-driven narrative in lieu of complex characters, del Toro takes his character building and dialogue to the extremes of bromidic construction. Rather ironically, by following gothic conventions too closely, there is a severe lack of originality and imagination in the film. The lack of subtlety is at times so jarring, one would think it a parody of the gothic tradition rather than an homage to it – the camera lingers needlessly on ‘meaningful’ glances, and dead calm silence are predictably followed by sudden appearances of ghoulish apparitions. The character construction itself is also two-dimensional, relying on stereotypes rather than complexity, while none of the actors seem to settle into their roles comfortably (Chastain is particularly miscast). The few scenes of hyperviolence are malapropos and elicit laughter instead of dread. While the dialogue indeed takes its cue from the gothic novels, it still feels curiously overwrought and awkward, especially given its modern sensibility in other respects. In short, the film takes itself far too seriously, and while del Toro’s earnestness is obvious, it also leaves one with the sense of feeling slightly apologetic on his behalf.

Ultimately, there is no mystery to the thing, which may incidentally reflect the modern viewer’s oversaturation of horror and gothic motifs – the loud noises, the “who’s there?” followed by an ill-advised investigation of a dark house, the desensitization to violence and gore. Crimson Peak is more visual exploration of the gothic genre, amassing every conceivable reference and allusion to the great horror tradition into a cinematically striking and clearly passionate extolment to the ghosts within and without. Perhaps over-attention to this sensibility is what causes the film to suffer, resulting in a derivative and rather uninspired work. Let Crimson Peak be one’s gateway into the genre, not the culmination thereof.

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