Guillermo Goes Gothic in the Grrrl-Powered Crimson Peak

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Forget the phallic-tongued vampires populating The Strain and go for the sumptuously Gothic Crimson Peak.

As with Pan’s LabyrinthGuillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak is a woman-centered and driven narrative brimming with claustrophobic imagery and red-hued horror. While Pan’s Labyrinth incorporated fairytale structure and imagery to tell a political tale of post-civil war Spain, Crimson Peak draws on the gothic genre to meditate on the dangers of inherited class privilege. More prominently, it takes a cleaver to the horrific results of imprisoning women within domestic roles of mother, wife, daughter and sister.

It is a writerly tale driven by the voice and will of the aspiring young female author, Edith Cushing.

At the outset, we learn that Edith has written a ghost story. Her hopes of publication at Atlantic Monthly are curtailed when she is told she should be writing love stories. Edith does not want to write love stories, though. She wants to write tales reminiscent of a woman she compares herself to near the start of the film—Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein.

Edith does not fear death, she does not fear love, rather, she fears not being published. Like Mary Shelley, Edith’s mother died soon after childbirth, leaving her in a man’s world, one Edith recognizes will require her to type her next manuscript so as to disguise her female identity (like Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot and others). Like Shelley, she is also surrounded by monstrously rakish types, including the Bryon-esque Tom Sharpe.

Though not interested in love and romance as her primary goals, Edith falls for Tom and soon leaves America for the home he and his sister, Lucille, share in England. She does not leave her writing in the States, however. In fact, her status as a writer bookends the film, coming up at key moments in the narrative, as when she instructs Tom that her “characters make choices as to who they become.”

Edith, too, makes choices as to who she will become: She refuses to be the victim to Tom’s menacing sister Lucille, who is clearly the brains behind the attempts to bolster her and her brother’s rapidly dwindling wealth by having him marry successive women and steal their fortunes.

Tom and Lucille’s English estate, Allerdale Hall, is typically Gothic—dark, decaying, menacing, and alive with bugs, moths and several ghostly skeletons. Replete with a creaky elevator and built atop a red clay mine, the house is sinking—much like the class status of Tom and Lucille Sharpe. In keeping with the gothic genre, “old money” is portrayed as sinister, and the rotting house echoes the dysfunctional system of landed aristocracy .

Early on, Edith’s father, Carter,  sees through the money-grabbing intent of the Sharpes and gives them a check to disappear, after berating Tom with the following: “In America, we bank on effort, not privilege.” The film thus condemns inherited wealth and privilege, tying it to death and decay.

In addition to this underlying class-based critique, the film offers a feminist re-visioning of female ghosts. Unlike in other recent ghostly films, such as The Conjuring, where a ghost-witch wreaks havoc on a mother and her family due to her territorial desire to keep her resting place free from the living, in Crimson Peak, the red-tinged skeletal ghosts function to warn Edith of the danger she is in—to reveal to her the bloody history of Allerdale House and the “crimson peak” upon which it is set. Rather than an evil mother prompting the mayhem—as in Friday the 13th and Carrie—the mothers and wives of the film warn Edith, saving her from Tom and Lucille’s nefarious plans.

Women—dead and alive—drive the entire story, with men playing only bit parts. Sure, Edith falls in love with Tom while Alan (her American suitor) follows her to England once he learns Tom and Lucille are murderers. But Edith is no damsel, and neither Tom nor Alan are able to save her—nor does she want them to. Rather, she saves both of them and,  in a skull-crushing, nail-biting final scene, Edith brains Lucille with a shovel, a scene that one reviewer argues is “unflinchingly feminist.”

The film is a must-see not only for its complex explorations of class and gender, but also for its amazing visuals and color palette. Black, white, red and grey predominate, with Edith’s blonde hair and yellow clothing shining light upon the blood and red-clay-soaked Crimson Peak. del Toro’s fascination with rot and decay is captured in the black moths, butterflies and red skeletal ghosts, all of which emphasize that the old house—based on an old class structure—is rotten, and that a new way is coming. One where an aspiring young female writer is saved by ghostly red women.

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Natalie Wilson teaches women’s studies and literature at California State University, San Marcos. She is the author of Seduced by Twilight and blogs for Ms., Girl with Pen and Bitch Flicks.


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