Buckle in, kids. I have thoughts.
First, a generally spoiler free quick review. (The spoilers will be coming hard and fast later, never you fear.) I’ve seen this movie twice now, and I like it more on second viewing than I did the first time around. Which is to say that I enjoyed it enough at time one to want to see it again, but this second time I was able to pick up so much more detail and richness, I’ve really gone from like to love.
Crimson Peak is a gothic romance in which innocent and violently orphaned budding writer Edith is romanced by Baronet Thomas Sharpe, overseen by his unblinking and intense sister Lucille. It’s obvious from the beginning that the Sharpe siblings are up to no good, the real question is how deep the corruption goes. When Thomas brings Edith home to Allerdale Hall, a house that’s a near-living embodiment of director Guillermo del Toro’s aesthetic and rotting austerely from the inside out, she must unravel the mysteries of Thomas’s recent past in order to survive her own future. She’s helped, for certain values of help, along in this endeavor by the numerous female ghosts that haunt Allerdale, but the true horror is not found with the dead, but the living.
The cast–Mia Wasikowska as Edith, Jessica Chastain as Lucille, Tom Hiddleston as Thomas–is what makes the movie. Edith acts as an excellent foil for Lucille and Thomas and a catalyst for internal struggle and development. The movie’s aesthetic has the richness we’ve come to expect from del Toro, an exemplar of the literary gothic that I personally love to witness but cannot stand reading, since I find the dark depths and layering visually appealing but impenetrable and normally overwritten in prose. With a less compelling cast there could have been a style over substance problem; the story of the movie and its purported mysteries aren’t really that twisty or terribly mysterious. The strength is in the characters and their relationships, and between the acting and visual delivery, del Toro has put together something that adds new depths to old tropes.
(And let’s face it, you could cast Tom Hiddleston as a Great Old One in a Lovecraft movie and I’d come out of it saying, “Well, but what about the inner life of Shub-Niggurath, Black Goat of the Woods With a Thousand Young?” Damn the man and his puppy dog eyes. He made me like Coriolanus, for fuck’s sake.)
And this is the part where we get into the SPOILERS. Do not continue if you wish to remain unspoiled. I’m going to break this up into loose, non-sequential sections.
TW for abuse, violence, and incest.
It kind of goes without saying that Crimson Peak wasn’t well-served by its marketing. Trailers got cut together like it was a straight horror/ghost movie, and Edith informs us in the first minutes of the film that actually, the ghosts are a metaphor, and it’s more a story with ghosts in it. I could almost feel some sympathy for the poor marketing department on this one, though, because what the hell are you going to market it as? Gothic romance isn’t a big enough film subgenre in the modern mainstream to have a readily established shorthand for advertising, and there’s no way in hell you could market this one as a straight romance. (Well, you could, but that would be a bad idea. And I bet they were trying to tempt more male audiences in with the promise of some horror, because everyone knows romance movies give men cooties.) Some real creativity would have been necessary from the distribution company, and wasn’t really exercised.
On the other hand, gothic fiction really gave us modern horror, and I would argue the elements that define the horror film genre are present, far moreso than the ones that tend to define romance. There is an evil force (Lucille) who is unreasoning and driven by id, and while she might be defeated at the end, audiences will know that the evil that she embodies still survives and thrives. There is no happy ending for Edith, just survival, and she is quite literally the “final girl.” Crimson Peak just doesn’t really meet most other expectations set up by our common understanding of horror; jump scares are few and far between, and the ghosts exist to lead Edith on her journey rather than try to harm her or even scare the audience.
That meta narrative, though (and oh, the foreshadowing)
The entire movie is framed as a book: Crimson Peak by Edith Cushing. That honestly only really hit me on the second viewing. But consider for a moment that this is the book Edith wrote instead of necessarily the book she has experienced. She tells us off the bat that the ghosts are a metaphor, for the past–and that they are. She states flatly very early on that she’d rather be Mary Shelley than Jane Austen–because Mary Shelley died a widow. By the end, Edith is set up to do just that. And she’s told by the first editor that she needs a romance plot: enter Thomas. Who then critiques her romance and then at one point says he hopes it does work out for the dark hero. (Poor Thomas, it does not.) But the romance of the book Edith is writing within Crimson Peak is an addition, an afterthought, not the main point. The thrust of the book is the ghosts of the past and their interaction with the characters. I tend to think of it as a warning right there that of all the elements in the story, the romance will perforce be the weakest.
Later when Edith and Thomas talk a bit more about her writing, and she tells him that characters speak and make their own choices (Edith, unlike me, is obviously a pantser), that’s an intensely important moment. On one hand, it’s Edith trying to tell Thomas yet again that he has free will (more on that later) and urging him to make his own choices and escape the past; on the other it’s an indication that the character Thomas in the meta narrative doesn’t yet have his fate written.
Also, I just love that Edith is a writer, and Thomas does his initial disingenuous sucking up to her by complimenting her writing–and then makes a performance of breaking her heart by insulting her book and calling her derivative.
Monsters, love, and abuse
Guillermo del Toro makes monster movies, and this one is no exception. The monster is Lucille, and she makes no bones about it at the end: “The horror was for love. Things we do for love like this are ugly, mad, full of sweat and regret… It is a monstrous love, and it makes monsters of us all.” This bald statement from Lucille is, by the way, part of why I think the Edith and Thomas love story feels more than a bit thin. The love story of this film isn’t that of Edith and Thomas, it’s that of Lucille and Thomas–which is what really does bring the horror. To a certain extent, Edith has to exist to be an outside observe on that fucked-up relationship, and to be the catalyst that changes it, but her own development as a character has a very different role.
Ultimately, what makes Lucille a monster, beyond the fact that she is the classic horror movie evil of an unreasoning being driven by id, is that she is an abuser–and is there anything more monstrous than abusing someone and telling them that it’s love?
I came out of my first viewing of Crimson Peak with the impression that Thomas and Lucille were basically an incestuous version of Lord and Lady MacBeth, a weak-willed man ruled by a strong and evil woman. Then the friend who I was with reminded me of one salient fact that’s easy to gloss over in the flood of other details: Mother Sharpe was murdered when Lucille was 14 and Thomas was 12. Lucille, almost off-handedly, mentions to Edith that Mother had “found out about us” before her murder. As in, found out that Lucille and Thomas were in an incestuous relationship. When Thomas was 12, or quite likely younger.
Just think about that for a moment, and then go wash your hands. I’ll wait.
We see throughout the film that in every interaction between the siblings, Lucille is the leader, Thomas the follower. She’s his older sister, after all. But consider beyond that, the way she deals with him:
- Every time he expresses doubts or resistance to her plans, she takes pains to enforce his isolation from others. No one understands him but her. If people found out, he would be hanged. She always frames their relationship as Lucille and Thomas against a hostile world that wants to destroy them, and fosters his dependency on her.
- When Thomas accomplishes something (getting his machine to work) she quashes his expression of individual talent by fiercely inserting herself into the equation (“I did this with you.”) and simultaneously cutting him off from his other source of praise by indicating she’s angry that he even wants to tell Edith anything. Nearly every time Thomas makes an “I” statement, she’s waiting to make it into a “we” statement.
- One of the few times Thomas tries to stand up to Lucille, after she’s poisoned Edith yet again with the porridge, she says, “We stay together.” And they repeat together, “Never apart.” After she does her best to frighten and guilt Thomas, she says that he wouldn’t leave her, and his answer is, “I can’t. I can’t.” It sounds very much that she’s trained him to believe that he can’t do anything without her.
- I tend to think that some of the ranting Thomas said when he was “breaking Edith’s heart” turned out to be a more of a window into him than he intended, when he got wound up–and he emphasizes that love is agonizing and painful, existence isolating and full of fear. He obviously believes that bitterness is necessary for survival, that gentleness will cause one nothing but pain in death–he expresses as much to Edith on multiple occasions. Much of this is no doubt drawn from his own bleak existence, but we see Lucille foster those beliefs in many ways, and then set herself up as the only escape from that loneliness and pain, the only source of comfort he could possibly have.
- Lucille’s made Thomas promise to love no one else, to have sex with no one else, and does her level best to interrupt Thomas and Edith every time they might have a moment alone, watching them like a hawk through keyholes. Consider her utter fury when they’ve had a night together and both come back for a moment free of Lucille’s oppression. Thomas loving Edith at all, even in the frightened, anemic way he manages, is an act of rebellion against Lucille’s control that she does her level best to destroy and literally poison.
- Lucille tells Edith that she took a lot of punishments intended for Thomas when they were children. While we never see her directly use guilt about this on Thomas, there’s little doubt it’s there as a weapon in her arsenal.
- We do in fact see her manipulating Thomas with guilt when she decides they need to kill Allen. She hands him a knife and asks, “Is it going to be you this time?” The implication plain: hasn’t she cleaned up enough of your messes, Thomas?
- Lucille takes complete ownership of Thomas, to the extent that when Edith catches them together and Lucille follows her, proudly justifying herself, she states, “This is who he is.”
- Ever notice that Lucille and Thomas tend to dress the same, at least using the same colors? While it is an excellent visual shorthand for the fact that they’re siblings, it can take on a much darker light when you consider Lucille’s extremely controlling behavior.
- We only see Lucille being violent with Thomas at the very end of the film, when she murders him in a fit of rage. But we see her display of temper toward Edith. It’s not a leap to imagine Thomas has been subjected to that as well, and considering they both grew up with a “brute” of a father and a mother who administered beatings, one imagines that’s the sort of thing that could cow Thomas very effectively.
- It’s very worth noting that after Lucille murders Thomas, after a moment of looking lost and horrified, she immediately settles on Edith as the scapegoat. When she’s murdered people, she’s laid it at Thomas’s feet; she was doing it to protect him, because he was too weak to do it himself. What else has she told him he’s responsible for?
- When Lucille does murder Thomas, he doesn’t even make a token attempt to fight her. He simply looks lost. And prior to that, he tries to convince her that they can all escape Allerdale hall together (the inclusion of Edith is the reason she murders him) because he cannot even now conceive of himself without Lucille.
- Worth noting as well that Lucille begins to pull this routine on Edith before the truth is revealed. She offers an artifice of care on one hand (feeding Edith, showing her the library, telling her a bit about Thomas and Lucille’s childhood) while on the other trying to isolate her (“you have nowhere to go”), disorient her (using the pornographic picture to make her admit she and Thomas haven’t consummated their marriage), or terrify her. For that last, she utilizes a burst of violence (almost striking Edith with a hot pan of eggs) and then adroitly blames it on Edith and Thomas because they worried her.
Hey, here’s a link to an emotional abuse checklist.
I’d like to draw your attention to one other point that I didn’t notice until my second viewing, but when I did, it broke my damn heart. At the beginning, when Thomas takes Edith to the party and convinces her to dance with him, he says: “I’ve always closed my eyes to things that make me uncomfortable. It makes them easier.” Consider that for a moment in light of the abuse the man’s faced at the hands of his sister. And then consider the two times we see him in a sexual situation, with Edith he had his eyes open, and for all the animalistic sounds we hear leading to when he’s caught in the act with Lucille, he doesn’t.
The unique thing del Toro has done with this film has little to do with the gothic narrative, but rather the representation of male victimhood as existing, tragic, and not internally, innately different from female victimhood. (And at a time when movies/books like 50 Shades of Grey make the abuse of a 15-year-old boy by a grown woman into an awkward and unfunny joke.) This makes me question my own initial reaction, dismissing Thomas as a “weak-willed man” like Lord MacBeth. Would I have thought the same, had the roles of Lucille and Thomas been reversed–older male sibling controlling and sexually abusing younger female sibling?
Butterflies and Gold
While Thomas and Lucille spend most of their time wearing black or dark colors, Edith spends most of her time in yellow. When she’s not wearing a white nightgown that’s made of approximately six nightgowns worth of fabric, at least. One obvious visual shorthand for this is that Edith is seen by Lucille (and Thomas, initially) as a source of wealth. But what about warmth?
In act I, there’s the creepy scene in the park where Edith and Lucille find yellow swallowtail butterflies dying under a tree. Lucille says, “They get their warmth from the sun, and when it leaves them, they die.” There’s a lot of imagery in the movie with moths and candle flames, which can be read in a very obvious way as Edith’s attraction to Thomas.
But I think taking a step beyond that, consider that Lucille (in not actually the most scientifically egregious moment of the film, but hey, there are ghosts too so whatever) says that the black moths of Allerdale hall survive by eating butterflies. At the end of the film, when Lucille is adding a lock of Edith’s hair to her serial killer trophy collection (Lucille sure does match the definition of a serial killer, doesn’t she?) we see two containers that look a bit like lanterns on her desk; each one contains a butterfly. One of the butterflies is trying to escape, the other is fluttering on its back in its death throes. Visual shorthand for Edith and Thomas, I’d say, trapped by Lucille, the black moth that eats butterflies. (My friend Karen also points out that Lucille’s serial killer hair collection is pinned down in a way very reminiscent of an insect collection.)
This then makes even more sense of Edith’s golden wardrobe. Part of it is a visual connection to the yellow swallowtails, and part of it is her role as the “warmth from the sun” for Thomas. Edith views him as “a dreamer facing defeat” and brings her determination to believe in dreams (like her dream of becoming a writer) to bear on him.
We’re told again and again that nothing gentle survives at Allerdale hall; that’s why the black moths thrive there and not butterflies. Thomas tells Edith that she needs to develop a bit of bitterness if she wants to make it–bitterness he’s got on display in that moment. (And even more fully so in that rant he has at Edith when he’s supposed to be breaking her heart, like when he says, “Affection has no place in love.” More than a bit of his inner beliefs fostered by Lucille coming out there, hm?) But Edith refuses to take in that bitterness, and in fact believes in Thomas so fiercely that she, through sheer force of will, forces him to try to believe in himself. She convinces him that the narrative of complete isolation and danger Lucille has fed him all his life isn’t necessary the truth, and she’s the warmth that gives him enough strength to make a few faltering attempts to stand up to Lucille… before his demise.
While Edith does play the general “innocent girl trapped by nefarious forces” role, there’s a bit of subversion of the hapless heroine in her that I appreciate immensely. I think there’s a lot to love in Edith that she refuses the narrative of corruption, and resists Lucille’s coercive behaviors with wit and determination. Strong foundation of having had a loving father, perhaps–Edith knows what love looks like, and knows it isn’t that. Because this isn’t a story about Edith’s fall to darkness or madness; it’s the story of Lucille as a monster and the destructive nature of her corrupt version of love. One could even argue that if anyone is having their psychology turned inside-out and being forced to question their life and existence, it’s Thomas; Edith is a strong and secure enough character that while she might be disoriented by the machinations of the Sharpe siblings, she never loses her footing.
Edith is generally a plucky heroine, and she plays a clever cat and mouse game with Lucille once she realizes something is very wrong, though she’s still always the mouse in that equation. But the twist on more standard narratives that this movie makes is turning the men into the victims and the women into both monster and hero. (By the way? Passes the Bechdel-Wallace test with flying colors.) Thomas is the hapless victim of a manipulative and abusive relationship and torn between two women, one of whom wants to control him and the other who offers him at least an illusion of hope.
And at the very end, Thomas makes an attempt to save Edith, asking her to trust him before he runs off to get murdered by Lucille. Then immediately after, Edith goes to the basement where Thomas has hidden Allen, who is badly wounded but alive. (Another small act of rebellion by Thomas, it should be noted, since he was ordered by Lucille to kill him.) Edith tells Allen to hide and, like Thomas did with her, asks him to trust her–only she delivers on that trust.
Also, please note that while Edith at times is hopelessly naïve, and she also does not immediately become an expert fighter after picking up a knife (thank you), she completes the entire final chase of the movie on a broken leg while half dead from poison, powered only by her strength of will and adrenalin. Edith is a credit to the Final Girl trope, who keeps rising and rising no matter how many times she falls. She’s a certifiable badass.
They’re a metaphor. We’ve already covered that they’re not supposed to actually do much other than represent the past and deliver warnings. (I’m still a bit puzzled by the Mother ghosts’ cryptic “His blood will be on your hands.” Then again, we also knew Mother was an awful person.) But we see three distinctive colors of ghosts in the film: black, red, and white.
The black ghosts are Lucille and Edith’s mother. My hypothesis is that the black ghosts are those tied to a place or person because of love. For Edith’s mother, it’s the love of her daughter; for Lucille, it’s her monstrous love of Thomas.
The red ghosts are all the women who have been murdered by Lucille. That seems… pretty plain.
The only white ghost we see is Thomas, who fades away after Lucille’s death. The impression I get is that he held on long enough to defend Edith, and then they simply let each other go. He won’t be walking around to haunt her. It’s Thomas’s redemption and Edith forgiving him.
But I’d love to hear other theories.
Ore is a rock that’s got a sufficient amount of minerals in it to be worth extracting for those components. The clay in this movie is likely red because it’s got a lot of iron oxide (hematite) in it. So, the clay could potentially be treated as an iron ore itself but it doesn’t “contain ore.” It contains iron oxides.
Dammit, Thomas. GEOLOGY. No wonder your mining business is failing.