*WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS*
Guillermo del Toro has a thing for monsters. Just a quick glance at his filmography reveals faun and fish men, vampires and demons. He is the proud owner of ‘Bleak House’, a lovingly curated collection of occult, gothic and horror memorabilia. When he won the award for Best Director at the 2018 Golden Globes, he concluded his speech with “I thank you, my monsters, thank you.” The tenderness with which he regards his creations is oddly touching, as noted by frequent collaborator David Marti. He claims that del Toro is “in love with monsters…he has a sympathy about the ugliest ones, the horrifying ones.”
The monsters of del Toro’s 2015 period chiller Crimson Peak are, ostentatiously, ghosts. Inspired by haunted-house classics such as The Innocents and The Shining, the film is populated by blood-red spectres with misshapen, mangled bodies. They make unearthly noises as they claw and hobble their way down shadow-shrouded corridors, arms outstretched and grasping. In spite of del Toro’s avowals that Crimson Peak is a gothic romance and not a horror, it remains – as Stephen King so perfectly put it – “just fucking terrifying.”
But del Toro has always been interested in exploring what it truly means to be a monster. In Hellboy, the eponymous demon grapples with questions of identity and morality. In The Shape of Water, a mute, bipedal fish is more humane than his captor. And in Crimson Peak, the true monsters are entirely human, driven to immoral deeds by love – “a monstrous love”, albeit.
Love is something that Crimson Peak’s heroine, Edith Cushing, initially seems apathetic towards. An aspiring writer, she is poised and determined, having long cast off the (literal) ghosts of her past. When a pointed comparison is made between her and Jane Austen, who died a spinster, Edith smoothly retorts that she would “prefer to be Mary Shelley. She died a widow.”
Frustrated by her editor’s suggestion that she incorporate a love story into her manuscript (“he said that just because I’m a woman!”), Edith elects to transcribe it via typewriter at her father’s offices in order to disguise her handwriting. It is here that she meets Thomas Sharpe, the mysterious English aristocrat whom she had previously – and aptly – derided as ‘a parasite with a title.’ He praises her writing without knowing the author’s identity, and thus their strange courtship begins.
Despite her initial resistance, Edith quickly falls head over heels for the enigmatic baronet. Yet the disapproval of those around her poses an obstacle to their love, most notably that of her doting father. One tragic ‘accident’ later, a grieving Edith seeks solace in Thomas’s arms and is swept away to the Sharpe’s ancestral home (Allerdale Hall – otherwise known as Crimson Peak) as his new bride – accompanied by his pernicious sister, Lucille.
There’s an endearing boyishness to Thomas, no doubt facilitated by the constant presence of the overbearing Lucille. He takes delight in creating toys and trinkets, seeking to liberate the family from financial ruin with a clay-mining machine of his own invention. However, the Sharpe’s means of acquiring capital are eventually revealed to be deeply insidious – Thomas woos and marries wealthy, vulnerable women, and Lucille swiftly dispatches them after the siblings have claimed their fortune for themselves.
Yet while Lucille seems to relish the spilling of blood, Thomas distances himself from the fate of his doomed brides. One of the film’s most indelible scenes is a waltz between Thomas and Edith, the first explicitly romantic moment they share. As they take their positions, each eye in the room fixed upon them, Edith asks Thomas “Why are we doing this?” He replies that “I’ve always closed my eyes to things that made me uncomfortable. It makes everything easier” – an allusion to his unwillingness to reconcile his endeavours with the brutality that facilitates them. Edith’s response is equally telling. Unsmiling, she replies that “I don’t want to close my eyes. I want to keep them open.”
Del Toro’s screenplay is full of veiled references such as these, insinuations of things to come. One early exchange between Edith and Lucille is particularly significant. As the two women examine dying butterflies in a sun-dappled park, Lucille muses that “beautiful things are fragile…at home we have only black moths. Formidable creatures, to be sure… they thrive on the dark and the cold.” When Edith enquires what they feed on, Lucille grimly replies “Butterflies, I’m afraid.” With Lucille and Thomas garbed in entirely in black during this scene, the implication is clear.
Lucille and Thomas may look as stark as shadows in New York, but when they arrive at the gloomy ruins of Allerdale Hall, there’s a visual reversal. Edith – who favours ochres and golds – becomes a spot of light in a dark and foreboding place. She is different, both from the Sharpe’s and Thomas’s preceding wives. The two newlyweds share an impassioned moment after he obliquely tells her this, only to be brusquely interrupted by Lucille’s sudden arrival.
Jessica Chastain is magnificent in the role of Lucille, veering between glacial hauteur and violent hysteria with ease. Intensely protective of her brother, the cracks in her façade of civility towards Edith start to appear as Thomas’s growing affection for his young bride becomes palpable. Thomas is all she has – all she has ever had – and she loves him fiercely. She quite literally bears the scars of their shared past, having shielded him from their mother’s vicious beatings.
The Sharpe’s are tethered both to their home and to each other by a legacy of horror that they continue to facilitate with their marriage-and-murder plot. Lucille seems content with this arrangement, but Edith’s presence plants seeds of doubt in Thomas’s mind. She cannot understand why the Sharpe’s remain rooted to the decaying manor and is keen for Thomas to abandon it, telling him that “You’re always looking to the past. You won’t find me there.”
Edith eventually gets through to Thomas, it seems, and at the film’s dramatic climax he begs Lucille to leave Allerdale Hall with him in order to start a new life. She seems close to conceding – until he tells her that “we could all be together.” It is here that the full extent of Thomas’s childish idealism reveals itself, the fact that he truly believes he could live happily ever after with Edith and his sister. Lucille – heartbroken and enraged that Thomas has truly fallen in love with Edith – kills him. Then, mad with grief, she pursues Edith with murderous intent and a meat cleaver. When the two women are locked in a standoff, weapons poised, Edith pleads for help. Lucille hisses back that “there’s no one her to help you”, only for Edith to tell her “Yes there is! Look at him! Turn around!”
Lucille has spent her entire life living in Allerdale Hall, unbothered by the unhappy spirits that reside there with her. Yet now she sees the ghost of Thomas as clearly as Edith does – the only murder she has ever felt remorse over committing. She turns around to see him one last time, knowing that it provides Edith with the upper hand and turning anyway. Edith strikes, Lucille crumples, Edith lands the killing blow.
Crimson Peak may not be a horror, but it is often horrifying. It’s certainly gothic, and lavishly romantic in places. But at its core, it feels like a tragedy. Lucille and Thomas are villains, their actions reprehensible – but they were once victims themselves. It isn’t until Edith enters Thomas’s life that he truly realises how wretched he and his sister have become, that the power to break a cycle of violence and misery lies within their reach. But while Thomas was willing to let go of the past, Lucille could not.
Lucille’s spirit lingers at Crimson Peak, blackened and skeletal, ghostly fingers tracing the keys of her beloved piano. In clinging to the past, she has doomed herself to an eternal, solitary stasis. Thomas, by contrast, bids Edith a tender goodbye before disappearing, freed by his final act of redemption. And Edith is left orphaned, widowed and gloriously alive, staggering through the snow towards an unknown future.
by Beth Inglis
Categories: Anything and Everything