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Not Guilty: Crimson Peak

Contributed by
May 9, 2018

In Not Guilty, we look at movies and TV shows that the general consensus tells us we should feel bad for liking, but that our hearts tell us we should give a second look -- "guilty pleasures" we don't feel guilty about. This time around, we turn our attention to the wildly underrated wonder of Guillermo del Toro's Crimson Peak.

 

When it opened in the fall of 2015, I was in awe of Crimson Peak, and marveled at the instant backlash against Guillermo del Toro's rich and lusty gothic-horror film. But a promotional campaign that painted it as a more straight-forward haunted house tale twisted audience expectation, unintentionally sabotaging its reception. Feeling cheated of the wall-to-wall scares they felt they'd been promised, critics and fans sneered at del Toro's blend of romance and terror. Maybe the world wasn't ready.

 

But in the wake of del Toro's The Shape of Water winning the Oscar for Best Picture, it's time fans revisit its precursor, where the horror was for love.

 

It's Jane Austen meets Mary Shelley. 

Because of the trailers that featured inky, sinister spirits creeping down hallways, and into tender bedrooms, I was completely flabbergasted to discover the first act of Crimson Peak feels like something out of Pride and Prejudice. Nineteenth-century American heiress Edith Cushing is lovely, creative and smart, and dreams of being a writer. But her ambition is mocked by her husband-seeking peers, and patronized by the powerful men who might publish her work.
 

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She's told by one and all her focus should be on love. She strives to willfully ignore this societal pressure, but her resolve withers like a rose in winter with the arrival of the dashing Thomas Sharpe. His title of baronet makes him hotly sought by the bachelorettes of Buffalo, New York. A chance encounter sparks an undeniable passion between Thomas and Edith, and he quickly ditches the overeager socialite who would be his bride so he might waltz with Edith. In Austen's work, however, love never comes easily—and in Shelley's, love comes with carnage.

 

A vicious murder binds Edith and Thomas together, and more murders threaten to tear them apart. Like an Austen heroine, Edith's naiveté and pride initially blind her to red flags about the man she loves. Like in Frankenstein, the true monsters are not the ones with rotted, ghoulish flesh, but humans with dark, dark hearts. And in the end, Edith gets her wish to be like Shelley, a writer (and widow) who understands how true love and true horror can mingle into something tragic yet remarkable. 

 

It's beyond beautiful.

 

May we address the absolute crime that is production designer Thomas E. Sanders and costume designer Kate Hawley being completely snubbed at the Oscars? Look, they would have had a challenge in Mad Max: Fury Road, but it is absolute insanity that The Revenant—a film set outside with costumes made of muddy menswear—somehow got an Academy Award nomination while Crimson Peak got nothing.

 

Sanders built a towering mansion that was decadent and decayed. The Sharpe's Crimson Peak home had high ceilings that crackled with disrepair, turning its foyer into the world's creepiest snow globe. Red clay seeped up to turn its snow-covered lands blood red. Inside, peeling wallpaper, dark hallways with pointed accents, and an elegant staircase that felt like a labyrinthine trap all serve to create a cryptic puzzle box. Every angle in that set was captivating, giving hints and texture to the Sharpe family's sinister history. 

Hawley's costumes for the film were next level. Not only did she create a flurry of jaw-droppingly opulent gowns for Edith and Lucille, she made each one a magnificent metaphor. Virginal Edith favors bright white gowns and then radiant yellows and golds, which make her a literal light in the dark halls of the Sharpe's titular estate. The big, voluminous shoulders of these dresses give her the appearance of wings, connecting her to the delicate butterflies she saw die in the park. At the time, Lucille warned her that butterflies need the sun to survive, and that in her home black moths make meals of these pretty things. "Formidable creatures to be sure," Lucille mused, "But they lack beauty. They thrive on the dark and the cold."

By contrast, Lucille's gowns tie her to the moths. Her preferred colors are less vibrant, more ominous. She cinches herself snugly in pitch black, midnight blue, and blood red, with bodices that boast prominent lacing, like a protruding spine. While Edith's clothes reflect light, Lucille's are all darkness.

And to mirror the festering decay of Crimson Peak and the Sharpe legacy, Lucille's dresses bloom with gray and black lace that trails across like an elegant, spreading fungus. Edith's looks have an approachable, warm femininity; Lucille's are feminine with flares of foreboding.

This Loki fraks.

Many Tom Hiddleston fans first fell for him in 2011 as the sexy trickster-god Loki in Thor. And while the MCU has been happy to trot this roguish villain out over and over for our viewing pleasure, they have to keep things vexingly PG-13. Del Toro didn't deny us. He gave fangirls a side of Hiddleston we'd been thirsting for. (I'm talking 'bout his butt.) 

In Crimson Peak, Thomas Sharpe has a lot in common with Loki. Long, jet-black locks set against pale, perfect skin. A mournful yet alluring stare. A tunnel-visioned ambition that leads him to evil, and some serious issues with a sibling. Admittedly, Thomas doesn't have the manic charm of Loki—and neither is great boyfriend material. But Thomas's heavy sighs turn to heavy petting and titillating thigh biting in a swoon-inducing love scene.  Del Toro doesn't get enough credit for bringing steamy sex appeal into his horror.

Jessica Chastain is a divine, damaged diva.

At the time of its release, some condemned Chastain's performance as Lucille Sharpe of essentially being too campy, too over the top, too much. They were wrong. Chastain knew what this movie was from the moment she walked on set. She grabbed onto Lucille's inner diva as ferociously as this twisted sister grabs onto her house keys or her brother's… affections.

With her scowls, howls, and dramatic kneading of gruel, Chastain was harkening back to a rich tradition in horror movie acting. Her theatricality nods to the camp horror classics like What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, where screen legends Bette Davis and Joan Crawford delivered power-house and totally bonkers performances as two sisters driven mad by their festered bond. All they have is each other, as they scrape by in a decaying mansion. And their desperation and gnarled devotion is driving them mad. Sound familiar?

But more than this, Chastain's fearsome and bold performance plays as a purposeful foil to Mia Wasikowska's Edith. Sure, Edith is a bit of a groundbreaker with her writing ambitions. But she follows a society-accepted path by playing the obedient daughter, the doting wife, the caring sister-in-law. And always, even when she is defiant, she smiles sweetly. Meanwhile, Lucille is a sneering spinster who will never be married and has brutally rejected a future as both daughter and mother.

Lucille is the dreaded female hysteria made manifest. An affliction that men believed befell weak women, hysteria was really code for "tired of the patriarchy's oppressive bullshit."  Chastain leans into the fury and fantasy of this moment, bringing a bold theatricality that is meant to be uncomfortable and wild. She is a monster, after all. Both Edith and Lucille share this frustration with the constraints of 1880s womanhood—but Lucille takes hers to disturbing ends, her curdling passions exploding into violence. And thanks to Hawley's captivating costumes, those violent ends involve billowing sleeves that flap like a marvelous, monstrous moth's wings as Lucille chases Edith for a ruthless showdown.

Perhaps del Toro's blend of love and horror, romance and ghosts, was too much for some. But more than anything, it was likely the marketing's misrepresentation that damned Crimson Peak.  Observed on its own terms, it's a film that's full of emotion, beauty, wretchedness, and thrilling performances. Del Toro created a familiar world of Austen's class conflicts and romance, then swirled it with blood and the "return of the repressed" theme that's made horror fiercely vital since Shelley's Frankenstein.

Maybe in 2015, we weren't ready for this juicy mash-up of genre. But if we can accept a sexy, waltzing sea monster, can't we appreciate the macabre glory of a love triangle tale that's overflowing with passion, fashion, murder, and spine-tingling spookiness?