After making its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival, Guillermo del Toro's The Shape of Water quickly became one of the year's most anticipated movies and an instant front-runner for awards season. While del Toro already has some Oscar nominations to his name, even his most ardent fans couldn't have predicted that a Cold War political romance between a mute janitor and a fish-man would be received so rapturously. This is del Toro at his prime: A genre-bending master of details and vibrancy, one who proudly wears his influences on his sleeve and takes no shame in his love of the weird. As he noted in an interview with the LA Times, "Some people find Jesus. I found Frankenstein. And the reason I’m alive and articulate and semi-sane is monsters. It’s not an affectation. It’s completely, spiritually real to me. And I’m not going to change."
And we hope you never do, Guillermo.
The success of The Shape of Water is a thrill for del Toro fans, as well as anyone hungry for something unique amid the movie slate of sequels, franchises and Minions. Yet it’s undeniably bittersweet too, given that such universal acclaim and focus was denied to del Toro’s last film, which celebrates its birthday this week. It’s been two years since Crimson Peak was released and disappointed at the box office, and some of us still aren’t over it.
Never fear, for those of us who do remember are determined to keep its memory alive.
Crimson Peak is the story of Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), the daughter of a wealthy American businessman who is haunted by the ghost of her dead mother, a malignant spirit who warns her to "beware of Crimson Peak." As an adult, she meets and becomes instantly attracted to Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), a baronet turned inventor looking for investment from Edith's father. As the pair fall in love and marry, she accompanies him home to his dilapidated manor, where her newlywed bliss is spoiled by hauntings, mysteries, and Thomas's unnerving sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain).
The set-up is classic horror, and the markers of the genre are everywhere in the film, from Edith’s surname being homage to one of Hammer Horror’s greats to the ways the walls of Crimson Peak bleed red clay like the infamous elevator scene from The Shining. In many ways, the film is a revival of the old-school haunted house genre, which is probably how its distributor, Universal Studios, saw it. Unfortunately, advertising the film as such may have been what sank it at the box office, as horror fans hoping for a night of scares were disappointed to discover what was actually something much rarer in the world of modern film – a gothic romance.
Del Toro has always loved exploring highly specific genres, but nowhere has his obsessive love and knowledge of such things been applied more effectively than it was in Crimson Peak. Every moment of the film is steeped in this gorgeous combination of overwrought melodrama and blood-soaked gothic. You could spend hours pausing the film to gaze adoringly at the details, like Edith's incredible sleeves or the way that red clay seeps into everything, and still miss so much of what the film has to offer.
None of those aesthetics would work without an incredible cast in front, and Crimson Peak greatly benefits from actors who commit to the material. There's never a moment where Wasikowska or Hiddleston wink or smirk at the borderline camp nature of the film. They take the intensity of their characters' relationship completely seriously, and it's a thrill to watch. Jessica Chastain, in particular, has never been better as the malevolent sister: part Mrs. Danvers, part Jason Voorhees, with just a dash of Cersei Lannister for good measure.
Gothic romance at its heart is a rather ludicrous genre. Its origins can be found in the mid-1700s with the Horace Walpole novel, The Castle of Otranto. Walpole, who said his work "sought to restore the qualities of imagination and invention to contemporary fiction," originally published the novel under the guise of it being a Medieval Italian manuscript translated into English for the first time. All the markers that would come to be associated with the genre are here - foreboding castles, a life-threatening mystery, damsels constantly on the verge of passing out from shock, and a few curses for good measure. Everything a gothic romance does is rooted in its desire to be too much. The emotions are too dramatic, the weather is too stormy, the family secrets are too shocking.
Realism doesn't enter the equation, which may be why so many contemporary critics wrote off gothic romance as pointless schlock. It may also be why so many women loved the genre. Women also helped to further define it through work like Clara Reeve's The Old English Baron and Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho. Women's feverish love of gothic romance was such a trend at the time that Jane Austen dedicated an entire novel, Northanger Abbey, to mocking them for it. Del Toro, by contrast, is basically the unabashed fan of gothic romance Austen would roll her eyes at, and in his passionate love letter to the genre in Crimson Peak he offers not only a wholehearted rendition of the classic tropes - he gives it a contemporary spin so that the damsel saves the day.
Edith is a full-on gothic heroine, but one with a thoroughly modern twist. She’s an ambitious woman with dreams of being an author, yet she also yearns for a husband, one who will stand by her side on equal terms and not as her superior. Even as she traipses fearfully through the rotting corridors of Crimson Peak, clad in the most dramatic of nightgowns, Edith remains a woman of determination and intellect, eager to uncover the scandal that haunts her new home. While he is heavily acclaimed for many aspects of his work, del Toro’s heroines are frequently overlooked, even though they’re easily some of the most intriguing protagonists in film of the past fifteen years: Think Ofelia and her fantastical hero's journey or Mercedes, the housekeeper with a political mission from Pan's Labyrinth. There's Liz Sherman, the pyrokinetic paranormal agent fighting to keep her powers in control and maintain a relationship in the Hellboy films. And of course, there's Mako Mori, the Jaeger pilot in Pacific Rim whose tenacity and independence made such an impact on viewers that fans created a whole new test for gender in film in her honor. Del Toro has a sharp insight for creating women who live in incredibly specific genre trappings that often see them limited in action by their gender, all while allowing them to flourish separately from the narratives of their male counterparts. Edith Cushing is a woman of the gothic tradition, but she’s also a heroine of our times.
She also, to put it bluntly, really wants to have sex with her very attractive husband (few directors have understood the lithe sensitive sex appeal of Tom Hiddleston as acutely as Guillermo del Toro). Crimson Peak isn’t just a great woman-led film; it’s one hugely defined by the female gaze. In the wedding night scene, where Edith and Thomas finally consummate their marriage, the focus is completely on Edith’s pleasure and Thomas giving it to her. Seeing this kind of passion in cinema is rare enough, but in a film adjacent to the horror genre? It’s almost unheard of. Del Toro loves monsters and he understands how much women do too. So many of the key genre texts of our generation are examples of the ways women have always used fantasy, horror and science-fiction to explore ideas of love and sex. In that aspect, Crimson Peak is no different from David Bowie’s Labyrinth or Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Guillermo gets women.
In hindsight, it’s kind of amazing Crimson Peak even got made. Like gothic romance itself, it definitely seems like it’s too much for our modern day: too earnest, too committed to its weirdness, too difficult to pin down as one exact thing. Now that The Shape of Water, another example of prime undiluted del Toro (and the film the director himself is most proud of), is gaining traction with the mainstream, perhaps it will inspire some viewers to revisit this sinfully underrated gem.
For now, we simply wish Crimson Peak a very happy birthday. May your summers be bleak and your sleeves forever puffy.