Free to live as a woman… free to take my place in the bright world of the living… instead of among the shadows of the dead!
—Marya Zaleska, Dracula’s Daughter
When young Edith (Mia Wasikowska) enters the eponymous hall of Crimson Peak, it soars hundreds of feet above her. But her husband, Sir Thomas, and his sister Lucille crowd her out of the frame at every turn. The house is choked with the pair of them; the ceilings of her room seem to sink lower every time they come in. And the first time Edith actually takes in the full scope of her new home, a portrait of the siblings’ mother—who is, of course, more than she seems—looms over it all, bolted to this prickly, crumbling skeleton of a house. It’s about as high gothic as it gets. (The knowing look Edith casts at the painting is the first indication director Guillermo Del Toro provides that this gothic is using that family tree as a setup for an unexpected payoff.)
Traditionally, the gothic story is a generational statement couched in camp. Early gothic novels were obsessed with secret family relationships (often incest, an evergreen trope of the genre since Matthew Lewis’ 1796 thriller The Monk) or with childbirth and moral inheritance in a swiftly changing world (Frankenstein). Later novels tackled psychological trauma as much as plot twists: Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Turn Of The Screw, and Dracula built a forensic profile of the damned. And part of what defines the gothic is how paradoxically trusting it is; it relies on audience familiarity for much of its atmosphere and emotional power. We know the girlish innocent will be terrified in the great dark house; we know the gentry are hiding a terrible secret; we know what happens when you unlock Bluebeard’s closet. The gothic isn’t a genre of surprises, it’s a genre of dread, and to dread something, you must first know what it is.
It’s tailor-made for the screen; the opulent decay of the gothic is ripe for cinematic translation. An estate of finery that’s rotting through, a tortured glance, a virginal nightgown trailing on the stairs of the dark, dark house—it’s place, character, and foreshadowing cheek-by-jowl in every frame. And like its literature, gothic film expects its audience to know its signposts in order to glean the most. To someone coming in from the cold, Crimson Peak must seem a breathlessly languorous pendulum between the gorgeous and the bizarre. But it’s a gilded, subversive mash note to the gothic narrative, and a stylistic commentary on the family tree of gothic film itself.
As a story, Crimson Peak’s first two acts are predictable—at times, enthusiastically cliché—and lean heavily on that expectation of familiarity to reveal things to us much sooner than for its characters. The story gleefully pickpockets Joseph Mankiewicz’s Dragonwyck and Robert Siodmak’s The Spiral Staircase. Here you find Crimson Peak’s predatory nobles, its innocent girls whose dreams are crushed when the fairy tale becomes the patriarchy, its supersaturated shadows, its vast halls—hell, even its helpful modern doctors—all by design. But louche manipulators aside, the kernel of Dragonwyck is inheritance. Vincent Price’s villainous gent kills his wife to clear his dance card for a more fertile young lady; later, he stares at his infant son, wretchedly aware of the passage of time. And in a genre brimming with foreboding houses, The Spiral Staircase still manages to impress; mute heroine Helen, who knows she’s being tracked by a serial killer, is practically entombed in the house, aiding the elderly Mrs. Warren. When the killer reveals himself, the movie’s last act is a largely silent sprint through a house that feels both nightmare-large and impossibly enclosed. (Crimson Peak winks at Dragonwyck with the room count of Allerdale Hall, but the paradoxical geography of the Hall’s vast claustrophobia is a descendant of this pivotal stair.)
The foreboding staircase—as much a narrative tool as a visual one—has become an iconic visual marker of the gothic. All you need is a house on a hill to know that the story features a doomed family line. It’s a cue so robust that it’s equally effective for Psycho and Samson Vs. The Vampire Women in visually establishing theme. And the more often a beat is used, the more recognizable it becomes, until it can be taken out of context to provide narrative as well as visual impact.
A still of Deborah Kerr in The Innocents (one of the most high gothic photos ever taken) features her on the manse’s stairs, white nightgown and white-knuckle grip around her candelabra as she timorously faces the dark. It’s mirrored exactly by Crimson Peak posters; we know without seeing anything else that Edith is hunting ghosts. Cinema’s visual vocabulary draws on and enforces stories we’re trained to see. Early film vampires—Nosferatu, Dracula—worked to establish vampiric Otherness; every measured step, unblinking close-up, and beat of preternatural calm built a glossary. Each entry into the field meant the vampire visual became deeper and more familiar; with those century-old markers, Crimson Peak presents a vampire narrative under its surface without ever needing to bring it up. What else can you call out-of-time siblings who live off those they bleed to death?
But Crimson Peak’s sincerity about narrative callbacks is balanced by its canny use of meta visual markers from the family tree of cinema gothic; the heavy sound of fabric caught by the microphone, the unreal outdoors, the stilted dialogue that marked a transition from silent film to stage replacement before naturalism became a virtue. These tics are embedded in modern audiences’ pop-culture hive mind, a mass nostalgia of the formal. And though it’s possible no one will ever top Francis Ford Coppola’s devotion at the altar of the past in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Del Toro gives him a run for his money, using old-fashioned flourishes as if whipping out cabinet cards of beloved grandparents. The on-the-nose dialogue (courtesy Del Toro and co-screenwriter Matthew Robbins) could have been lifted from Dracula’s Daughter. The costumes are a Technicolor wonder, using color as blatantly as an MGM musical—Edith’s slightly sickly golds amid the house’s (and Lucille’s) over-dyed cyan is a constant minor chord. There’s even a handful of iris shots as a reminder this is an old-fashioned telling of a story that’s old-fashioned.
Mostly. These collectively understood meanings, which Del Toro applies with gusto everywhere else, means that its sly, subversive ghosts stand out in sharp relief against the soft-focus Victorian shadows. Literature and film have taught us that the gothic ghost is a marker of the past disturbed by the encroaching present, and is generally concerned with itself; it wants justice or revenge. The pair of malevolent ghosts that haunt The Innocents (if one believes in them) want nothing more than to possess the children, to snatch another generation’s worth of life, but what makes them frightening within the film is the joy they take in tormenting Miss Giddens. Even in the reading of the film in which there’s no danger but in her fevered imagination, it’s telling that the monster she conjures for herself is a specter of the past that knows more than anyone in the house will tell her. Ghosts in the gothic are terrifying because they know all sins.
It’s notable, then, that the blood-soaked ghosts of Crimson Peak are nearly all women, and all they ever do is communicate sins to help Edith avoid danger. The most famous gothics tend to be rife with men (so much of it is the struggle between the emerging and the entrenched; what’s more entrenched than men in power?), and knowledgeable women tend to be antagonists—from the Prioress in 1764’s The Monk to Daphne Du Maurier’s Mrs. Danvers. But it’s not unheard of for women to aid one another. In The Spiral Staircase, old Mrs. Warren proves a virago as Helen’s protector, and few gothics are complete without a maid whispering a vague warning to our ingenue. But for women to use their knowledge so decisively in the aid of another woman is still rare enough that the movie positions their helpfulness as a supernatural element in and of itself; that help, not the ghosts, is the second-act big reveal.
These otherworldly alerts mean Edith turns sleuth largely for the ghosts’ sake—the audience hardly needs the help. (This is a genre of dread; we know what to fear.) Even Lucille, the looming sister-in-law who turns the rim of a teacup into the screeching chains of the past, is unruffled that Edith uncovers the not-so-secret plot against her. The only surprise is that when the danger closes in at last, and with a golden doctor on the doorstep to rescue her, Edith takes a knife and starts stabbing her own way out. It’s Del Toro’s most satisfying story trick that no one in the movie takes much notice. Often in the gothic, monstrous women are objects of horror—look no further than Countess Zaleska and her Sapphic ilk. But Crimson Peak itself gives no indication this isn’t the way a woman behaves; Lucille is a serial killer who views Edith’s violence as fair play. It’s the traditional gothic that’s taught us to expect a woman paralyzed by fear. That expectation makes Edith’s arc a slowly unfurling subversion.
Reviews of Crimson Peak have been generally indulgent of what critics seem to feel is a sumptuous dollhouse experiment by Del Toro; they’ve praised the production design even as the story was dinged for predictability. Even The A.V. Club declared the film had disappointed by not being very scary. But that’s presuming the ghosts are the heart of what unsettles us in the gothic. The film isn’t very scary, because it trades so carefully on scares we’ve come to expect. It isn’t very scary because its ghosts aren’t antagonists; they’re a manifestation of generational guilt, sure, but they aren’t here to haunt Edith—they’re here to save her. And the movie’s visual markers—so pristinely devoted to its ancestors in the opening acts—sidestep the ghosts altogether by the climax. Edith stands victorious in the snow, blood-red clay on her white hem and blood spattered across her gown. She’s closed the loop on the vampire narrative, all by herself.
This vampiric sleight of hand doesn’t change the essential nature of the film—Edith doesn’t suddenly accept some monstrous mantle and continue a cycle of predation. (This is a more satisfying gothic than that; the Byronic hero falls in love with our heroine and dies to prove it, and our heroine is rewarded for feasting on those who would subdue her.) But it does manage to disquiet the final frames of the movie. Bright Edith staggering through the snow in her nightgown is as bled of color as the corpses she leaves behind, and after two hours with Crimson Peak, we know enough to understand that the present does not move on quietly from the past; it requires bloody revolution, every time. It’s part and parcel of the family tree Del Toro painstakingly recreates in order to step out from under it and become something else: not a surprise so much as a metamorphosis. It’s the generational shift writ small. There’s nothing more gothic than that.