Wednesday, October 21, 2015

"Crimson Peak" May Not Be Amazing, But It Does Revive A Classic Gothic Motif

This past weekend, Guillermo del Toro’s gothic romance horror film Crimson Peak hit theatres, slipping into the box office just in time for Halloween. Crimson Peak is an interesting choice for del Toro, who traditionally sticks to folklore and fairytales when dealing with his fantastical creatures. This film takes place in Edwardian England and deals more with the modern-day, Western tropes of the haunted house. The rumor mill originally suggested this film was a redrafted version of his fabled script for The Haunted Mansion film Disney commissioned him to write, though sources say del Toro has been working on this film since before the second Hellboy. And while it wasn’t a wonder of writing or even visuals, this brought up, for me, a very interesting point in the conversation surrounding horror media: the importance of terror.

Shirley Jackson, famed novelist and short story genius, was the first within creative fields to suggest and portray a fundamental difference between horror and terror when it comes to scary stories. Horror — the one we’re all familiar with and used as an umbrella term — specifically refers to the negative reaction one has after an event. Terror, on the other hand, is the sense of dread preceding an event, and in many cases is a much more potent emotion to drag out of audience members. By those definitions, it’s probably easy to see that terror might actually be implemented more often than horror. Jackson’s 1959 novella The Haunting of Hill House is one of the greatest and most drawn-upon examples of this.

The Haunting of Hill House centers around a group of four strangers who congregate in a well-known haunted mansion on the outskirts of an isolated town in order to investigate the possibility of ghosts. Rather than show explicit examples of supernatural events, Jackson continually dangles the possibility of danger in front of the reader without ever truly giving them something to respond to. It’s this build-up of tension that made the original Paranormal Activity such a scary experience for many audience members. And it’s worth noting that Crimson Peak makes use of this level of mystery and tension to raise its plot stakes.

The film follows a young woman, Edith (Mia Wasikowska), who — throughout her life — has had encounters with ghosts that warn her about Crimson Peak. After her father mysteriously passes away, she meets a dashing English lord, Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and marries him. They relocate to his ancestral home that the locals refer to as “Crimson Peak” because of its rich deposits of red clay. Edith becomes increasingly ill while enduring nightly visits from deformed and seemingly malevolent ghosts. Eventually she learns that Thomas and his sister (Jessica Chastain) have orchestrated marriages for Thomas multiple times to inherit dowries to help pay for his inventions; all the while they’ve been having secret affairs and poisoning the wives. Ultimately, Thomas admits to truly loving Edith and helps rescue her from his sister’s murderous attempts before dying and joining the ghosts of the house.

It’s not purely terror, based on Jackson’s original work, but it does draw heavily on her ideas. For the majority of the film, we’re not sure really at all what’s going on. It’s obvious there’s an underlying danger in Thomas’s sister, and unease can be felt throughout the house, represented by how it creaks in the countryside winds. Further, del Toro uses the idea of location as character (much like Jackson) to his advantage. The house literally oozes red clay from the mines below, and the color scheme is ever-present throughout Edith’s nightly explorations. There’s even a slight Bluebird element when Thomas warns her not to go below the ground level of the house, where old gramophones revealing the dying confession of one of Thomas’s previous wives are hidden. The mystery surrounding most of the action is what really does the job in this film, as much of Thomas’s motivations are confusing: his actions are laced with sympathy and caring, in the face of his sister’s brashness and downright violence on occasion.

There is also the use of the ghosts. The first time we see one, it’s very Shining-esque as Edith wanders into the bathroom late one night and finds a skeleton made of red clay in the tub. It chases her at a slow walk (which will never not be scary, no matter what movie it’s in) before it disappears entirely. It happens a few more times, where ghosts call her name and deliver cryptic messages. Though the presence of the ghosts is more a result of the film’s use of horror, they also further the concept of the house and its energy as its own entity. It’s suggested earlier in the movie, while Edith and a childhood friend look at photographs that seemingly show ghosts, that places can hold the energy of the departed. That idea comes to a head when the ghosts of previous murder victims within Crimson Peak literally take the form of the grounds of the house, bathed in red clay. It’s a bit more on the nose than something like Hill House but it does give del Toro a chance to show off his love of creating odd creatures.

Ultimately, Crimson Peak is not a perfect example of the dialogue between horror and terror, but is one of the better examples among recent films that attempt to create a conversation between the two ideas. Kubrick’s The Shining — more so than the book it was based on — also exudes this focus on terror over horror, as well as the semi-recent indie horror film It Follows. And — preceding Paranormal Activity — 1999’s The Blair Witch Project was something of a groundbreaking way to go about this, never once showing the monster and letting the shouting matches between characters and their own paranoia guide your reactions.

So check out Crimson Peak if you have a taste for the spooky or simply want a good Halloween scare, and if you’re in the mood to do a little more research on the topic, check out the movies mentioned above!


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