Notes on Crimson Peak (film, 2015)

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* Someone said this was a gothic novel adaptation of an unwritten book rather than a horror movie. That’s very true. The flow is a bit awkward no matter how you slice it, but Crimson Peak does work better considered in that capacity.

* I almost prefer Edith, the heroine, before she marries. She loses herself a bit in the second half. Perhaps that’s an intentional effect, but it’s not entirely working for me on the “Rebecca” level. I wish we had a protagonist who, even befuddled by the horror, didn’t try to walk out of this snow-hell without shoes.

* My friend Jade pointed out that it was fairly interesting that the ghosts were benign, and that the movie made an effort to ask ‘what is ghosts’ deal? What do they want?’ She is: CORRECT. The horror’s never been the haunted house, or the ghosts. We’re in one of those ‘people are the true monsters’ psychological gothic horror stories. I like that subgenre, but feel the film’s hold on this material could have been tighter.

* The house looks a lot like the similar manor in the more recent adaptation of The Haunting, which isn’t good per se but is compelling nonetheless. It has some of that film’s beats as well. The titular house is hella Aesthetic movement. Unless it’s original gothic, and let’s face it, it isn’t, and even if it is—no, sorry, it’s still really 19th c., design/serving post-Strawberry Hill realness at the very earliest, just look at it. Thus there’s been no time for these features to have mouldered to the extent they have. I wonder how common mismatched eras of decoration and degrees of decay are in horror movies?

Also, why not tarp over the ceiling hole that is artistically admitting drifting cascades of… something. Petals, or leaves from overhanging trees this property doesn’t seem to have. Sell half your shit to get that done, it’s your clear and present structural priority. They’re hard up, but this place is still LUSH with moveables. I’m mentally pricing these mantelpieces. You don’t even need this Bluebeard scheme, just call Lyon & Turnbull.

The visuals are indeed lush, but it’s hard to take the protagonist seriously in her diaphanous mutton sleeves. She looks like Sarah in the Labyrinth ball sequence. In fact these amazing visuals are almost getting in the way of the plot. We have to be in this house, so we’re here, even though the villains’ motivations for remaining (having sunk multiple fortunes into this place they hate, and yet never having bothered to repair that roof-hole) are shaky, and become less intelligible as the plot is revealed. If the siblings had some mystic connection with the house I could see staying, but in fact they could have cut and run ages ago, on any one of these bride-fetching trips or after their first murder. More time could have been spent on why they don’t.

* The logistics of this bride plot are strange. Did none of these women call shenanigans on the absence of sex? They can’t all have been in mourning—at least that isn’t explicitly mentioned. When the protagonist and HigPig: Incest Edition finally do the deed, on her first sexual outing Edith is confident, pain-free and cowgirling adroitly like a rodeo champion, no problem. You have to work up to those technical skills! Unless he has a dick like a pen nib, I guess, but even so one does not simply walk into Mordor/instinctually know where to put one’s limbs for more advanced manoeuvres. More seriously, the fluidity and the normalcy of the sex normalise what could be a site of intensity and strangeness, possibly a jarring period moment, or a moment of cute intimacy between the couple.

* I guessed from its first appearance that our heroine was being being intentionally slow-poisoned by this shit-tasting tea, but honestly it could easily just have been some Victorian wellness bs. It’s not like that lot haven’t tried restoratives that turned out to be medically terrible ideas in good faith before now.

* Why are our protagonist and HigPig sharing a bedroom? It’s not very period, and it’s not as if they don’t have enough rooms. This is especially true given HigPig’s secret incestual relationship—which I also called pretty early—and consequent practice of marital chastity. It’s hard staging these gothic novel plots now. Nothing is so shocking you can’t clearly guess it’s coming, and nothing is religiously or conventionally abhorrent in a deep and sacred sense. Gothic no longer quite works, in its accepted forms, as transgressive social horror.

* In general I feel periodicity is kind of strangely conveyed by props and clearly flagged pop cultural references in this film. It vaguely conditions aspects of the characters’ relationships, like making the sexless union and the live-in sister more possible, but it doesn’t inflect people’s behaviour or challenge audiences. It’s set dressing.

* Or protagonist is ‘so different’ from her predecessors, according to Hiddleston. How? This is never really explored. She was specifically picked to be like them, just going by her CV. Knowing more about what’s happening here would shore up the male lead’s pivotal turn against his sister, making it believable and meaningful.

* Burn Gorman’s Dickensian-lookin ass was goddamn meant for these Hammer Horror roles. It’s a pity he was in such a meh Bleak House, because he is an ideal Smallweed, visually. I never know if he can act: he seems fairly capable, but is generally cast in quite one-note roles. (I’m not walking it back, PacRim people.)

* ’Fuck’ doesn’t feel like the right verb for the sister’s class. Victorians posh people usually went for blasphemy related curses, while lower class people went for physical. Possibly the implication is that the asylum coarsened her (adding a degree of class horror to the mix), but if so, that could be clearer.

* Killing the dog is just excessive.

* Alternate boyf fucking skis his way here or some shit. Fuck knows how he gets here with vague directions in this weather, knowing nothing of the area.

* I’m a little more interested in Edith’s weird tension with the cray sister than I am in the multiple heterosexual erotic configurations, to be honest. There’s some Munchausen’s by proxy up in this joint which we touch for but a moment before gliding on. I want this movie to dwell in its oddness more than it does, to let these characters feel this strange, murderous, jealous, sisterly queerness. The movie sort of knows this, though—it stages the final confrontation between these two.

* The movie could use some honey-slow, sinister, dipping moments that couple its aesthetics with feeling. Something like ma, as Jade would say.

* Crimson Peak feels like a somewhat less successful version of something like Labyrinth, which is a flawed and at times incoherent fairy tale about maturation, desire and responsibility that resonates deeply with a lot of women, despite its structural issues as a text. I know a lot of people have this relationship with Jupiter Ascending, though I don’t personally. There’s perhaps something to be said about this category of films that just hit women’s fictional kinks in an attractively-shot but not quite cogent kind of way. Ultimately I want Crimson Peak to do more for me, emotionally or thematically or visually, to earn that status, though I understand it does something like this for at least one of my friends.

* I guess there’s something interesting to be distilled from all this about the siblings’ desperate, pitiless effort to try and keep the estate together, to repair and rebuild this decaying structure—about class and families and rurality, child abuse and trauma and haunting. Possibly there’s also something to be made of Edith’s status as a monied American transplant, a colonial from the New World and the only survivor of this too-long-steeped mess. She’s so reminiscent of the many real heiresses who ‘saved’ British aristocratic houses with their funds. People are always returning from the colonies bearing with them or coming into gothic unrest in the contemporary (and mentioned-herein) Holmes canon. I can’t quite pin these elements down, though, and I think that anything I did come up with would be a narrative imposed on rather than drawn out of the rich but ultimately uncultivated material of Crimson Peak.

(Have now read and liked Abigail’s piece on this, as well.)

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