Tag Archives: Edgar Allan Poe

Ghosts, Bloodshed, and Jessica Chastain — “Crimson Peak”

Crimson Peak ghost

Guillermo Del Toro’s latest film is a very old-fashioned ghost story, albeit with a modern sense of bloodletting. “Crimson Peak” is a fairly perfect fit for Halloween, equal parts tense chiller and delectably intentional melodrama. It’s also one of the most beautiful looking films you’ll see this year.

We follow young Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), an idealistic writer who is swept up in a whirlwind romance by Baronet Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston). Being the end of the Victorian era, he whisks her away to his lonely mansion on a windswept hill. They are joined by his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) and a bevy of ghosts with dire warnings.

Del Toro’s critically lauded for his quieter, profoundly haunting Spanish-language films such as “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “The Devil’s Backbone.” He’s loved by audiences for zanier, louder English-language endeavors like “Pacific Rim” and “Hellboy.”

Few directors can successfully make films across such a broad spectrum. To which does the English-language “Crimson Peak” belong? It’s altogether something different, neither quiet and meditative like his smaller films nor brash and cheeky in the same way his big-budget fare is. Instead, Del Toro has crafted a riff on Gothic romances like “Jane Eyre” and “Rebecca.”

“Crimson Peak” treads increasingly into that genre’s deliberately melodramatic mood, while dressing everything as if Edgar Allan Poe had imagined the sets into existence. “Crimson Peak” is scary, yes, but it’s not interested in the overwhelming terror of which Del Toro is capable. Instead, mystery and atmosphere are front and center. While all of Del Toro’s films have enjoyed fantastic designs and incredible atmosphere, “Crimson Peak” reaches even greater heights of macabre beauty.

Crimson Peak hall

All that said, this is a very particular kind of movie. It has the same fun with its material as “Pacific Rim,” but instead of riffing on the giant robot movies we know all too well by this point, he’s riffing on Gothic romance fiction. It’s not territory that will seem as fresh in many viewers’ minds, but if you’re willing to go along with Del Toro, this is his best job yet of treating genre as his playground.

To understand the movie is to understand Chastain’s role as Lucille. You may recognize Chastain as the lead from “Zero Dark Thirty,” the grown-up Murphy in “Interstellar,” or Matt Damon’s best chance at rescue in “The Martian.” From whichever role you know her, she’s something altogether different here. Her very first scene, Lucille is introduced playing the piano. Her fingers dance across the ivories with both a practiced skill and a flexed rigidity. The camera travels up the back of her dress, not evocatively, but to show that the design on its back resembles a satin vertebrae.

This is the level on which “Crimson Peak” works. Every scene holds a new detail if you’re paying close enough attention. Every piece of design and every edit hints at something crucial. Even the lighting in a painting quickly glanced can tell you whom to trust. The design is stellar in how it’s all put together to subtly direct the viewer. The way it’s filmed understands every nuance of that design. You could pick apart certain shots like you would paintings.

“Crimson Peak” will suffer with viewers somewhat because it’s been advertised as straight-up horror and there isn’t necessarily a large audience with a well of knowledge regarding Gothic romance. That’s really how you might best enjoy the film, recognizing how it exists both inside of and as a commentary on Gothic and Victorian literature. Without that background, the film may seem beautiful but outlandish. Fans of such literature, lovers of costume and set design, those who appreciate old-fashioned ghost stories, mystery fans, and even (perhaps especially) fans of giallo filmmaking will love “Crimson Peak.” Those expecting a more modern horror, or something particularly oppressive or jumpy in its scares, may be disappointed. “Crimson Peak” is a creepy film with beautiful tone, not really a scary one designed to make you leap from your seat.

Crimson Peak Hiddleston Chastain

In an odd way, “Crimson Peak” feels close kin to Tim Burton’s 1999 take on “Sleepy Hollow.” Both movies are gorgeous to take in, featuring some of the best set and costume design ever put to film. Both are filled with performances that are more clever in their melodrama than seeking to be real, although Chastain’s master-class performance in “Peak” somehow manages to encompass both extremes. “Sleepy Hollow” is more action- and comedy-oriented where “Crimson Peak” is literary-minded. They are both utter joys to watch, but more for the sake of their stunning craftsmanship and the fun the actors are having than as complete crowd-pleasers. Suffice to say, I plan to make them into a Halloween double-feature one day. Perhaps “Clue” can be the chaser for that cocktail.

On one last note, I very occasionally have synesthetic reactions to films. It’s not often – I can count the number of times it’s happened on one hand. I don’t imagine it’s a reaction most viewers will have, but to describe just how complete and different “Crimson Peak” is as an exercise in design, it brought me to that place in a powerful and overwhelming way. The woodwork felt tangible. The colors haunted me. You could feel the suits and dresses, taste the cold in the air, huddle at the dark of its night. It didn’t give me goosebumps through its scares, but rather because I could feel the temperature drop and the drifts of its blizzards on the back of my neck. If you are at all interested in seeing the film, don’t wait for a second. See it in the theater, see it on the big screen.

Does it Pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?

This section uses the Bechdel-Wallace Test as a foundation to discuss the representation of women in film.

1. Does “Crimson Peak” have more than one woman in it?

Yes. Mia Wasikowska plays Edith Cushing. Jessica Chastain plays Lucille Sharpe. Leslie Hope plays Mrs. McMichael, Emily Coutts plays Eunice, and Sofia Wells plays Young Edith. Briefer speaking parts include Joanna Douglas as Maid Annie, and Karen Glave and Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah as a pair of unnamed maids.

There are also women ghosts with speaking parts, but these are played by men, including Doug Jones, who is Del Toro’s go-to creature actor.

2. Do they talk to each other?

Yes.

3. About something other than a man?

Yes.

“Crimson Peak” is a film with feminism in mind. Edith is a writer who isn’t taken seriously because she’s a woman. She even types a manuscript up because she believes her handwriting betrays feminine qualities. Her father has faith in her ability to do as she will, but the rest of the world doesn’t understand why she rejects the game of suitors and marriage prospects. Wasikowska plays her as a smart mix of idealistic yet practical, and she’s most often in the hands of saving herself.

Lucille is a challenging role that could’ve gone rather badly in lesser hands, but Chastain absolutely obliterates the part. She’s not just threatening, she is the very idea of threat itself. You’re not waiting for the other shoe to drop here, you’re waiting for Chastain to close jaws on your jugular. It is a testament to Chastain that inside of three weeks, she’s delivered my favorite hero of the year (via a supporting role in “The Martian”) and my favorite villain in “Crimson Peak.”

Crimson Peak Jessica Chastain

Yes, Tom Hiddleston matters and gets more screen time than Chastain, but he’s really in the middle of things here. (Wasikowska easily gets the most screen time.) This film is really about its two women leads, the agency they exert over each other and their surroundings, and the game of cat-and-mouse they play.

This includes the dialogue they hold, the nature of it, and the topics covered. Equally importantly, it covers the way they’re portrayed, especially as the film inhabits something of a commentary on the nature of Gothic romance, the studio system of filmmaking, and the expectations of women within each.

Where did we get our fantastic images? The feature image with the yellow dress is from Slip Through Movies trailer article. The house and ghost images are from The Busybody’s Review in Pictures. The last two images, both with Jessica Chastain, are from a Bloody-Disgusting image feature.

Top 10 — The Books That Stay With Me — Gabriel Valdez

One thing we noticed when putting together these lists is that Vanessa’s had seven women writers. Mine only has two. Cleopatra’s and Eden’s lists had three. Now, we’re working with a small sample size, but looking at the rough draft I did – where I listed about 20 books, I still only had three women (Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife just missing my top 10).

I didn’t actively avoid women writers. I just didn’t give it a second thought when I grew up reading so many books written by men. It’s worth considering how this trained me at a young age to look at art – even the best male writer will include different perspectives and prioritize different themes than women writers.

It’s very easy to limit our viewpoints without ever realizing it, especially when we’re young and haven’t even had our own viewpoint challenged. That’s one reason why, as readers and viewers, it’s crucial to always be expanding, challenging, and communicating about the way we look at art.

Here’s my top 10:

Books Watership Down

Watership Down
by Richard Adams

Even today, if I see the cover, I’ll feel chills up my spine, the urge to go hide under blankets. There’s nothing else like reading this so young as I did. The tale of a group of rabbits who set out to find a new home after their old one is destroyed, Watership Down joined White Fang and The Secret of NIMH as challenging works that introduced me to political and philosophical strife. Rabbits and wolves and mice taught me about conquest and military industrialism and social experimentation, that it wasn’t always us vs. them but that it was very often us vs. our government, and them vs. their government, and that we’re often thrust in the middle of false wars to keep administrations running.

Book Congo

Congo/Sphere/Eaters of the Dead
by Michael Crichton

All right, this is cheating, but everything I learned about pulp genre fiction came in a compilation my parents got me for Christmas one year. I didn’t really look at Eaters of the Dead, but Congo – about an adventurous archaeological expedition in Africa – was an action movie in a book. It even found an inexplicable reason to have a gorilla go along for the ride, though for the life of me I can’t remember why.

Sphere, on the other hand, regarding the exploration of a mysterious alien artifact under the ocean, was the most complex science-fiction novel I’d read up to that point. They were gateway novels – Congo led me to Edgar Rice Burroughs and other pulp writers, while Sphere led me to start reading Golden Age science-fiction – the big idea stuff from the 60s and 70s.

Books Chronicles of a Death Foretold

Chronicles of a Death Foretold
by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

At a point, I realized I should read something written by the author I was named after. To fully define the effect Gabriel Garcia Marquez has had on my life, I’d need a full article. Luckily, I already wrote one.

Books The Golden Compass

The Golden Compass
by Philip Pullman

The entire His Dark Materials trilogy is stunning, but it was the first – The Golden Compass – that captured me so completely. Known as Northern Lights outside North America, it was the beauty of Pullman’s prose, describing in all of its detail a Victorianesque fantasy world, that made me change the way I wrote. I realized it wasn’t just the words themselves, but some magical atmosphere that resulted from their rhythm, from the intersection of their sounds, that made the kind of writer I wanted to be.

Books Edgar Allan Poe

The Complete Stories and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe

And so I sought out the master of that rhythm, the man who wrote about sacrificing accuracy in your description for the tone of the sentence as a whole, the one who came up with alliterative phrases that overpowered your senses. I read everything he wrote – his famous horror stories, his comedies, his detective stories, his poems, his essays on writing, and with this came an awareness of other writers of dark fantasy – Sharon Shinn, Clive Barker, Graham Joyce, Neil Gaiman – and how they’d used the lessons Poe taught in their own work.

Books Neuromancer

Neuromancer
by William Gibson

My introduction to cyberpunk, an 80s science-fiction genre that posed a world dominated by disturbing attachment to technology, racial divides, military-industrial oligarchies, and aristocratic corporation-states. The work of William Gibson has continued to pose an eerily accurate portrayal of the direction our world is taking, less in its action scenes but more in its mortifying concepts of corporate personhood and human inconsequence. Neuromancer is the definitive introduction to cyberpunk, an enigmatic head trip of mood, tone, and international corporate politics.

Books The Word for World is Forest

The Word for World is Forest
by Ursula K. Le Guin

The 1972 novel with which James Cameron’s Avatar holds a strange number of similarities. I’d read Le Guin before, but never had she written a tale so brutal, stark, and unforgiving. The tale of an indigenous race of aliens who are ghettoized and exterminated in order to retrieve a valuable resource, I would later find it was a direct response to America’s involvement in Vietnam. Even without that context, you could tell it was housed squarely in the United States’ historical genocide of indigenous Americans.

I hadn’t expected three of us this week to include an Ursula K. Le Guin novel on our lists, yet alone three different ones (Vanessa chose The Dispossessed, and Eden chose The Left Hand of Darkness). If you’re at all a fan of science-fiction, you owe it to yourself to pick up one of her novels and dive in.

Books Moon is a Harsh Mistress

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
by Robert Heinlein

Heinlein wrote some good novels and Heinlein wrote some great novels. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is his best novel. The story of a penal colony on the moon that revolts against Earth and declares itself a nation, it forced me to look at how cultures develop alternative lifestyles to those typically found in Western nations, and why terrorism, revolution, and rebellion are sometimes interchangeable concepts.

Books Pedro Paramo

Pedro Paramo
by Juan Rulfo

During an independent study in college, I was directed toward Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo. This was the novel that inspired Gabriel Garcia Marquez toward magical realism. I started with one translation, not liking it much, before I switched to my girlfriend’s translation, which maintained a more Spanish attitude of thought. It was yet another novel that communicated its messages more in tone than in finite detail.

Books Shock Doctrine

The Shock Doctrine
by Naomi Klein

I’m a little surprised that all four of us chose a Naomi Klein book. We didn’t communicate about it beforehand, but while Vanessa, Cleopatra, and Eden all went with her seminal expose on manufactured identity and brand loyalty No Logo, it was her history of how administrations use disaster and war to overhaul governments that most haunted me.

She compares these restructurings to torture – the idea of torture is not so much to punish or to elicit information. It is instead to force a reset in perceived reality on the part of the victim. You don’t change the victim, you just retrain them to look at the world the way you want them to see it. From early American experiment in torture MK-Ultra, she follows a line of conservative academic thought that posed that torture and overhauling the reality of victims can actually be performed not just on individual victims, but on nations.

She follows the journalist thread from how the CIA practiced social experiments in third-world countries to small-scale implementations up to the seizure of African-American property and the overhaul of New Orleans’ school system after Hurricane Katrina. She finally introduces the ultimate experiment in disaster capitalism – the Bush-Cheney administration and its wholesale overhaul of American government and military structures after 9/11.

The Shock Doctrine is the most revealing look at 21st Century Western government you’ll ever find, and Noami Klein is the single most important non-fiction writer working today. If you take nothing else away from our book lists this week, please remember her name, and look up what she’s written.

– Gabriel Valdez