Asking me to name my favourite horror subgenre would be like asking a parent to name a favourite child; I love them all. But some are definitely seasonal, and one that I always grow to love over October is Gothic horror.
Gothic horror originated in literature in the mid-18th century with novels like The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole and The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe, and the Gothic genre continued to have success in the 19th century, where it began to splinter into many other subcategories. The literature of Gothic horror emphasises emotion and (albeit pleasurable) terror, and often features virginal maidens in dark, brooding castles or mansions. This brings us quite nicely to Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak, a film that stunningly reanimates 18th century Gothic horror while subverting it and bringing it up to date for the 21st. It is a beautiful love letter to the genre, sealed with dripping red wax.
Crimson Peak’s Edith Cushing is a serious-minded writer of ghost stories, unwilling to let men divert her writing, and while she is at times painfully unaware of the dangers around her, her constant strength and bravery in the face of ghosts and evil subvert any ideas one might have of Crimson Peak being in any way frivolous. In fact, women are very much at the forefront of the film: Mia Wasikowski’s Edith and Jessica Chastain’s Lucille Sharpe are at odds at Allerdale Hall, and the tension between them is what the plot revolves around. Both strong-willed and staunchly following their own path, they are also the forefront of the action. Neither rely on men for rescue, or to get things done; there are no weak maidens to be found here.
Edith is also the saviour figure to Tom Hiddleston’s desperate and pretty Thomas Sharpe. He wins her affection through praise of her writing (which had just been rejected by a male publisher), but it is Edith who brings a breath of fresh air into his life, not the other way around. One quickly gets the sense of darker plans and schemes in Crimson Peak (of course), but there is a genuine love between the couple, even if it is one we instinctively worry for.
I don’t even know where to begin with the sheer magnificence of Allerdale Hall; it is a simply stunning feat of production design, a Gothic mansion plucked straight from vivid imagination. Overrun by moths, leaking from the ceiling, and with walls dripping red from the clay mines, it could not be more wonderfully eerie, aided by the distinctively saturated palette of the film. It’s completely perfect, stacked high with so many elegant touches that to list them might take hours.
Crimson Peak’s treatment of ghosts is also incredibly in keeping with traditional Gothic horror. It is often complained that, as a film, it isn’t scary; but it’s a Gothic film, where more of the dread comes from the creaking of the mansion walls and the looming threat of a murder about to be uncovered rather than any spectres themselves. For my part, Crimson Peak’s ghosts did indeed send a shiver up my spine – long and spindly, played by monster mainstays Doug Jones and Javier Botet, they’re definitely of the creepier variety of phantom.
While the Gothic genre is seeing numerous forms of reinvention, Crimson Peak is firmly rooted in classic literature and brings it to life with rich aesthetics. It may subvert its tropes, but does not stray so far from them as to be unrecognisable; it just affords these tropes more agency and dimension as characters.
There is no better time of year to watch this horror classic. Regardless of anything else, it is hard not to think of a crumbling haunted mansion and ghastly ghouls when one thinks of horror, and Crimson Peak delivers, delightful in its familiarity.
Image: Matt Wagg via Pinterest