Crimson Peak Showed Us What Unapologetic, Award-Winning Horror Looks Like

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Crimson Peak Showed Us What Unapologetic, Award-Winning Horror Looks Like

When Ari Aster took up the filmmaker’s mantle, he didn’t intend on making horror films, but he couldn’t nail down funds for the films he meant to make. In his own words, “they weren’t genre-driven in that way.” So he pivoted to the genre flavor of the month and, presto, he snapped up the cash needed to make Hereditary, along with plum casting that starts with Toni Collette and ends with Gabriel Byrne, engulfed in flames.

The movie premiered to acclaim at Sundance ’18, garnered more acclaim after chugging to its June theatrical release, and became the subject of critics’ Oscar projections on the strength of Collette’s lead performance. An odd turn of events, that. Aster took full advantage of popular trends and molded himself into a director to watch while refusing to acknowledge Hereditary as horror, characterizing it instead as “a family tragedy that curdles into a nightmare.” He’s wary of the appellation but happily leveraged it for a greenlight, as if he was stuck in mud but too ashamed to ask for a tow.

Awards attention is ostensibly good for horror, but when directors shy away from the term, they do the genre no favors. Why not call a horse a horse? Jordan Peele’s Get Out took home Best Original Screenplay and competed in three other top categories at the 90th Academy Awards last year (Best Actor for Daniel Kaluuya, Best Director for Peele, and Best Picture), after all, while Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water won Best Picture, Best Director, Best Production Design and Best Score. It’s not like horror’s verboten on the awards circuit. Peele’s success proves as much, and del Toro’s even more so.

The Shape of Water marked del Toro’s second time at the rodeo, and Pan’s Labyrinth his first. 11 years separate his AMPAS nominations—neither a great record for del Toro nor for horror writ large. Sandwiched between Pan’s Labyrinth and The Shape of Water sits Crimson Peak, slept on in that year’s awards races in spite of its impressive craftsmanship credentials, and perhaps because it embraces genre rather than reject it. More so than even Pan’s Labyrinth and The Shape of Water, Crimson’s Peak actively relishes horror’s trappings. Violence and fear, skeletons, spirits, and haunts, buttered up with a healthy dollop of kink—all of the naughty delights that make horror worth watching in the first place.

The 2016 awards season didn’t entirely ignore Crimson Peak, courtesy of nods at the Saturn Awards as well as the Fangoria Chainsaw Awards. That ain’t nothing. But as horror gains more ground in annual awards celebrations, the film, recently given an exquisite Blu-ray release via Arrow Video, offers a model for what award-winning horror can and should look like: Ecstatic to call itself horror, secure in the genre’s inborn power and meaning and free from the urge to pull the same fancy pants onomastic gymnastics as filmmakers like Aster. Del Toro’s love of horror here is text instead of subtext. Don’t cast aside horror’s fundamental elements. Embrace their worth sans pretense.

Crimson Peak follows the traditions of gothic romance by design: “I made this movie to present and reverse some of the normal tropes, while following them, of the gothic romance,” del Toro says on the Blu-ray’s audio commentary track, a note made during the first introduction between his protagonist, Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), and her first of two love interests, Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), a baronet come to the U.S. to win over her father, the magnate Carter Cushing (Jim Beaver), and obtain financial backing for his very own clay-mining contraption. Lovely as it is to listen to del Toro talk shop, the exchange between Thomas and Edith in this scene is crucial to what the film’s trying to accomplish: “I’m sorry,” he says to her, the manuscript on her desk having caught his eye. “I don’t mean to pry, but this is a piece of fiction, is it not?”

It is. It’s her fiction, in fact, a piece she’s written for publication in the pages of The Atlantic Monthly. With a glance, the story has ensnared him. “Ghosts,” he remarks, an inscrutable smile on his lips. Edith goes on defense, stammering, “Well, the ghosts are just a metaphor, really,” but Thomas isn’t finished: “They’ve always fascinated me. You see, where I come from, ghosts are not to be taken lightly.” Thomas means this as flattery and not admonition, and flattered is how Edith reacts, excitement spreading across her face at encountering a kindred spirit to accompany the actual spirits she’s yet to meet. Thomas gets it. When she speaks with him, Edith doesn’t need to compromise her fondness for ghost stories, as she must with her peers. She can openly appreciate them on their own terms.

And so can Crimson Peak. Del Toro adores the production components of the gothic romance; he’s enamored with the pomp, the circumstance, the costumes (which frankly should have scored the film a Best Costume Design nomination in competition with movies like The Danish Girl and Cinderella). They give him a veil of propriety, and he weaponizes that veil for the sake of good scares, starting from the very beginning. Crimson Peak doesn’t pull its punches. The audience finds out what kind of film it is from the opening shot of Edith’s face, decorated by open wounds, and from the follow-up sequence, in which young Edith (Sofia Wells) is visited in dead of night by her late mother’s blackened osseous specter.

The specter returns in Edith’s adulthood, more insistent and unbridled than before; voracious ants swarm a dying butterfly as del Toro’s camera, manned by The Shape of Water’s Dan Laustsen, zooms in on the carnage; Carter is savagely murdered by an unknown assailant; Edith sails away to England with Thomas and quickly runs into one wailing rouge wraith after another, in bathtubs, behind closet doors, loping down hallways. Crimson Peak presents with period pleasantries first, sharp repartee and wit, evening gowns and tuxedos, structuring itself around details prized by awards pundits. But that structure is densely populated by the dead, and del Toro reserves his best accommodations for them.

As well he should. Crimson Peak would be a pretender without them. They’re as much del Toro’s stars as Wasikowska and Hiddleston, and Jessica Chastain, vamping about as Thomas’ sister-cum-lover, a revelation deployed during a bloody outburst of rancor to maximize shock and complement the film’s unrelenting phantasmal frights. Maybe that worked against its chances with the kingmakers of the annual awards rush: It’s an unabashed haunted house movie, grim, gory and utterly terrifying—a movie of tactile dread that makes no apologies for it. By contrast, Get Out roots itself in real-world contexts and The Shape of Water uses horror to supplement wonder, its chief quality. They’re horror, but horror that’s more palatable, or perhaps more relatable, to a wider audience.

Crimson Peak doesn’t care about catering to taste or achieving universality. It cares about freaking its viewers the hell out. After all, if “horror” as a genre acts as a massive umbrella sheltering all manner of aesthetics and approaches, the exercise should always be about sending an audience away with a powerful need to sleep with the lights on. Horror deserves as much esteem as any mode of filmmaking, but if that esteem comes at the cost of genre identity, it’s not worth it. Let the Hereditarys of the world take a lesson from Crimson Peak’s new life on physical media: Horror doesn’t have to withhold its promise to be of substance.

Boston-based culture writer Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009 (and music since 2018). You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.

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