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Crimson Peak and horror for girls

Theatrical release poster for the 2015 film Crimson Peak from Legendary Pictures and distributed by Universal Pictures

Editor’s note: The following review is for an R rated movie; it is the opinion of the author. 

I spent the hours after seeing Crimson Peak laughing, then mocking, then, laughing again. And then? Thinking. Because my knee jerk reaction was to hate that move. But after some consideration? No. I don’t hate it.  It’s necessary, and I’m so, so happy that it exists.

This is a movie I would have loved when I was fifteen, and today’s fifteen-year-old girls are lucky to have it.

Let’s talk about gothic horror. It’s a form that’s been derided for as long as it’s been popular–and let me make myself clear here, it is female gothic literature that has been derided. As soon as it became popular with women, it became unpopular with critics; the whole Victorian period marked a slow move away from celebrating it to dismissing it. Northanger Abbey was written as early as 1818 as a response to the public shaming of young women who liked to lose themselves in ghost stories, validating and pastiching the genre in the same pages. As time passed creators made an attempt to woo back the male audience with nudity and violence, with women in sexualised peril: even the lead characters–often female–are normally in that position because it allows us to accept them as vulnerable. A terrified man can’t be taken seriously, a terrified woman can. Any article on ‘final girls’ will remark on how genderless they are, often in contrast to a more promiscuous or ‘feminine’ woman. It’s also common for them to be used for fanservice, confirming again the horror boys club: while they might have a scene in their underwear, bikini or shower, they’re there for us to desire, they don’t have desires of their own. Today we have Stephanie Meyer hated and Stephen King worshipped, when really they’re equally stilted and equally bad at depicting healthy gender relationships.

Which brings us to Crimson Peak. A young woman marries a mysterious man and moves to his dark, haunted house. The sets are elaborate to the point of ridiculousness– there’s not a surface in sight without a few arches and points shoved on for good measure–and the characters are simple. The plot is predictable to anyone who knows classic gothic horror.

But, as he did in Pacific Rim, del Toro has made a conscious effort to drop the problematic elements. Our virginal heroine? Seduces Tom Hiddleston in a scene that’s all about the male fanservice while she remains almost fully dressed. Does she wait for her hero to rescue her? No, he gets stabbed, and she gets up and chases down the hammy female villain on a broken leg. Our protagonist is even a horror writer struggling to get past publishers who only want her to write romance: we have a horror story that is arguing for female space in horror at the same time as literally showing that struggle.

Yes, there are problematic parts to the movie. The ‘woman scorned’ trope is in full effect, with a good dose of ‘mad wife in the attic’ added for good measure, but even there there’s an attempt to explain why she is who she is.

It makes me happy that this movie got largely good reviews, it makes me happy that its advertising campaign targeted young women and gothic romance fans, that they were acknowledged as a viable audience. Look at Jupiter Ascending–a ridiculous sci-fi fairy tale which has now gained a sizeable female fanbase–but had a terrible box office performance after being sold as a war epic for manly men. Just compare these first trailers for the movies:

Even the poster for Crimson Peak, pictured above, features a fully clothed woman, and while she’s lying down with a female body it’s not exactly a sexualised pose.

Of course, gender is all socialisation, but society’s only going to change once everyone knows they can like whatever they want. We’re conditioned to reject things which are traditionally feminine more readily than things which are masculine, and maybe that’s even part of the reason I hated Crimson Peak so much to begin with. But now? Having thought about what it means?

It makes me happy that today fifteen year olds looking to scare themselves with late night movies will be able to see themselves in the heroine, and horror as a home.


One Comment

  1. Rebecca Miller

    I loved the aspect of the film that everything should not be taken on face value in that film. The amazingly good looking guy with impeccable manners, um, bad guy, but sort of. The terrifying, screeching, dripping with gore ghosts, um, poor pathetic, and sympathetic creatures. The sweet new sister-in+law, wackjob!

    Also, how can you not like a film with Hoddleson, Beaver, and Del Toro?

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