There are films I love and, then, there are films I love with a fiery, aching passion. Park Chan-wook’s Stoker (2013) and Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak (2015) are two of the latter, and as those who know me can attest (albeit, in exasperation), two films I cannot go even one day without bringing up. Unfortunately, I’m unable to maintain any semblance of decorum when discussing these films, so I implore you to fall in love with them too.
With their theatrical releases two years apart and, of course, their attachment to two different directors, the parallels between these films weren’t clear to me until much more recently. While the two feel beautifully connected, however, I want to stress that both are still intensely singular and unique entities in and of themselves. Even so, these luscious gothic romances do still coalesce in many ways, and their connections stretch even beyond their shared lead of the brilliant Mia Wasikowska. While the parallels between these films extend far beyond this list, here are a few I found most intriguing:
Parallel I: The Haunting Narration
With her strong-but-soft lead in both films, Mia Wasikowska’s voice introduces each one with a chillingly hushed narration. Only seconds after Stoker begins, India Stoker says, “My ears hear what others cannot hear; small faraway things people cannot normally see are visible to me.” Her words, here, in their melancholic lyricism, work to establish India’s otherworldly nature almost instantaneously. While she speaks in cryptic poetry, though, her sentiments seem to apply far more to reality than the supernatural. Even so, there’s a dreamy nebulousness in her vivid sensory experiences that cause me to question if something deeper, or more mystical, is at play.
Also highly perceptive in nature, Wasikowska’s Edith Cushing kicks off Crimson Peak with her chilling hook, “Ghosts are real. This much I know.” Through this narration, she reflects upon her vast experiences with specters both real and allegorical. As an aspiring novelist, Edith explains early on that the ghost story she’s writing employs ghosts as mere metaphors for the past. Regardless, Crimson Peak is a viscerally paranormal endeavor in a way that Stoker is not. In spite of this, both vividly highlight the emotional aftermath of being haunted. Whether the ghosts in both are figurative, literal, or otherwise, however, is a different story.
Parallel II: The Funeral
Steeped in themes of death and grief, both Stoker and Crimson Peak showcase their storylines through funerals, or more specifically, funerals of lost parents. In Stoker, India attends the funeral of her father (played by Dermot Mulroney) who died under sudden and suspicious circumstances. The ceremony, an eerie one amidst muted sunlight and perfect weather, is still somber and bleak, featuring the young India grimacing during the priest’s eulogy. Seated beside her callous mother Evelyn (played by an intense Nicole Kidman), India simultaneously mourns the loss of her best friend and only loving parent while maintaining eyes as dry as the clear sky.
The funeral that begins Crimson Peak, however, shows not Wasikowska, but actress Sofia Wells as the younger version of Wasikowska’s Edith. Young Edith, here, devastated by the loss of her mother, mourns also in muted sunlight, but instead of perfect weather, she’s surrounded by blankets of heavy snow. Later on, Crimson Peak features an additional funeral after Edith’s remaining parent, her beloved father, also dies under mysterious circumstances. Because of her close relationship with her father (not dissimilar to India’s relationship with hers), Edith grieves hard once again. The tears streaking her face match the scene’s torrential rainfall, which like Stoker, illuminates the intrinsically gothic nature of characters’ emotions mirroring their environments.
Parallel III: The Mysterious, Handsome Stranger
An age-old trope, but one I cherish nonetheless, is the tumultuous arrival of the curiously charming stranger. This classic trope can be seen in a number of films, from The Night of the Hunter (1955) to The Hand that Rocks the Cradle (1992) to The Guest (2014), and both Stoker and Crimson Peak navigate it with similar ingenuity.
In Stoker, the mysterious, handsome stranger comes in the form of Uncle Charlie (played by Matthew Goode), the estranged brother of India’s recently-deceased father. A beguilingly sinister force from the get-go, Uncle Charlie looms threateningly above his brother’s funeral like a hellborn gargoyle in little sunglasses. Unfortunately for India and her mother, it all goes downhill from there. While it’s not difficult to know right off the bat that the man’s bad news, his familial ties with India coupled with his relentless generosity and syrupy grin add an additional nastiness to his character that sets him apart from other intruder-type characters within the same trope.
Though Crimson Peak is louder in many ways than Stoker, the menace around Thomas Sharpe’s (played by Tom Hiddleston) stranger is much more covert. First introduced as a kindly, struggling inventor, Thomas’ true intentions reveal themselves slowly throughout the film. While his motives seem questionable right away, the full extent of his wickedness is only revealed in the last act. In spite of his violence, however, Thomas, unlike Charlie, carries with him a greater conscience and remorse. Still, both of these men twist these families from the inside out, and no redemption arc could undo such senseless violence.
Parallel IV: The Bizarre Love Triangles
One of the most disturbing elements of both Stoker and Crimson Peak is their jarring portrayals of bizarre love triangles. The incestuous affairs in both are enough to make one’s skin crawl, and with Stoker’s tagline being “Do not disturb the family,” you wouldn’t expect such a threat to come directly from within. While charismatic Uncle Charlie pretends to care for the bereaved, he does nothing of the sort. Between his advances towards Evelyn and his preying on young India, Charlie is a predator through and through.
In Crimson Peak, Thomas is also shown to be a vicious predator. In a years-long tryst with his sister Lucille (played by Jessica Chastain), he gains the trust of other women in the hopes of marrying them, killing them, and then stealing their money to preserve his forbidden romance. Edith, his newest victim, survives by the skin of her teeth, but finally evokes in him true love, which ends in tragedy nonetheless.
Parallel V: The Duets and Pianos
With both films being such profoundly elaborate dreamscapes, it’s no wonder their scores are additionally resonant. Especially powerful in both is the utilization of piano music, which occurs not only in the films’ scores but in multiple instances on-screen as well. My favorite scene in Stoker, and probably the most iconic scene in the entire film, takes place on a piano bench between India and her uncle. The two, in their uncannily shared mastery of the instrument, play seamlessly together, as if they’d known each other for years. Simultaneously, they exchange lustful and venomous glances throughout, making this “Duet,” as it’s called on the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, an anthem of uncomfortably-fused emotions.
Crimson Peak features a plethora of piano scenes as well, even ending with a striking one of the late Lucille at her piano. The most vibrant usage of the instrument, however, occurs closer to the film’s beginning. In a scene that mirrors Stoker’s “Duet,” Edith joins Thomas in a romantic dance within a dazzling ballroom. Lucille plays the accompaniment on piano while they dance, her jealousy and rage fueling this additionally emotional scene. The dance, which also doubles as a playful party game, calls for Thomas to grip a lit candle throughout, which adds even more tension to his and Edith’s twirling duet.
Ultimately, both Stoker and Crimson Peak consist of a series of duets: musical ones, sexual ones, gruesome ones, and deadly ones. While the two encompass the beautiful brutality of gothic cinema, their parallels as well as their differences prove them to be the perfect sister films for a tempestuous double feature. From the obsession with the macabre to the tumultuous “love” stories within, these films are quintessential viewing for most any genre fan. But even beyond their spectral connectedness, each one’s stand-alone impact is something unparalleled. As similar in some ways as they are, they’re also enchantingly original and inspired.