Fair is fair: Crimson Peak has a screenplay that feels like it was written by a 12-year-old, for 8-year-olds. It is a screenplay (credited to director Guillermo del Toro and Matthew Robbins) in which the main character is writing a Gothic novel that apparently has a similar story to the one she's living through - perhaps she is even writing her own life, -style - which is cool and all, right to the point where she patiently explains in a line approximately this subtle, "The ghosts aren't ghosts, the ghosts are metaphors for the past". There are indeed ghosts in Crimson Peak, and with dialogue like that to light your way, you will be just stunned to find out the function the ghosts fill in this narrative.

The thing about Crimson Peak, much like the thing about director Guillermo del Toro's last film, Pacific Rim, is that you hit the point where there's absolutely no reason to expect it to be good or bad at that level almost immediately. For the second time in a row, del Toro has made a film where it's pretty much completely obvious that it has a target audience of one man, and he is ecstatic that big movie studios are, for some dumbfuck reason, giving him large amounts of money to make obviously uncommercial boondoggles that would have been 12-year-old Guillermo's favorite movie of all time. Any one individual viewer's ability to like either of them is at least partially dependent on how much they were the same kind of 12-year-old. For myself, Crimson Peak is a blessed treat, but I would be doing my readers a disservice if I pretended that I expected that to expand outwards.

The film is a Gothic thriller, which does not mean the things it typically means when the word Gothic is trotted out in describing a movie - it means that Crimson Peak makes much more sense as a sudsy 1860s melodramatic suspense novel, of the sort that became very popular in the wake of the Gothic throwback The Woman in White, than it does as any kind of movie at all. There are multiple ghosts - they are metaphors for the past, a past that can be guessed so readily that I'm pretty confident that del Toro and Robbins didn't care about hiding it, and only really wanted to use the twist as a peg for character beats, costumes, and ridiculously ornate sets - and they are presented in a way that's certainly intended to be spooky and chilling and yes, even scary. But you'd have to be out of your mind to suppose that Crimson Peak is any kind of horror film, and I suspect that most of the film's woes spring directly from that fact; everybody who likes movies about big dark houses lousy with phantoms wants such movies to be horror, and everybody who likes rampantly plummy melodramas set in ramshackle old mansions wants them to be free of decaying corpse-ghosts. And neither of those populations are statistically significant portions of the film-going audience of the 2010s, anyway.

Anyway, the film: Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) lost her mother to illness as a child, and was visited by the late Mrs.Cushing's ghost shortly after the funeral, bearing the maternal warning "Stay away from Crimson Peak". That her motherly affections were filtered through flowing nightmare rags of flesh and bone, and a gurgle like a demon's own death rattle was sufficient to give Edith a somewhat bent outlook that many years later, in 1901 (a very incongruous year for this movie to be set in, by the way), results in her having written a tragic ghost story that she's fruitlessly trying to shop around.

Meanwhile, some torridness happens: Edith's father Carter (Jim Beaver), a wealthy investor, is busily swatting away the entreaties of a disreputable English baronet, Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), on the hunt for investors. Thomas, and even more so his statuesque gargoyle of a sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain), recognise that the way to the father might well be through the heated Romantic imagination of the daughter, and so Thomas sets himself to seducing Edith, over the quietly-voiced objections of Carter's preferred suitor for Edith's hand, Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam). Chastain's dreadful English accent and Hunnam's forlorn American accent make a great matched set, by the way. They even kind of work to the film's benefit, amping up the overclocked theatricality of the whole Megillah.

Of course Carter dies of horribly violent mysterious circumstances; of course Edith is swept away by Thomas's apparently self-sacrificing declarations; of course Allerdale Hall, the Sharpes' ancestral home, is crawling with apparitions, reviving Edith's memories of her late mother, and generally cluing her in to the knowledge that something massively fucked up happened her, and the unquiet spirits of the place want to warn her off. Even when that's not happening, of course Allerdale Hall still boasts the desiccated carpets, rotten walls, archaic bric-a-brac, and menacingly confusing architecture (replete with a horrifiying combination basement/abandoned mine) of a proper old English manor years after it should have been put out of its misery. And of course, Allerdale Hall is also known as Crimson Peak, thanks to the tendency of the red clay in the area to seep up through the snow and form blood-red footprints, in one of those images that make you just want to coo with joy for how fucking marvelous the movies can be.

Most of all, of course the whole lot of it is baffling, contrived nonsense, with some overbaked tawdriness underneath it all. I'm pretty sure del Toro planned it be just that - Crimson Peak is a movie for people who love the old Hammer Gothics precisely for their stately goofiness (Edith didn't get the surname "Cushing" out of the clear blue sky), '30s "old dark house" movies for the way that their simultaneously ludicrous and formulaic plots never got in the way of some florid Expressionist atmosphere, and probably all the way back to the silent murder mysteries that begat English-language horror cinema in the first place, for their well-placed conviction that a sufficiently luminous actress with a look of shock on her face is all you need to make a properly grubby thriller. No film that includes not one, but two closing irises to punctuate a funeral can pretend that it's not well aware of '20s movies.

This is the heart of what makes Crimson Peak a beguiling delight, if you're of the right persuasion: it's a throwback done in a contemporary aesthetic, and with contemporary technology. Much as with Pacific Rim, there's no chance of mistaking it for anything vintage, but it's still grandly old-fashioned in a rickety way that ends up adding to the sense of towering instability at the heart of the setting and narrative. As an exercise in pure aesthetics, it's gorgeous, one of 2015's best-looking films: especially Kate Hawley's costumes, putting the Sharpes in worn-out, old-fashioned outfits that leave them feeling a bit like ghosts themselves, and leaning hard into Wasikowska's guileless, round, pale face with fluffy dresses that exude heightened virginity. And, too, Dan Laustsen's thickly-colored cinematography, leaping into big monochromatic frames of bleeding red and ice-cold blue. And also, obviously, Thomas E. Sanders's production design, which is almost unfair; "make giant, haunted mansion on the verge of collapsing, and spend all the money you like on it" is a gimme assignment. But damned if he didn't nail it.

It's all a candy dish of a movie, ultimately: rich, largely devoid of nutrition, and impossible to stop nibbling at, if you're in the mood. I was in the mood; for a multi-million dollar Hammer homage done as a '20s throwback, I could only ever be in the mood. As far as creepy tales of sad ghosts, it's not a patch on del Toro's reigning masterpiece, The Devil's Backbone, and for all this film's lusciousness, I'm not seeing in it any counterargument to the idea that the director only does truly great work in his Spanish-language films; but it doesn't need to be in order to be the best haunted Gothic romance since... well, you get my point.