The castle creaks, the spirits shriek and blood is everywhere in "Crimson Peak," a gruesomely gorgeous ghost story from writer-director Guillermo del Toro ("Pan's Labyrinth"). What it lacks in the element of surprise it more than makes up for with opulent visuals, rich details and a pervasive atmosphere of dread. Part Emily Brontë, part Edgar Allan Poe, "Crimson Peak" seeps into your bones like the mist on an English moor.
It begins as a romance in early 20th century Buffalo, New York, where well-born Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) eschews all suitors as she struggles to be taken seriously as a novelist. Only a handsome British newcomer, Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), strikes the right note, praising her talent as well as her beauty -- or perhaps he's just trying to convince her wealthy father, Carter (an excellent Jim Beaver), to invest in a weird mining scheme. Either way, Thomas marries young Edith and whisks her overseas to Allerdale Hall.
All of this is so beautifully done -- from the elegant dialogue (co-written by Matthew Robbins) to the candlelight cinematography by Dan Laustsen -- that the movie would have been fairly satisfying if it ended here. Of course, it's just beginning. Allerdale proves to be a haunted mansion to end them all, with pipes that cough red water and a ceiling so rotted that snow piles up on the floor. And who's that playing creepy music on the piano? Why, it's Thomas' sister, Lucille, played by a shiveringly good Jessica Chastain.
Del Toro lays all this on so thick that you can practically hear him cackling with glee. What makes it work -- in addition to the splendid sets and costumes -- is the stellar cast, particularly Hiddleston. The only actor in the "Thor" films who didn't provoke snickering, Hiddleston is marvelous as Sharpe, an enervated aristocrat haunted by dark secrets. It's a role that could have gone to Vincent Price in a past era. (The film's old-fashioned feel is slightly undercut by the CGI ghosts.)
You'll find yourself consistently a step ahead of the plot, but you may not care. "Crimson Peak" is thoroughly entertaining from start to ghastly finish.