There are three characters at the center of Guillermo del Toro's "Crimson Peak," and they're played by Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain and Tom Hiddleston, three of the best actors around.

But there's only one character that really matters in this sumptuous, romantic ghost story -- the grandiloquent decaying mansion at its center.

This is perhaps the ultimate haunted set -- with crumbling spiral staircases looming over a dusty grand foyer, groaning elevators, snow pouring in from above, gas lamps flickering and straining to illuminate the vast space; pointed arches and other staples of the Victorian architectural style.

Del Toro, who pours more thought and feeling into each of his classical cinematic compositions than most, captures it in a fashion that is at once old-fashioned and dynamic.The English countryside estate is meant to symbolize the faded fortunes of the siblings Lady Lucille Sharpe (Chastain) and Sir Thomas (Hiddleston), who live there and lure rich and naive American Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) to join them as Thomas' wife for sinister reasons, and it is filled with terrifying apparitions.

The movie lives very clearly amid the world of the dead and the dying; with a strong entwined thread of loneliness and sadness permeating its horrors. The actors share a collective ghostly quality, a faraway inner state that reflects the enormous structure that contains them. The characters drift through its halls, hardly separated from the otherworldly beings among them.

As an achievement of bold cinema, however, refreshingly retro in the construction of a real set and the use of practical effects, this is a lively work.

Del Toro understands and respects the value of the horror genre and its traditions; while the movie owes a lot to ample sources in the Gothic cinema and literary canon, it plays like its own thing, defiantly standing against today's frequent tendency to muddle a great means of storytelling with stock scares and found-footage cliches.

It's a great pleasure to live in del Toro's world, and to see his considerable skills applied to material that warrants them far more than, say, the vastly overrated "Pacific Rim."

The movie is sometimes bogged down by its picturesque qualities; it's so pretty, so meticulously designed, that it sometimes resembles a cinematic coffee table book more than a drama about humans.

Too pretty, too well-crafted, is far preferable to the alternative, and a mainstream movie for aesthetes everywhere is a cause for celebration.