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'Crimson Peak's' visual marvels overshadow Del Toro's ghostly story

'Crimson Peak's' visual marvels overshadow Del Toro's ghostly story
Mia Wasikowska as Edith Cushing in "Crimson Peak." (Kerry Hayes/Universal Pictures / Legendary Pictures)

"Crimson Peak" is filled with many marvels, its bravura, show-stopping visuals not the least among them. In fact, the film contains so many good things it's something of a shock to realize that it hasn't ended up completely satisfying.

Those images come courtesy of writer-director Guillermo del Toro and his crack production team. Responsible for "Cronos," "The Devil's Backbone" and the marvelous "Pan's Labyrinth," Del Toro has a gift for visual imagination that few filmmakers can match.

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The director also has a self-confessed passion for old-fashioned Gothic romances on the order of the novel-based classics of Hollywood's Golden Age like "Rebecca," "Dragonwyck," "Jane Eyre" and "Wuthering Heights."

Del Toro not only wanted to bring the Gothic romance back, he wanted to do it on a grand Hollywood scale, set it in the past and use top actors like his trio of stars: Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain and Tom Hiddleston.

Because they are his passion, Del Toro wanted to have ghosts and the supernatural involved as well. And though "Crimson Peak" has no lack of grotesque and dreadful creatures (the Vincent Price/Roger Corman 1960s adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe tales also feel like an influence), this is, to paraphrase one of the film's characters, not a ghost story but a story with ghosts in it.

Clearly Del Toro has made the film he wanted to make (including the frequent use of shots ending with an iris close), but things have not worked out exactly as he planned.

"Crimson Peak's" astonishing visuals don't enhance its story (co-written by the director and Matthew Robbins); they overwhelm it, encouraging us to stand back and admire the look when we should be involved in the emotional mechanics of this lurid tale. While some stories cry out for a larger treatment, this one is the opposite.

Proceedings begin with a bit of a prelude, as a battered young Edith Cushing (Wasikowska) declares "ghosts are real. This much I know." Edith knows this because when she was 10, her mother's ghost appeared to her with the admonition, "Beware of Crimson Peak." It was, she says with delicious portentousness, "a warning from out of time I would come to understand only when it was too late."

"Crimson Peak" proper is set in 1901, 10 years after that vision, in the then-prosperous town of Buffalo, N.Y. Edith, an aspiring fiction writer with an interest in the supernatural, is the pride of her wealthy, self-made father, Carter Cushing (Jim Beaver), and a person of interest to Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam), a thoughtful ophthalmologist and former childhood pal.

Shuffling into Buffalo comes titled Briton Thomas Sharpe (Hiddleston), a handsome baronet seeking to raise money from Edith's father for an invention he hopes will revolutionize the mining of clay. Accompanying him, as she always does, is his mysterious sister Lucille (Chastain), who is as beautiful as she is dour in a series of magnificent dresses designed by Kate Hawley.

Despite warnings from various quarters, Edith falls in love with Thomas, marries him and gets swept away to his ancestral estate, Allerdale Hall. It's located in remotest Cumberland, where the clay is an unnerving shade of bright orange and the living is anything but easy.

Allerdale itself is an enormous structure so vast that no one knows how many rooms it has, and so dilapidated that there is literally a massive hole in the roof in which snow falls through. It's a breathtaking structure and as fully a character as anyone in the film.

Built on a sound stage rather than inside a computer, Allerdale is a monument to the traditional crafts of Hollywood, a kind of ultimate old, dark house that has been imagined and constructed in almost fiendish detail: Del Toro even had teacups and other props made in different sizes to reflect Edith's changing psychological states.

Worked on for months by teams of craftspeople led by production designer Tom Sanders and supervising art director Brandt Gordon before it was finally photographed in rich, saturated colors by Dan Laustsen, Allerdale frankly intoxicates. Maybe too much so.

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'Crimson Peak'

MPAA rating: R, for bloody violence, some sexual content and brief strong language

Running time: 1 hour, 59 minutes

Playing: In general release

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