“The decorated ceiling in Edith’s bedroom (above) is based on a detail taken from actual Victorian houses. I love that it looks like thorns, because we wanted it to feel as if the house were about to pin the characters down. This house has teeth; the motif of eyes and mouths runs throughout.” Courtesy of Kerry Hayes/Legendary Pictures and Universal Pictures.
“The decorated ceiling in Edith’s bedroom (above) is based on a detail taken from actual Victorian houses. I love that it looks like thorns, because we wanted it to feel as if the house were about to pin the characters down. This house has teeth; the motif of eyes and mouths runs throughout.” Courtesy of Kerry Hayes/Legendary Pictures and Universal Pictures.

The bloody, beating heart of Crimson Peak, Guillermo del Toro’s Edwardian romance–slash–haunted house thriller, is a decrepit estate crushed beneath a low English sky. Nicknamed for the red clay that has a tendency to rise to the surface of the grounds like puddles of blood, Crimson Peak all but spells doom for Edith, the film’s heroine (Mia Wasikowska), from the moment she arrives. “The house is a monster,” del Toro says. “But not in the way that haunted houses normally are. It breathes, but it also suffocates life by trapping inside it all the things that weigh upon the characters: ancestry, family, marriage.”

Crimson Peak—or Allerdale, as it’s properly known—is run by orphaned siblings: the forbidding Lucille (Jessica Chastain) and her dark, dashing brother Thomas (Tom Hiddleston), who woos Edith, a spirited young American woman of means and literary ambition. (She’s—uh-oh—an aspiring author of ghost stories.) After Edith marries Thomas under rather tragic circumstances, she comes to live at Allerdale, only to discover that the once-grand manor, much like the siblings’ good name, has gone to seed. “I told the production designer we needed to make the house feel like a rotting corpse,” del Toro explains. “It’s funereal”—a harbinger of the secret history that Edith will soon uncover.

Edith grows more fearful with each revelation, and del Toro’s production design amplifies her fright (and ours) by making her look and feel small: The furniture becomes increasingly oversize, threatening to swallow her. Even a teacup suddenly appears enormous and weighty. Only Lucille, who is as cold as Allerdale in winter, seems to feel right at home. “Every time Lucille loses her temper, or when she’s jealous, the fireplace flares up,” del Toro says. “The house is part of the storytelling.”

STARRING: Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, Charlie Hunnam. OPENS: October 16.