Pushing aside her billowing Victorian skirts, Mia Wasikowska climbs atop Tom Hiddleston for the first sex scene in Guillermo del Toro’s R-rated Gothic horror story Crimson Peak. The audience waits for Wasikowska to disrobe, knowing that now, with her virtue tarnished, she’s doomed to meet a grisly end–after all, that’s the horror-movie fate for girls who lose their virginity. But no punishment comes her way. More surprisingly, the only flash of exposed skin is Hiddleston’s behind. “Tom actually has the most nudity in the movie,” del Toro tells TIME. “I want to make it clear to the audience that when these two characters make love, it’s empowering. I’m horrified when I see movies in this day and age that send warnings to women [that] sex is bad.”
Reimagining the sex scenes in a horror film is just one of the many contemporary touches to Crimson Peak, in theaters Oct. 16. The film begins by mirroring the plots of great Gothic romances such as Jane Eyre and Rebecca: naive Edith (Wasikowska) falls in love with brooding Thomas (Hiddleston), goes to his mysterious house and is confronted by Lucille (Jessica Chastain), a dark authority figure with a secret. That is where the similarities end. While Thomas or the doting doctor Alan (Charlie Hunnam) might come to Edith’s rescue in another story, these two are all but shunted aside as Chastain and Wasikowska proceed to play cat and mouse.
Gothic romance has long been “brilliantly written by women and then rendered into films by male directors who reduce the potency of the female characters,” says del Toro, who believes that recent small-budget films by women, like The Babadook and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, may be the future of the horror genre. For his part, he took pleasure in upending the longstanding cliché of the fallen woman who gets her due. “I didn’t want to make a movie where marriage is the ultimate blessing,” he adds. “In Crimson Peak marriage is the gateway to horror.”
The writer-director, best known for the beautifully creepy Pan’s Labyrinth and the robot-monster smackdown Pacific Rim, is not an obvious candidate for a feminist leap forward in film. But he has built a reputation for complex and surprising portrayals of women: the bold Mako Mori in Pacific Rim and the curious Ofelia, inspired by del Toro’s two daughters, in Pan’s Labyrinth. “I have very strong women in my life,” he says. “I would be lying if I wrote women any other way.”
But Crimson Peak is his first film with two cunning female leads. Del Toro sent the script first to Chastain, expecting her to accept the role of the heroine. Instead, she insisted on playing the villain Lucille. “Smart girl,” del Toro says. “Beauty can be a curse. Yes, Jessica is a beautiful woman, but many don’t realize the intelligence she brings to a role.”
“I’m tired of female characters who are just adornments,” Chastain adds. “I wanted to find compassion for someone who does truly terrible things.”
Wasikowska hesitated before taking on Edith. She may look as delicate as a porcelain doll, but Wasikowska has portrayed two of literature’s most resolute women–Jane Eyre and Madame Bovary–and, in the 2013 film Tracks, she played an Australian who treks across 1,700 miles of withering desert. “I worried that because Edith is the audience’s eyes, she wouldn’t have much story and could be outshone,” she says, “but Guillermo made sure that just because Lucille was a strong character didn’t mean Edith had to be a weak one. There was enough room for two powerful women, which is rare.”
Del Toro has been dreaming up Crimson Peak since he saw his first film, Wuthering Heights, with his mother at age 3 in his hometown of Guadalajara, Mexico. “They call those theaters ‘brick and rat’ because they gave you a brick to kill the rat that crawls up your leg,” he says. “I fell asleep during the movie and dreamt of those Gothic images–the fog, the moors, the house. I think it was [this film’s] inception.”
Decades later, he built a haunted house for Crimson Peak from scratch, including running water, a working elevator and secret rooms to stash corpses. Del Toro has always been obsessed with such details: in pre-production he hands out 10-page biographies for each of the characters and asks his actors to keep secrets about their character’s pasts from other members of the cast. His attention to the craft inspired Wasikowska to overcome her trepidations and Hunnam to reject top billing in Fifty Shades of Grey in order to play the fourth lead in this film.
Still, convincing a studio to finance a Gothic manse for a movie with an R rating and a feminist message–not exactly blockbuster material–took eight years. Even when the renowned production company Legendary Pictures signed a deal, del Toro had to forfeit 30% of his salary. He encountered similar issues while trying to bring a live-action Beauty and the Beast to the screen for Warner Bros., a project that is now defunct. “They felt my take was too female-centric and didn’t support the budget properly,” he says. “I’ve written 23 screenplays in my life, and I have only directed nine movies and produced another few. It’s an uphill battle to get these movies made.”
But when he does, he’ll have his pick of actresses seeking robust roles. “I’ve worked on films with male directors who probably liked the idea of doing a story about a woman, but the reality and the depth of it they don’t understand,” says Wasikowska. “Guillermo has so much insight into the world women live in. In this business, that’s special.”
This appears in the October 19, 2015 issue of TIME.