It is Halloween Month(!), so the time feels right for an adaptation of a classic by master of horror Shirley Jackson. Brilliantly creating an atmosphere of dread, especially in her haunted old mansions, will this film uphold her high standards or will we have to say sorry to Ms. Jackson after this week?
We Have Always Lived in the Castle
The sudden arrival of their cousin disrupts the isolated lives of sisters shunned from a small town after a tragic evening several years prior.
In the 1960s, sisters Merricat and Constance Blackwood live with their uncle Julian in the family estate, where (surprise, surprise) they have always lived. The wealthiest family in the area, whose mansion stands subtly looking down on the entire town, the Blackwoods’ popularity reached an all-time low six years ago when several family members were poisoned.
Though Uncle Julian survived, he was confined to a wheelchair following the poisonings and became disconnected from reality through his obsession with the events that happened that evening. While Constance was accused but acquitted of murder, the townspeople remain deeply suspicious of the Blackwoods, contributing to her terror of leaving the estate. Merricat is the only member of the family who ventures into town, collecting library books and groceries for the remaining Blackwoods. When she goes out, Merricat is followed by wary glances and nasty children’s rhymes about the night of the murders.
Though isolated, Merricat is content with Constance for her best and only friend. She reveals how far she will take things to keep the band together when she breaks up Constance and her fireman boyfriend. With an ever-increasing feeling that a big change is coming, Merricat performs protective rituals including burying objects belonging to her late father.
When cousin Charles arrives unannounced, it appears Merricat’s predictions of a change on the horizon have come to fruition. Though Constance and Julian welcome the opportunity to speak with a non-Merricat family member, Merricat remains apprehensive. (Plus the cat is getting bad vibes from Charles here; never a good sign.)
After Charles discovers Merricat’s penchant for burying valuables belonging to her father, he becomes upset with the wasteful practice. When Merricat directly asks Charles to leave, he refuses–and, in fact, deliberately antagonizes her. Add to this the weird cousin love vibes between Charles and Constance, and Merricat is feeling downright threatened. As their feud escalates, it seems increasingly likely yet another Blackwood will end up dead.
Just as Merricat and Charles get into a dramatic physical altercation, a lit pipe sets the house ablaze. While many of the townsfolk gather to witness the blaze, Uncle Julian refuses to leave, and Charles desperately attempts to salvage valuables from the home.
How will the sisters, having endured so much, battle fire, disreputable relations, and an angry mob?
The Rating (with spoilers):
3/5 Pink Panther Heads
I’m going to be that amateur film critic and start out by saying the book is infinitely better. Shirley Jackson’s novel is genuinely creepy, suspenseful, and surprising. This film adaptation lacks the subtlety and ambience that makes the novel so successful. I have a difficult time believing that anyone who watches this will be shocked by the revelation that Merricat has secrets to hide about the poisonings because she acts like such a creep throughout the entire film.
Add to this the elements of the film that are unintentionally hilarious, and the tone feels quite uneven. I love Crispin Glover, but his turn as Uncle Julian is not convincing, and some of his lines–“We all deserve to die, don’t we?” especially stands out–brought on laughter when they should have been eerie. Julian mistaking Charles for the murdered Blackwood patriarch is also much funnier than it’s supposed to be.
The themes here are extremely Shirley Jackson, with no one being especially likeable. The Blackwoods are incredibly elitist, and there’s no love lost between the sisters and their parents. Charles has the power to be an ally to his family, but in the end is as manipulative as Merricat suspects him to be. I don’t even know where to begin with the townsfolk, whose cruelty and hypocrisy are unmatched and unwarranted–especially considering they know so little of the truth behind the Blackwood murders.
However, I remember Merricat being a more sympathetic character in the novel as we get more insight into how her mind works (though she is, as in the film, an unreliable narrator). This could be down to my having read the book in my teens or early 20s, and therefore possessing a considerably greater amount of patience for a moody teen. Who knows? It could be a perfect time to revisit the book and find out.