We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Film Review)

Shirley Jackson’s work is disguised in the trappings of genre fiction, particularly horror and thrillers. What she really does is use the tropes of horror to create complex psychological character studies. The 2018 adaptation of We Have Always Lived in the Castle is refreshingly true to the thematic concerns of the novel upon which it is based. Set in the 1960s, the two Blackwood sisters live apart from the town over which their decaying mansion casts a shadow. Both are living sequestered away due to the scandalous murder of the Blackwood patriarch and his wife—they were poisoned with arsenic. Constance (Alexandra D’Addario) was acquitted but the town folk believe that one of the two sisters is guilty of the crime. Mary Katherine or Merricat (Taissa Farmiga) bears the brunt of the town’s abusive gossip when she visits for supplies. Merricat, who is portrayed as possibly on the spectrum by Farmiga, is a misanthropic loner who does arcane witchcraft-inspired rituals to protect the surviving members of her family, which include Constance and dementia-affected Uncle Julian (Crispin Glover). Merricat buries dolls, coins and books on the manse’s overgrown grounds and casts curses on those people who are cruel to her. Constance stays in the house, where she cooks and cleans with an almost Stepford Wife devotion. The three members of the family all assiduously talk around the fatal events of the poisoning and the subsequent trial. Merricat believes that her spells are working until cousin Charles shows up out of nowhere, with an unclear agenda.  Constance, who’s played as a wide-eyed, innocent ingenue by D’Addario, is charmed by Charles. Sebastian Stan’s portrayal is appropriately slick and two-faced. He’s frustrated that he can’t charm the taciturn Merricat like he can her sister. (Uncle Julian believes that Charles is his brother, and Glover gives the befuddled character a quiet dignity). Inevitably, the battle for Constance’s affection yields disastrous results. There are a lot of thematics at work here.  There’s Jackson’s preoccupation with group hysteria, and the role of misfit women in a strictly patriarchal society alongside an exploration of trauma and the loss of innocence. I enjoyed the look of the film, with is period Popoluxe aesthetic, and it captured the delicate balance of black comedy, social satire and dark group dynamics that was in the book.

The Desolation of Hill House

First, some good things about Netflix’s THE HAUNTING OF HILL. I think that it was well-acted, particularly the matriarch Olivia (Carla Gugnino). I liked that they explored and expanded upon Theodora’s sexuality. The subtext, of dysfunctional relationships and mental illness, was spot on. However, I ultimately thought it was disrespectful to the source material.
HHH
The title raised certain expectations. Imagine if I wrote a tv series called WUTHERING HEIGHTS and it was about a modern couple dealing with infertility issues. And Cathy was a frustrated novelist writing a cheap romance novel called “Wuthering Heights.”  And Emily herself was a character, who was a New Age doula. It would make as much sense as this adaptation. The heart of the novel is about Otherness. This was just a family drama with some supernatural elements that used the architecture of the novel–characters named Luke, Eleanor, Hugh and Theodora, a haunted mansion–and ignored the theme and mood.
I especially depised the portrayal of the writer, Stephen. He was supposed to be a hack writer who mined family trauma for filthy lucre. That’s not how writing—especially successful writing—works. If anything, Stephen should have been the one who believed in the ghosts, and the drug addict brother Luke should have been the one who was in denial. To write, you have to believe in that your words and your paper people are real.   Finally, making one of the most chilling paragraphs ever written the start of the hack writer’s exploitative Ghost Adventures-styled book was a low point. (Side Bar: There was a character named Shirley; why couldn’t she have been the stand-in for Ms. Jackson?)
Finally, the nature of the haunting was wrong.  The harried mother trope, at the center of the show, is played out, and subverts the meaning of the original novel, which centered non-traditional female characters (the misfit Eleanor, the bisexual artist Theodora).
If you’re going to tell a different story, why have the baggage of a well-known, classic novel? I actually think the series would have worked better with a separate title. (And if they got rid of that ridiculous writer subplot; Jackson was one of the best writers and to have a shout-out to her as bad writer was a terrible idea). The HILL HOUSE reminds me of how bad the LeGuin/Earthsea adaptations were—they took the plot and some of the ideas, and left behind the atmosphere and subtext.