First, a frightful confession: I’ve never read the works of heralded horror writer Shirley Jackson. My awareness of her brand of terror has come chiefly through the adaptations of her most famous novel The Haunting of Hill House, be it the eerie black-and-white 1963 version, the glossy, star-studded 1999 version, or Mike Flanagan’s inventive 2018 TV mini-series, which re-imagined the central strangers as a fractured family. As I found each version thrilling in its own way, I was eager to see what director Stacie Passon had in store for her adaptation of Jackson’s lesser-known novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle. All I knew going in was it involves a pair of sisters, some Gothic flair, and some dark family secrets. Sold!
Set vaguely in the late 1950s or early 1960s, We Have Always Lived in the Castle follows Merricat Blackwood (Taissa Farmiga), a teen girl who lives with her older sister Constance (Alexandra Daddario) and her ailing uncle Julian (Crispin Glover) in a sprawling mansion on the edge of a gossipy town. But the town has fair cause to gossip. Six years before the girls’ parents and aunt were murdered in their “castle,” and the townspeople have good reason to suspect Constance was their killer. The pretty young lady escaped prosecution but not persecution, as the locals love to leer and sling insults and accusatory rhymes. Fiercely protective of her ever-sweet sister, young Merricat volunteers to make the runs into town for groceries and library books. And to further keep the world beyond the Blackwood gates at bay, she also practices protection spells. But the fragile peace of the Blackwood estate is threatened when charming cousin Charles (Sebastian Stan) turns up. At first, he’s all smiles and pleasantries. But soon, he begins to ask after the family’s fortune and flirt with the lonely Constance, which pushes Merricat to fight back with more than magic.
Tense voiceover narration binds us to Merricat, who fastidiously explains how burying her father’s gold watch or silver coins is meant to ward off evil. With a consistently grim expression, fiercely slouched shoulders, and a furtive gaze, Farmiga plays Merricat as a raw nerve. Daddario provides a glittery foil, playing Constance as an endlessly chipper caregiver with perfectly coiffed hair, an array of primly pretty dresses, and unflappable patience. Constance seems like a Stepford wife, while her younger sister’s preference for chaotic printed blouses, wary demeanor, and dirty hands makes her seem on the verge of feral. The actresses bring a dash of theatricality to their roles, which suits the story’s Gothic vibe. They are supported by Stan’s too-sharp smile and Glover’s dedicatedly nattering and narcissistic uncle. And yet, there’s a frustrating flatness to the whole endeavor.
Though there’s an edge of extra to the performances, it’s not on the dynamic level of What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?, Crimson Peak, or Stoker. Instead, Passon rejects camp in favor of a more restrained aesthetic. Her color palette is muted. Her set design expectedly prim with a tinge of decay. Her protagonist a shifty-eyed sulk. Her maybe murderer a slight portrait of delicate femininity. The performances of the Blackwoods are not in stark enough contrast to feel exhilaratingly extreme when compared to the townspeople, as they did in Stoker’s excellently outrageous high school sequences. Without this stylistic oomph, Passon’s attempt at slow-burn never really ignites. And so We Have Always Lived in the Castle is not exciting, eerie, or intriguing, just boring.
In Gothic mysteries, the thrills might come from ghosts, skeletons in the closet, or horrors born from minds twisted by grief. I wasn’t sure which We Have Always Lived in the Castle would offer, and that uncertainty was exciting. Sadly, that was the only thing that was exciting in this so-called thriller. As Farmiga shuffles through this somber mystery, my anticipation soured and my patience waned. These thinly sketches sisters, salty and sweet, will be given so little dimension that this lackluster film’s final twist is almost comically predictable. What a shame.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle played at the Bentonville Film Festival. The film will open in limited release on May 17.
Header Image Source: Brainstorm Media