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We Have Always Lived in the Castle (2018)

September 18th, 2019 by unkle lancifer · 5 Comments

Uh-oh, looks like somebody finally made a film adaptation of one of my all-time favorite books, Shirley Jackson’s WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE. I’m going to give all those involved a kudos for bravery right out of the gate because it couldn’t have been easy translating such an intimate character-driven piece to the screen. Plus I don’t envy anyone attempting to compete with the substantially personal world Jackson’s words created for her readers. No novel easily transfers to film but this is one of those magical books you simply live inside of as you read it and its fans are rarely casual about their appreciation. Anyway, I’m happy to report that for the most part I really enjoyed this take on the material, it’s a true visual stunner, the acting is uniformly intriguing and it represents a hoarding shut-in’s preoccupation surrounding heirlooms, found objects and memorabilia eloquently. On the minus side, I think some of the most dynamic plot points are too lightly touched upon and the climax, which should feel like a hammer falling, barely stings. Saddest of all, a rug-pull twist in the book limply plays out like a beyond obvious “ya think?” revelation here.

Wide-eyed and lumbering, Taissa Farmiga delivers a compelling performance as Merricat Blackwood, an 18-year-old outsider living with her serene older sister Constance (Alexandra Daddario of TEXAS CHAINSAW 3-D) and their semi-delusional Uncle Julian (the ALWAYS excellent Crispen Glover). The three live ostracized from their community and holed up in their splendiferous mansion ever since Constance was accused of being responsible for their parent’s poisoning death years prior. Much like THE FOX (‘67), THE LITTLE GIRL WHO LIVES DOWN THE LANE (‘76) PREY (‘77) and even JOHN CARPENTER’S THE THING (‘82), this is the tale of a blissfully cozy, harmonious existence that is turned upside down as soon as an untrustworthy dog shows up. In this case, the dog is a long lost (but not lost long enough) cousin named Charles (Sebastian Stan) who vaguely seduces Constance, threatens to hospitalize Julian and harangues Merricat for burying valuable treasures he clearly has his eyes on.

Thumbs up to all humans involved for their generally compelling work (although it could be said that Farmiga is a tad too oafish, Daddario is a smidge too simple, Stan is a bit too conspicuous and Glover could possibly let his freak flag fly higher) but one of CASTLE’s greatest characters, Merricat’s ebony feline Jonas, is sinfully underrepresented and it’s probably my biggest qualm. People are able to make houses and cities into characters in movies but somehow a cat character is a reach? Really all they’d have to do is show him more and speak his name more often for him to stick but for some reason, he’s treated as one of the home’s tchotchkes instead. That cool dude should be present and accounted for in every single scene where Merricat is casting and conjuring in her garden alcove.

Appalling cat representation failures aside, much like Sheena Easton in a Prince video, this movie has got “the look.” Poor me went to grab a few screenshots to illustrate this post and ended up with about fifty (truly, you could make a coffee table book out of nearly every frame). Director Stacie Passon, cinematographer Piers McGrail, production designer Anna Rackard and art director Louise Mathews all deserve kudos for this handsome devil of a flick. Even if it doesn’t quite hit all the emotional notes of the book (and really, how could it?), I think I can appreciate it as a visual companion piece of sorts. The near-constant blue/green color palette alone puts me where I want to be but I also can’t help but dig the fetishistic attention to detail regarding the hoarded bobbles and scattered random ephemera the dollhouse-like manor is nested with.

Overall, I’d say this a respectable salute that should appeal to patient viewers who are attracted to light Goth and the darker side of Martha Stewart. I know I wouldn’t mind watching it again in the future but I’m guessing I’ll always lament that Merricat’s relationship with her beloved bestie Jonas was so foolishly neglected. Cat erasure is a crime and the punishment is your movie is not as good as it so easily could have been.

Tags: General Horror

5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 TombNo Gravatar // Sep 18, 2019 at 6:10 pm

    Great review. I have a crazy story about this movie. I was housesitting in San Francisco a few months back and it so turned out it was playing at a local indie (The Roxie) that evening! I show up, and a tight crew of people were hanging out in front. Apparently it was a bunch of the people who made the movie. Never got the names but definitely “above-the-line” They were having some kind of west coast premeire, nothing fancy, just a get together on a tiny screen.

    I introduced myself as a Shirley Jackson fan. I was from her hometown of Burlingame CA, so I was always a big fan. Turns out one of Shirley Jackson’s son was in this small get-together and I got to shake his hand. I guess they were so impressed by my SJ knowledge they gave me a free ticket. I felt like a celebrity.

    I wish they made the Merricat character a little more likeable, or at least see the world through her eyes. I was thinking some animations, or a trippy monologue.

    I could go on, but I’m glad they made it!

  • 2 kathryngraceNo Gravatar // Sep 18, 2019 at 7:05 pm

    I love love love We Have Always Lived in the Castle (even more than I love The Haunting of Hill House) and have been hesitant to watch the moving based on how much I love the book.
    Thanks for reviewing this. I now feel better about giving it a chance.

  • 3 unkle lanciferNo Gravatar // Sep 19, 2019 at 10:11 am

    Great story! And that’s so cool SJ’s son was in attendance! I read that Merricat and Constance Blackwood were based on two of his sisters! That must have been especially interesting for him!

    I agree about Merricat- I like Farmiga and it was nice to see her do something different but she made Merricat seem a little like Ruth Buzzi as Gladys on Laugh In? I think she needed to be a little more cerebral. They really should have made this a bunch of years ago when Christina Ricci was the right age!

    I’m right there with you giving WHALITC the edge over THOHH! It’s such a great book. If it’s not my all time favorite then it’s certainly in the top five. I definitely prefer the movie I made in my head while reading the book over this version but it’s not bad at all- just a little too delicate and subtle. I wish they went much darker especially with the ending- I always loved how the world in the book just kept getting smaller and smaller and I don’t think they dwelled in the destruction of the house enough for me. Still, it’s a pretty commendable effort and I hope it turns other people onto the book!

  • 4 Dr Nick RivieraNo Gravatar // Sep 20, 2019 at 2:29 pm

    A lovely looking film. I think it fails in the third act because it (maybe) tries to nail home some of the themes of the source material (perhaps – I haven’t read it, but it SEEMS like the kind of thing that would work better in literary form). But I found it intriguing, well acted (even Crispin Glover is good!), patiently crafted and thoughtfully composed. It FELT like a faithful literary adaptation would (even if it isn’t) – but occasionally to a fault.

  • 5 unkle lanciferNo Gravatar // Sep 21, 2019 at 4:20 pm

    Dr. Nick,
    Yep, I think the ending would be impossible for anyone to pull off as well as the book but it’s a great looking film and it’s obvious a lot of care went into making the film and I dug the timeless quality of it too.

    BTW…it’s now on NETFLIX (which happens a lot after I’ve borrowed a movie from the library) so hopefully a lot more people will get to check it out!

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