If the recent failure of films such as “The Little Stranger” and “Marrowbone” has taught us anything, it’s that audiences don’t seem as thrilled with good, bone-chilling Gothic mysteries as they once were. Today, when it comes to spine-tinglers, moviegoers seem to value jump scares and gore over psychological brooding. That hasn’t stopped filmmakers who, every few decades, revive the works of novelist Shirley Jackson. Her stories speak to a darker side of humanity. Stacie Passon, director of “We Have Always Lived in the Castle,” sharply channels the author’s atmosphere of dread, paranoia, and isolation, making the past feel prescient.
Socially awkward 18-year-old Mary Katherine Blackwood (Taissa Farmiga), nicknamed “Merricat” by her family, lives with her agoraphobic sister Constance (Alexandra Daddario) and anguished, barely lucid Uncle Julian (Crispin Glover) on the sprawling grounds of Blackwood Manor. The gorgeous Gothic mansion sits high above a small New England town, like a judgmental god lording over the people.
After a mysterious tragedy involving an arsenic-laced sugar bowl befell the Blackwood family six years prior — one that robbed the young ladies of their parents and left Uncle Julian an invalid — the Blackwoods have kept to themselves, only venturing into town for necessities. But that doesn’t mean they’ve successfully avoided the ire of the resentful victims of their father’s ideologies. Merricat spends her days casting magic spells to make sure the Blackwood kingdom is kept safe from any perceivable threats, like angry townsfolk or nosy gossips. She buries talismans — such as dolls, coins, and other accoutrements — in her backyard to ward off evil spirits. However, when their estranged, suave cousin Charles (Sebastian Stan) pops in for an unannounced visit and begins assuming the role of the family patriarch, his presence completely upends Merricat’s world.
Both the cinematic adaptation and the source material are less concerned with “whodunit” (although we do find out by film’s end) than they are about the issue of female agency at a time not especially conducive to it. In that sense, Passon and screenwriter Mark Kruger are successful. They bring to life Jackson’s resonant, evergreen narrative dealing with women finding their voices, adding stylized flourishes in the process.
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Not only has Merricat been silenced by the men in her life, but Constance also has experienced a similar muzzling. She’s caught in the grief stage after losing her freedom, romance, and parents in one fell swoop. Her greatest defense mechanism is denial. Feelings of otherness and oppression permeate the picture. The ensuing dramatics briefly dip into surrealism, as when Merricat sees an unsettling vision of her parents. These sentiments of sorrow are expressed with a pressing urgency and, for better or worse, tend to be a smidge too obvious.
While Merricat’s wardrobe doesn’t change much, sister Constance’s clothing does. The crinoline skirts under her impeccable dresses get more and more voluminous as the story progresses, as if to reflect the growing number of secrets stuffed underneath. The Jordan-almond-like, candy-coated quality of DP Piers McGrail’s cinematography hints at a darkness underneath the Blackwoods’ fairytale lifestyle. Composer Andrew Hewitt’s score may as well be the grand, orchestral version of whatever emanates from the music box trinket on Constance’s vanity. Anna Rackard’s production design and Louise Mathews’ art design also reflect the characters, specifically with the ’50s-era kitchen: Like the girls after their tragedy, it’s been remodeled.