Lately we’ve seen a resurgence of interest in the works of American horror/mystery writer Shirley Jackson. Much of the thanks could go to Netflix and their popular television adaptation of Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House”. Now we have a feature film based on Jackson’s final novel “We Have Always Lived in the Castle”.
Stacie Passon directs and Mark Kruger writes the screenplay for what is essentially a gothic family drama and mystery thriller mash-up. Set in 1960s New England and with a healthy air of gloom and dread, the story follows two troubled but tight-knit sisters. They live on the huge estate where six years earlier a terrible family tragedy shook them and the nearby village.
Since then the Blackwood sisters mostly stay isolated within the walls of the mansion left behind by their deceased parents. Constance (Alexandra Daddario) never leaves and a cloud of speculation and rumor hangs over her. Was she responsible for horrible event that struck her family? The prattling, gossipy townsfolk certainly think so. And they let the younger sister Mary Katherine (Taissa Farmiga) know it during her weekly trips for supplies.
The villagers are a major influence on the psychology of the story. Their mean-spirited and scandalous hearsay pushes the sisters to stay in isolation, living alone with their tragedy, their secrets, and their disabled Uncle Julian (Crispen Glover). His semi-coherent ramblings are a mixture of utter nonsense and tiny nuggets of revelation – keys to understanding the mystery behind what happened six years earlier.
While far from ideal, the Blackwood girls have carved out a life for themselves in seclusion. But it’s turned on its head when out of nowhere their cousin Charles (Sebastian Stan) pays a visit. He immediately sets his eyes on Constance which puts him at odds with Mary Katherine who is willing to protect her sister at all cost.
As the story unfolds we end up with multiple layers of mystery. What is Charles’ motivations? What’s with Mary Katherine’s fascination with magic spells (even though there’s no evidence any of her spells work)? And what really happened in Blackwood Manor six years prior? Passon explores these questions by leaning into the characters and the individual strengths of her cast. She provides plenty of atmosphere, manages tone well, and keeps things moving at just the right pace. She then allows room for the performances to shine.
“We Have Always Lived in the Castle” is a well-made gothic thriller with a surprisingly rich human element. Much of that can be attributed to Jackson’s novel which was influenced by her own personal experiences. It may be a little light on the thriller side, but it does wrestle with some interesting themes and the overarching air of mystery is quite satisfying.
VERDICT – 4 STARS