Review: ‘We Have Always Lived In The Castle’ Fails to Build The Same Spookiness As Shirley Jackson’s Classic Novel

The shadow of novelist Shirley Jackson looms large in the horror genre. Her short story “The Lottery” remains a masterful example of building dread and suspense; her novel The Haunting of Hill House is now a multi-season adaptation on Netflix; and her last work, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, gets a mostly loyal-to-the-book cinematic treatment from director Stacie Passon. Passon can’t quite match the creeping spookiness of Jackson’s source text, choosing to inject the film with additional bouts of violence that make for jarring moments but a somewhat disjointed whole.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is told from the point of view, and with narration from, 18-year-old Merricat Blackwood (American Horror Story ensemble player Taissa Farmiga), who lives with her sister Constance (a never-better Alexandra Daddario) and Uncle Julian (Crispin Glover) in their palatial home, set back from the road, away from the nearby village, secluded but not forgotten. Constance takes care of the home, cooking all their meals and caring for Uncle Julian, who is confined to a wheelchair, but she never leaves. She is bound to the place, for reasons that are revealed later in the film.

So it is up to Merricat to travel into town, to buy their groceries and their supplies, and it becomes clear that the hate between the town’s residents and the Blackwood family is a two-way street. The townspeople loathe the Blackwoods for their wealth and their isolation, and Merricat treats them like she’s a haughty aristocrat, refusing to make eye contact and insulting them. They intimidate and bully her and she loathes them, turning to spell-casting and other rituals and customs to try and exact revenge on those who hurt her and Constance.

Into this fraught situation saunters in Charles (Sebastian Stan), a young man claiming to be Merricat and Constance’s cousin, who drives up to the manor in his cherry-red convertible and who steadily—and then rapidly—assumes a position of authority within the Blackwoods’ home. He talks over Uncle Julian. He treats Merricat with barely veiled contempt. And he is sweet and kind to Constance, whose smiles for him seem wider and more genuine than the ones she gives her sister. How Merricat handles the competition for her sister’s affection, and how the townspeople will react to another Blackwood in their midst, barrels We Have Always Lived in the Castle toward its conclusion.

Jackson’s novel is told in first person by Merricat, and her interiority shapes the narrative: her adoration of Constance, her distrust of Charles, her ignorance of Uncle Julian. Not all of that translates into the screenplay written by Mark Kruger, who mostly writes Merricat as an off-kilter girl operating in only two modes: jealousy and anger. Farmiga is capable of conveying that with her wide-open eyes and hunched-over stance, but it makes Merricat’s character a little flat, and the paranoia and dread of the narrative a little less. Stan exhibits a good hair-trigger temper, and Daddario infuses her accommodating smile with a recognizable amount of sadness, but something about the ensemble never quite clicks because the characters aren’t exactly well-developed enough.

So there’s less of a spookiness to We Have Always Lived in the Castle than in Jackson’s work, but the fear and the hatred that is present in her writing style is obvious here, too. Those emotional extremes are what give the film its final powerful moments, but before then, We Have Always Lived in the Castle has a flatness and a simplification that doesn’t live up to the original novel.

Rating: 3 out of 5