It was in 1962 that Shirley Jackson published the final novel she was to complete in her lifetime, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, three years after her acclaimed masterpiece, the ghost story The Haunting of Hill House; while that was filmed in 1963 by Robert Wise to equally acclaim, regarded as one of the finest horror films of all time, the story of the Blackwood family has long defied adaptation for the screen.
Now, over a half century later, directed by Stacie Passon from a script by Mark Kruger, We Have Always Lived at the Castle has its European premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, five long decades of examination of the text and anticipation peppered with false starts and disappointment, of which this mediocre production is the latest.
Told principally through the staring eyes of Mary Katherine Blackwood (The Nun‘s Taissa Farmiga), she lives in an isolated mansion overlooking the small town which shuns “Merricat” and her only surviving family, her elder sister Constance (White Collar‘s Alexandra Daddario) and their uncle Julian (American Gods‘ Crispin Glover), crippled since the tragedy which killed the girls’ parents and Julian’s wife.
The circumstances investigated by the police and Constance charged with murder, six years before the family had sat down to a meal of roasted spring lamb followed by blackberries sprinkled with sugar, but for reasons unknown the sugar had been mixed with the arsenic purchased as rat poison.
The Blackwood family always living separate from the villagers, Constance’s acquittal did not dissuade them of her guilt and she has not left the house since, Merricat burying talismans around the grounds to protect them, a barrier now broken by the arrival of their cousin Charles (Endgame‘s Sebastian Stan), an intrusion into the secluded order of the Blackwood home, boorish, a bore, uninvited and unwanted.
Jackson a master of setting and understated character, of otherworldliness and making the aberrant seem normal, Merricat seems petulant instead of purposeful in her urge to physically bury the past, the fierce love between her and Constance with its willingness to sacrifice never conveyed, nor the essential personality of the house itself, seen by the Blackwoods as a sanctuary within which their authority is unquestioned.
The sisters described as “too pretty and well-bred to be locked up forever,” their long seclusion has not served them well, the promise of “garden herbs more deadly than snakes” diminished with age, and what should have been an atmospheric wander through the corridors of a troubled house and tortured mind robbed of depth and individuality, the subtlety of the novel made explicit.
The resentment perceived by Merricat on her weekly grocery run conveyed by bullying schoolchildren, their presence accompanied by a whirling of the soundtrack as though Tim Burton had asked Danny Elfman to recreate the theme for the arrival of the Wicked Witch of the West, it is a reduction of the endemic malaise which may be real or may be a reflection of Merricat’s own mental state, the essential ambiguity abandoned, and with it the very thing which defines Jackson’s genius.