Edinburgh International Film Festival

We Have Always Lived In The Castle (2018)

Starring: Taissa Farmiga, Alexandra Daddario, Crispin Glover, Sebastian Stan

Directed by: Stacie Passon

Rating: 1 2 3 and a half

So here's the thing. I'm super excited to see the new big screen adaptation of Shirley Jackson's sublimely creepy gothic tale We Have Always Lived In The Castle because I absolutely love the book. On the other hand, I'm scared to see it, because I don't want the book ruined for me.

Well, we can all breathe a sigh of relief, because this adaptation is pretty damned good.

The film begins looking not unlike a Tim Burton movie, with a picture-perfect 1950s small town overshadowed by a massive creepy house on a hill. In the house live two sisters, Merricat (Taissa Famiga – younger sister of Vera and just as talented) and Constance (Alexandra Daddario), and their wheelchair-bound Uncle Julian (Crispin Glover), who is trying to write the Blackwood family chronicles while all the while suffering from dementia. Daughters of a rich and ruthless father, the girls are despised in the close-knit, gossipy town. And that's before we get onto the rumours that fanatical cook Constance poisoned her parents... No wonder 18-year-old Merricat appears caught in an arrested childhood, surrounding herself with spells and rituals to keep her family safe, while Connie, crippled by agoraphobia, confined herself to her precious kitchen.

Taissa Farmiga and Alexandra Daddario in We Have Always Lived In The Castle

But then one day their strange, limited yet peaceful existence is interrupted by the unannounced arrival of their 'cousin' Charles (Sebastian Stan). (Whether or not he's really related remains a moot point.) Brash, boorish, selfish and clearly on the make, Charles worms his way into Constance's affections (bear in mind she hasn't left the house in years, so is fairly easily swayed) – but he reckons without Merricat... or the pitchfork wielding villagers (more or less) who can't wait to see the family brought to their knees.

So far so typically gothic. But what Jackson's novel – and, I'm pleased to say, this film – do so brilliantly is posit what would happen if all the glorious ingredients of the gothic – the big ol' house, the mad uncle, the reclusive sisters and surly, suspicious townsfolk – were to exist in middle America. What psychological drama is really playing out here? Hereditary 'madness' or autism and OCD? And it's that precarious balance between Grand Guignol and contemporary mental health issues that makes both book and film so fascinating.

Okay so the film does take a while to get going but the second half is truly compelling. Throw in some great performances, particularly from Farmiga and Daddario, and some delightful period styling and you have the recipe for a delicious and affecting gothic stew. Just watch out for those mushrooms...

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