An artist, the old saying goes, “pounds the same nail, over and over again.”
So the generations exposed to Shirley Jackson’s most famous work, the short story that became a play that became various TV movies, “The Lottery,” will pick up on her favorite themes in the Netflix adaptation of her 1962 novel, “We Have Always Lived in the Castle.”
The small town monsters, fears of mob mentality and seemingly mundane “big twist” are all here in this beautiful, polished production directed by Stacie Passon, scripted by Mark Kruger and featuring a dazzling acting quartet at its dark, dark heart.
Like Jackson’s best work, it is more about the chills of recognition than “gotcha” frights. She was a writer of “The Twilight Zone” era, not a child of it, like Stephen King. “Castle” is more to be savored than feared.
Taissa Farmiga is our narrator, Mary Catherine Blackwood, and the very definition of “the unreliable narrator.” We know she’s not giving us the complete story when she says how the family “never hurt anyone,” that the village near their “castle” “hates us.”
“We will never leave here, no matter what they say or do to us.”
She is reliable in one regard — reliably creepy.
Something happened to the Blackwoods six years before, and most of them ended up dead. Her ever-smiling adored sister Constance (Alexandra Daddario) was blamed, so Mary Cat says.
Another survivor? Uncle Julian. If the gaunt and menacing Farmiga is “on the nose” casting for Mary Cat, putting Crispin Glover in a wheelchair for this disturbing, not-quite-right relative is “on the nostril.”
He spends every dinner hour talking about the book he’s writing about “that day,” test-marketing how he will begin each chapter to his nieces.
Mary Cat? She recites assorted poisons, their source and their effect on the human body.
We are treated to Mary Cat’s rituals and superstitions. She is convinced they are under metaphysical attack, and is always burying coins and other talismans — nailing her late father’s book to a tree — to ward off the bad mojo that has descended upon them.
Constance? She just beams in that 1950s TV debutante/housewife way, pretending everything’s hunky dory.
Mary Cat’s weekly trek into town for supplies — accompanied by taunting, ridicule and threats — reminds us that all isn’t well.
Even when the local garden club tries to coax Constance back into the fold, the air of “all of those who hate us” hangs over it.
“You have a right to be happy. Come back into the world, dear!”
Then cousin Charles (Sebastian Stan) arrives. He is dapper, charming, drives an Austin Healey sports car (the setting is the early ’60s) and is the spitting image of the girls’ late father.
And he’s here to “help out” the extended Blackwood clan’s “black sheep.”
His handyman work is one thing. But the utterly icky moments between him and Constance hint at what might come next, and what might have happened in the past.
Mary Cat? She knows when an existential threat is also a tangible one. “That crazy girl” is the nicest thing her dear cousin says about her.
The filmmakers treat Jackson’s “illusion of normalcy” obsession with respect and capture the quiet menace of the plot. We fear for the girls, the uncle, the cousin and the cousin’s car.
You know what 1962 Austin Healeys are going for these days?
It’s an immaculate production, beautifully shot (in Ireland), edited and scored, with just a hint of the playful horror music you’d hear in a Harry Potter or Lemony Snicket picture.
Farmiga gives Mary Cat a blank-faced restraint that robs the story of some of its menace, but Stan more than makes up for that with the rising fury of recognition of what’s really going on here.
Daddario and Glover are spot on, one playing the “nothing to see here, tra la la” card she’s been dealt, the other doing “doddering, trapped in the past and kind of scary” as if he’s been doing that forever. Which he has, save for the “doddering” bit.
“We Have Always Lived in the Castle” isn’t for the torture porn crowd, and R-rated horror fanatics will no doubt find it dull. They won’t be totally in the wrong for thinking so.
But the rest of us can appreciate the chill and growing dread that only a most sympathetic Shirley Jackson adaptation can deliver, that only a production as accomplished as this can manage.
MPAA Rating: unrated, violence, adult situations
Cast: Taissa Farmiga, Alexandra Daddario, Crispin Glover, Sebastian Stan
Credits: Stacie Passon, script by Mark Kruger, based on the Shirley Jackson novel.
A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:35