Five years after most of the Blackwood family is mysteriously poisoned, the remaining members have forged a peaceful life, isolated in their mansion on the hill. Their days are ruled by ritual: Constance (Alexandra Daddario) cooks and cans; Uncle Julian (Crispin Glover) obsessively writes a memoir of the poisoning that left him wheelchair-bound; and every Tuesday Merricat (Taissa Farmiga) risks going to the village for supplies.
All is relatively well until their worldly cousin, Charles (Sebastian Stan), arrives for an extended visit and disrupts the carefully balanced anxieties of the household. Constance tries to maintain familial peace as she falls for Charles, while Merricat fluctuates between aloof and antagonistic, and Charles belittles Julian for his lingering illness. Meanwhile, the villager’s virulent hatred of the Blackwoods gathers like storm clouds on the horizon. Something has to give.
Adapted from Shirley Jackson’s classic gothic mystery, We Have Always Lived in the Castle captures the complexity of the original, exploring mental illness, community, isolation, and the long trauma of abuse. Whereas the recent Netflix adaptation of Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House took compelling imagery and characters but mostly ignored the core messages of the source material, this adaptation not only preserves Jackson’s themes, but elaborates on them with lush, detailed visuals.
Director Stacie Passon captures a style of 1960s domestic femininity that wouldn’t be so out of place on Instagram, one of perfect hair styles and jewel-like jams. The visual language of the film, which frequently uses slightly low or high camera angles, gives a feeling of being just outside the conversation, the perfect metaphor for the Blackwood’s estrangement from the bitter villagers. The mansion is replete with rich colors and era-perfect touches which, if we’re lucky, will inspire a whole genre of 60s-gothic cinema.
Aside from the mystery of what happened the night of the poisoning, the story’s strength comes from the shifting power dynamic of all the strong personalities. Every performance is note-perfect, from Stan’s near-parody of swaggering masculinity to Daddario’s maternal, sometimes frighteningly beatific, gentleness. Glover shifts smoothly between ominous and heartbreaking, and Farmiga communicates a kind of listless physical oddity that’s peculiar to Merricat.
When translated to screen, the literary-gothic format can sometimes feel plodding, since the genre relies so heavily on internal emotions. We Have Always Lived in the Castle avoids this pitfall not only through the strong performances, but by paying off on a tense atmosphere. Both Jackson and Passon create a mood so palpable that it seems the characters themselves feel its effects. Although the mystery is satisfied, the true terror isn’t derived from the lack of knowing, and tension doesn’t recede once everything is clarified. Instead, the horror of We Have Always Lived in the Castle comes from watching powerlessly as the tension mounts, straw by straw, before breaking spectacularly.
The film doesn’t rely on gore or jumpscares because the true terror of the story is something real and common; it’s about how abuse can become a pattern that’s hard to escape, how convention traps people, how hatred has momentum, and how small pains build into disasters. Despite being a period piece, We Have Always Lived in the Castle has a terror all the more frightening for how familiar it is.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle is now out in theaters and on VOD