I’ve heard two fundamental schools of thought about what a cover song should do. In one, a song is radically transformed. Think of the way Johnny Cash transformed Nine-Inch Nails’s “Hurt.” The other is like Weezer’s cover of Toto’s “Africa” where the style of the song changes to match the performers, but remains fundamentally the same. That’s the way Stacie Passon tackles her second feature film, an adaptation Shirley Jackson’s final novel, We have Always Lived in the Castle. Passon embellishes at points, but stays true to the excellent source material.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle opens with Merrikat Blackwood (Taissa Farmiga) burying talismans in the yard to bar outsiders, as she says in her voice over, “The Blackwoods have always lived in this house.” Neither the Blackwood family nor the Blackwood house are what they used to be. Everything changed when the family sat down for dinner one night to find their sugar had been replaced with arsenic.

Merrikat’s older sister Constance (Alexandra Daddario) was tried for the murders. She was found innocent in the court of law, but public opinion in their small New England town ruled otherwise. Constance’s penance is to take care of Merrikat and the other survivor of the poisoning: their Uncle Julian (Crispin Glover). While Merrikat and Constance avoided the arsenic altogether, Uncle Julian wasn’t so lucky. He lost many of his mental faculties. 

The three of them have managed to coexist until their cousin Charles (Sebastian Stan) arrives, hell bent on “helping,” whether it be them or himself to their money.

The cast, full of big names, does spectacular work. Farmiga’s Merrikat perfectly embodies the strangeness that Jackson imbues into all of her prose. Daddario’s Constance has a forced pleasantness that betrays her mental anguish in nearly every scene. Glover’s Uncle Julian is the personification of impotent rage. Stan depicts Charles as a character whose derision floats off him, damn near palpable. It’s rare to see this much top-shelf talent in a horror film (cue the haters explaining why the movie about the girl who killed her family isn’t really horror), and it’s absolutely tantalizing to think what it might be like if every horror film had a cast like this.

Related: Mike Flanagan Adapting Classic Horror Novel The Haunting of Hill House as Netflix Series!

The movie’s visuals are another strength. Passon finds a way to capture not only the strange characters from Jackson’s fiction, but the small towns that terrified Jackson as well. Set in 1962, We Have Always Lived in the Castle has excellent sets designed that really feel like Jackson’s bizarro New England. The buildings in town are cramped together, despite having open fields and forests around them. They’re primary colors but still manage to feel drab. And the townspeople exude an insular hatred for the Blackwood’s that would easily fit an adaptation for Jackson’s seminal short story, “The Lottery.” 

The sets wouldn’t be anything without Passon’s eye for scene. The best shot of the film comes when some boys are outside the Blackwood house mocking Merrikat. She steps out, frightening them. Rather than shoot it straight on, Passon shows the scene in a reflection from a mirror laying on the ground behind all of them. There’s another excellent shot of everything that Merrikat had buried in a cross section of earth.

And of course, there’s the soundtrack. We Have Always Lived in the Castle sticks with period music, the kind of sugary sweet songs that rock n’ roll would crush in a few years. Passon uses them to great effect, twisting them. “Daddy’s Home” by Shep and the Limelights plays as Constance dances with cousin Charles, who’s raided her deceased father’s closet for a suit. The incestual overtones put a little damper on the romantic mood. 

Related: See Which Classic Horror Film Shirley Jackson Influenced!

The movie doesn’t quite live up to the book, which Emily Temple argues has “the best opening paragraph of all time.” For the book to be in that conversation means that no film adaptation could’ve without radically transforming the source material. Passon and her incredible cast should be proud that they were able to make a good adaptation of a great book. But therein lies the problem, the book still exists, and it does everything better. We Have Always Lived in the Castle recently made its world premiere at the LA Film Festival. 

WICKED RATING  8/10

Director: Stacie Passon
Writers: Mark Kruger (screeplay), Shirley Jackson (novel)
Stars: Taissa Farmiga, Alexandra Daddario, Crispin Glover, Sebastian Stan
Year: 2018
Release date: September 22, 2018
Studio/ Production Co: Furthur Films, Albyn Media, Mighty Engine
Language: English
Length: 90 minutes