The book of the same name by Shirley Jackson, is one of my all-time favorites, and this film captures the feel of the book well. A common theme in Jackson’s work is the sense that “polite society” is just a thin veneer of gentility with an underbelly seething with judgement, hostility, and menace. At a glance, the two sisters seem peculiar but how did they get that way? Are they the frightening ones?
As a largish woman with red hair and glasses, Jackson did not align herself with the June Cleevers of the world or a society in which women were not expected to have intelligence and were expected to host cocktail parties to promote their husbands, enjoy housework and raise children.
This novel and film focus on two sisters, who live in a rambling mansion with their mentally-impaired uncle Julian. The rest of their family died in a poisoning accident at dinner. The older sister was the main suspect. Though she was acquitted–apparently along the lines of “a nice girl like that could never do such a thing” –the townspeople regards the two girls with fear and suspicion.
Mary Catherine, aka “Merricat” must foray into town once a week for food. As a nervous introvert, she dreads these encounters with the outside world. Her sister Constance and uncle Julian never leave the house.
When an estranged cousin arrives to “help”, he upsets the harmonious dynamic of the household. Constance, portrayed in the film as a Barbie-esque product of the 50’s, a submissive woman who will look to a male figure for guidance and smile her way through any unpleasantness and only see the good in people, welcomes him into their home. Merricat sees through his charming façade. A self-made witch, she works charms to protect them from his insinuating presence. Charles is strong. Merricat feels him turning her beloved Constance against her. Unlike her pliant sister, Merricat will fight back with all she’s got.
The film follows the novel well but took a liberty with the ending regarding cousin Charles. A pity that Shirley Jackson is no longer with us to interview regarding this departure from her story. Personally, I think it works logically and adds some tension cinematically though it does change the yin/yang dynamic between the male and female characters.