The Blackwoods have lived in the house upon the hill for generations. There used to be more Blackwoods, but now there’s only three: Mary Katherine (who goes by Merricat), her sister Constance, and their Uncle Julian. The other Blackwoods were killed years ago by poison, a crime Constance was accused of and then acquitted. But the people in the village still blame Constance, and though they’ve never liked the Blackwoods, now their hatred is tenfold. And then one day, distant cousin Charles Blackwood shows up with intentions of helping around the house. Constance may be fooled by his charming exterior, but Merricat believes Charles has sinister intentions. She must get rid of him, any way she can.
I had no idea this movie existed. After reading Shirley Jackson’s novel, I was surprised to find there was a film at all, and one so recently at that. But it’s an unrated, straight-to-DVD movie, so it’s no surprise it went under the radar. After loving the novel then watching the movie trailer, I already knew which of the two I’d prefer. But that’s getting a little ahead of myself—let’s talk casting.
Taissa Farmiga as Mary Katherine “Merricat” Blackwood
I could not believe this girl is Taissa Farmiga. She looks so different! Like most people, I adored her as Violet in American Horror Story S1. She is g o r g e o u s. And I am so impressed with her transformation to play Merricat. She really did nail this performance. Merricat is eccentric, to put it mildly. She’s an emotionally stunted, almost psychopathic eighteen-year-old who hates the town that hates her. Farmiga portrayed all this incredibly, with wide-eyed stares, a stooped posture, and a permanent frown.
Alexandra Daddario as Constance Blackwood
I can’t believe Alexandra Daddario is in her thirties! I remember just a few years ago when she starred as Annabeth in the (not-so-great) Percy Jackson movies. That’s all I’ve seen her in, so I was blown away with her portrayal of Constance. Constance is the agoraphobic, timid older sister to Merricat. She wants to see the good in people and is captivated immediately by Charles, with his promises of affection and travels and beauty. I really loved Daddario’s performance. You could see the desperation and fear and wanting written all over her face. Her emotions were so present. I especially liked her forced smiles—they were so unnerving and so Constance.
Sebastian Stan as Charles Blackwood
Alright, the producers of this film are just plain rude. They’re like, “Here’s Bucky Barnes—now, hate him.” As if that’s possible. In the book, I immediately disliked Charles. You’re supposed to, because the novel is from Merricat’s perspective, and she hates him. In the film, though, you see more than just through Merricat’s eyes. You also see Buky, if you’re like me and are obsessed with Marvel movies. In all seriousness, though—Charles is much more likable in the movie. I have many more thoughts on this, but I’ll save that for later. Sebastian Stan was a wonderful Charles, because he makes you like him. He makes Charles seem totally reasonable, for the most part. He really is a great actor, and was a good choice for this role.
Like I said, I’ll get back to the Charles thing. First, I want to mention a few minor differences between the book and film, ones that don’t necessarily affect the story or its outcome. I thought it was interesting that they cut out Constance and Merricat’s brother from the film. I’m not sure why, as it literally doesn’t affect anything at all, but it was just something I noticed. The film also gives Jim Donnell a reason to hate the Blackwoods. Merricat’s voiceover tells viewers that Jim was interested in dating Constance many years ago, so Merricat told her father, who pretty much ruined Jim’s life. I can see the motive there to hate the Blackwoods, or at least Merricat. (Though that still doesn’t excuse letting them burn, but alas, not the point here.)
Some big changes, though, were also made, ones that I wasn’t exactly happy with but, begrudgingly, admit were probably necessary. And guess what? They all have to do with Charles.
So, in the novel, the motive for poisoning the sugar bowl is never completely explained. Yes, we know Merricat is the murderer, and we know Constance has always known so and has never treated Merricat differently because of it. We also know Merricat is somewhat stunted emotionally and socially, and doesn’t seem to feel guilty or sad about what she’s done. The film, though, knew they had to give viewers more than that. They couldn’t assume all viewers had read the book, nor could they just leave it up to viewers to assume whatever they wanted. It just wouldn’t have worked. So they had to give more backstory to why Merricat killed her family, and why she hates Charles so greatly right off the bat.
The film portrays John Blackwood as an abusive father, definitely physically and also possibly sexually. It’s known that Charles looks like John, and it turns out he acts like him, too. Right before the Blackwoods discover the house is on fire, Charles is mad at Merricat during dinner. A huge change happens here: Charles attacks Merricat, dragging her up the staircase and assaulting her. All the while, Merricat is screaming “stop, father,” momentarily confusing Charles with John during the intense panic. Then later, when Merricat brings up the fact that she poisoned the family, Constance admits she knew all along, calling their father “a wicked man,” saying that he was wicked to her. “You saved me, my Merricat,” Constance says.
This new backstory for John Blackwood didn’t arise out of thin air—it’s actually a theory about the novel. I read it on a forum shortly after finishing the novel, having my own questions about Merricat’s motives. Sounds like many people think John Blackwood was an abusive father. So it made sense to portray that in the film, and to make Charles the same.
Without any of this violence, though, I think Charles would have been…likable, almost? I mean, in the novel, we hate Charles simply because Merricat does. Merricat is a messed-up kid, but you can’t help but like her when you’re reading. Watching the movie, though, you’re basically like, “Uh, yeah, Charles might be right…..???” Merricat is downright awful! And Charles, though a dick, has a valid point. But, ya know, in the end, he’s still slimy, despite his pretty exterior.
And finally, the ending of the film. I was shocked that they chose to allow Charles to break into the house and attack Constance! Merricat, of course, bashes his head in. I guess they wanted Charles to have more finality to his last scene. And I think we as viewers wanted to see some good in Merricat. Also, I absolutely LOVED the final scene, where Constance tells Merricat she loves her, and then Merricat smiles before the credits start rolling. You don’t really realize it consciously until then that Merricat didn’t smile the entire film. Pretty awesome ending.
So, though the movie made changes and wasn’t exactly what I expected, it was also better than I thought it’d be. However, I was slightly bored with it, whereas with the novel I never was. I like the air of mystery with the novel. And I like that we as readers like Merricat and root for her even though she’s not really a good person. Shirley Jackson wrote an incredible book, and I have to say, the movie was just eh.