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Like many horror fans, Shirley Jackson is one of my favorite writers of all time. I’ve read almost all of her books and short stories. One of the most interesting things about her writing is analyzing how her own life impacted her stories. Going into this movie, I thought that would be the major theme. Spoiler alert: Shirley wasn’t actually about Shirley Jackson, the real-life horror author. It’s a psychological drama that uses the names of Shirley Jackson, Stanley Hyman, and a few of her short stories. But was it still good?

If it’s not a biopic, then what is it about?

The story portrayed in Shirley and the novel that it’s based on is completely fictional. The movie starts with a young couple, Fred and Rose, on a train to Bennington, Vermont. Fred is an academic, and has just gotten a job helping Professor Stanley Hyman with his research. The professor has offered for the couple to stay in his home. He is very warm and friendly, the life of the party. His wife, Shirley, on the other hand, is incredibly cold, rude, and very clearly depressed. Stanley asks Rose to basically become his housekeeper in exchange for free room and board. Pressured by her husband, Rose agrees. Soon, her husband and Stanley are gone all day at work and she is stuck in the house cleaning, cooking, and talking to Shirley. Fred is out late every night, advising the campus Shakespeare Society. 

The two women start off with an antagonistic relationship (Shirley somehow guesses that Rose is pregnant, reveals it to everyone at the dinner table, and accuses Rose and Fred of having a shotgun wedding), but they soon grow close. Shirley is obsessed with the recent disappearance of a Bennington College student, and Rose agrees to help her investigate. This becomes the basis for Shirley’s new novel (you guessed it), Hangsaman. 

As Shirley and Rose grow closer, Rose starts to realize how similar her own life is to the author’s. Both women are pretty much confined to the home while their husbands cheat on them with their undergraduate students. This is especially true towards the end of the movie, when Rose has her baby and must take care of the child on top of the house. The film culminates in Rose having a breakdown after Shirley reveals that there is no Shakespeare Society, and that Fred has just been using that as an excuse to sleep with his students. 

College can be pretty horrifying.

What the movie got right

This film has one of the best aesthetics I’ve ever seen. The cinematography perfectly captures a gothic vibe. I’m even using one of the screenshots I took as my computer background because it’s so creepy and beautiful. Building off of that, the soundtrack for this movie was incredible. Tamar-kali, the composer, did a fantastic job of setting the paranoid, sad, haunted tone of the film. The soundtrack really highlighted the characters’ difficult emotions. I will definitely be turning this playlist on the next time I’m writing gothic horror. 

Give the cinematographer and set designer a raise.

I also would be remiss if I didn’t talk about the performances. Every single actor in this film did such a great job. Odessa Young as Rose gave a really compelling performance of a character that could have ended up being quite boring. Elisabeth Moss was phenomenal in her portrayal of depression, agoraphobia, and dissatisfaction (although, to nitpick, she didn’t do a good impression of the author’s voice). The scenes where Shirley interacts with her husband are so nuanced and real. She was hard to watch, in a good way. Another standout was Michael Stuhlbarg as Stanley. He toed the line really well between being warm, manipulative, and predatory. All of the actors should get awards for this movie, in my opinion. 

I wish my desk looked like this.

The themes in the film were fascinating. Ultimately, Shirley is about the horrors that women face in a patriarchal society, of how terrifying it is to remove yourself from the outside world, be forced to run a household by yourself, and still be invisible. This film is very claustrophobic and delves deep into the profound loneliness that these women feel. Further, it connects these feelings to the novel Hangsaman, which you should read. For that reason, I think  Shirley is definitely worth watching. 

Finally, there were a lot of fun easter eggs for us fans of Shirley Jackson’s work. Obviously, there are plenty of references to Hangsaman, from a stern Stanley determined to read and critique Shirley’s writing to a wild masquerade party around a bonfire. There’s also a scene featuring something no fan of We Have Always Lived in the Castle would miss: death-cap mushrooms. 

What it got wrong

As the title states, this movie is not a biopic. So, I don’t fault the movie for not being true to life. However, I do think it’s interesting and important to talk about what Shirley Jackson’s life was actually like during the time the film takes place. 

Shirley takes place in the late 1940s or early 1950s, after Jackson published her infamous short story The Lottery. The film portrays the author as a depressed recluse who is alone all day and obsessed with writing a novel based entirely on a real-life disappearance. In reality, Shirley Jackson’s life at the time was very different. I am by no means an expert on this woman’s life, but here are some facts that I do know about my favorite author. 

Jackson was actually raising four small children in suburban Connecticut during this time period. Obviously, I understand that there are legal issues that could have prevented the filmmakers from including Shirley and Stanley’s children. But, by most accounts, Shirley seemed like a fun, active mother. You can even read her own reflections on parenting in her popular memoirs Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons. According to her children, at the time the film takes place, the house was always full of play, visitors, and pets. I doubt that this real-life element would have contributed to the gothic, sad tone of the movie. And, to be fair, Jackson never loved being a housewife and did have a pretty rough marriage. Still, it was a little bizarre to see someone who was described by most people who knew her as lively and kind, if reserved, to be portrayed as brash, unhinged and downright cruel at points. 

While Jackson did suffer from depression and agoraphobia after writing We Have Always Lived in the Castle, she actually seemed to have been pretty stable while writing Hangsaman. Furthermore, the film treats Hangsaman as though it’s some sort of true crime novel based on the disappearance of Paula Welden. That’s not really true. While Jackson did get some inspiration from the case while writing the novel, she wasn’t utterly obsessed with it as the character of Shirley was in the film. For a while, the movie took on this weird almost detective story tone as Shirley sent Rose to investigate the case. That was kind of jarring and had no basis in reality. 

One of the worst parts about this film was that it didn’t involve Jackson’s actual writing when it could have. Throughout the movie, Shirley reads lines from her Hangsaman manuscript. These lines aren’t actual lines from the book. It was really bizarre to hear these made-up quotes when they could have just quoted the novel itself and it would have worked better. This choice I really do not understand. Hangsaman is a great book that perfectly fits the themes of the movie. Why not have Elisabeth Moss read lines from it?  

Oh, and this is pure speculation but  I’m pretty sure Shirley Jackson didn’t have the X-Men power of guessing when a woman was secretly pregnant. 

Final Thoughts

This is a haunting, interesting film. It deals with the dread and horror of women grappling with being forced into a subservient, domestic gender role, mistreated by their husbands but unable to do anything about it. It’s about “lost girls” who live on the margins and disappear. But it is not biographical. I would really hate for people to come out of this movie thinking that it was a completely accurate portrayal of Shirley Jackson’s life. Her story was actually more empowering in reality: she broke free from a bigoted, repressive family, wrote some of the greatest horror fiction of all time, and found joy raising her children even though she had a difficult relationship with her husband. That story, to me, is more powerful than the one portrayed in Shirley, and why I didn’t love the film as much as I wanted to. 

3.5 out of 5 stars (3.5 / 5)

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2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Brianna Schullo

    July 9, 2020 at 4:53 pm

    This is an excellent and thorough review! I really enjoyed Shirley too, but was unsure of the authenticity. Thanks for teaching me even more about Shirley Jackson’s real life!

  2. Kristin Cleaves

    July 9, 2020 at 7:04 pm

    Excellent analysis and facts about Jackson’s real life. Thanks for pointing out the differences!

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Movies n TV

Horror Noire, a Film Review

Horror Noire is a horror collection that includes “Daddy,” “The Lake,” “Brand of Evil,” “Bride Before You,” “Fugue State,” and “Sundown.”

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Horror Noire is a horror collection brought by the combined efforts of AMC+ and Shudder. The collection includes “Daddy,” “The Lake,” “Brand of Evil,” “Bride Before You,” “Fugue State,” and “Sundown.” Horror Noire boasts Black directors and screenwriters, providing six unique stories.

As this collection explores six stories, I will skip the usual synopsis to assess the genres and ideas explored, albeit limited as needed. Expect to find supernatural horror, creature features, and psychological thrillers. Many short films deal with these genres while exploring Black issues, but this isn’t universal for the collection.

The directors and writers include Zandashé Brown, Robin Givens, Rob Greenlea, Kimani Ray Smith, Steven Barnes, Ezra Clayton Daniels, Tananarive Due, Shernold Edwards, Victor LaValle, and Al Letson.

Woman and man wearing a vote for candidate shirt, scared of something off screne
Image from “Sundown” Directed by Kimani Ray Smith

What I Like

Each story remains unique, holding different strengths and weaknesses that highlight drastically different perspectives. Collections like VHS hold a similar premise to create their collection, but Horror Noire gives more creative freedom to its talent to be independent.

My personal favorite short film is Zandashé Brown’s “Bride Before You.” This period piece unravels a fable set in the Reconstruction Era. The entry feels Fabulistic in approach, which happens to be my preferred niche.

However, the best example of horror goes to Robin Givens’ “Daddy,” providing an existential horror tied directly to the characters involved.

Woman listening to a preacher amidst a crowd
Image from “Fugue State” directed by Rob Greenlea

What I Dislike

As mentioned, all have a particular style and idea. The downside of this approach always remains to keep the viewer interested long enough to find their favorite. If you find several underwhelming choices, this becomes a chore. But I imagine that is rare as the variety makes the options refreshing.

Personally, “Brand of Evil” had an interesting premise, but the execution fell short. On paper, it might have sounded like my favorite, which makes the lackluster execution a bigger letdown.

Zeth M. Martinez

Final Thoughts

Horror Noire gives power and control to Black creators, providing a formula for a unique collection against others in the space. While the various subjects and approaches mean you aren’t likely to love them all, there should be a short film for everyone.
3.5 out of 5 stars (3.5 / 5)

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Movies n TV

Dahmer, Silenced

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Episode six of Netflix’s Dahmer was not, honestly about our title character. Instead, it was about one of his victims, a man named Tony. We’ve actually seen Tony a few times during this series. We just didn’t know it was him.

Rodney Burford in Dahmer

And, well, he wasn’t exactly alive the first time we saw him.

Tony was born into a supportive, loving family. This is good because soon after he was born a viral infection took his hearing. He is black, deaf, and gay in the early 90’s.

Tony has a dream of becoming a model. And he certainly has the looks for it. He is beautiful, body and soul. He has lots of opportunities for romance, but it’s not what he’s looking for. He wants a real relationship. 

Eventually Tony moves to Madison, trying to pursue his dream. He gets a job and starts getting modeling work.

Then, he meets Jeff Dahmer at a bar. 

At first, we can almost believe that it’s going to be alright. Jeff seems happy. He’s taking care of himself. He’s not drinking as much. He even has his dad and stepmom over for dinner. It seems like his life is getting on track. Even better, he’s treating Tony right.

Then, of course, things go bad. 

One thing that has always bothered me as a true crime fan is that we know so much about the killers, but not as much about the victims. Not so much if we don’t know who the killer is, of course. But the names that are part of our pop culture are those of the killers. Dahmer, Manson, Jones, Bundy, Holms. The names we don’t know are Roberta Parks, Beth LaBiancas, Leno LaBiancas, and Tony Hughes. And clearly, we should know them.

If Tony Hughes was half the shining, positive person that the show Dahmer made him out to be, I’m so sad that he isn’t with us anymore. We need so many more people like him. And many of Dahmer’s victims were likely just like him. After all, he was attracted to them for a reason.

This was a significant episode, and I understand why it’s the highest-rated episode of the series. I finished it with a heavy heart, saddened by the loss of a man who should still be with us today. 

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

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Movies n TV

Mandrake, a Film Review

Mandrake is a 2022 supernatural horror directed by Lynne Davison and written by Matt Harvey, starring Deirdre Mullins and Derbhle Crotty.

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Mandrake is a 2022 supernatural horror directed by Lynne Davison and written by Matt Harvey. This film boasts a cast that includes Deirdre Mullins, Derbhle Crotty, and Paul Kennedy. It is currently available for subscribers in DirectTV, Shudder, Amazon Prime, or AMC+.

Cathy Madden (Deirdre Mullins) is a probation officer tasked with the most vilified case in her town, Mary Laidlaw (Derbhle Crotty). When a child goes missing, all eyes turn to the infamous Bloody Mary. Cathy, always believing in the best of people, tries to protect Mary. But evidence begins to mount, and Cathy finds herself in increasing danger.

Derbhle Crotty as Mary Laidlaw
In the forest
Derbhle Crotty as Mary Laidlaw

What I Like

Deirdre Mullins and Derbhle Crotty add weight to the film in their performances. Cathy proves resilient against the challenges she faces, while Mary can make any actions intimidating.
To not spoil anything, the ending is bittersweet in the best of ways, showing Cathy grow and mend relationships.

The atmosphere around Mary Laidlaw brings about the intimidation that earns the nickname Bloody Mary. It becomes easier to see why a town would fear this woman as we find her motives sinister.

Mandrake Cover Art: A mandrake behind Deirdre Mullins' Cathy Madden
Deirdre Mullins as Cathy Madden

What I Dislike

While there may be external magical elements, I found people obeyed Mary Laidlaw a little too easily for a vilified woman. There wasn’t enough for me to be convinced she intimidated them to action or magically charmed them. Or perhaps the performances felt underwhelmingly passive?

There was an irritating moment where a stalker helped save the day. The assistance is minor, but it still irritates me.

The daytime scenes of the film are bland. Perhaps it’s intentional, but the night scenes are stunning, making the contrast greater. While this film focuses on its night scenes, I couldn’t understand why it looked so bland, and sometimes poor quality, in the day.

Kraken eating a boat icon for Zeth M. Martinez
Zeth M. Martinez

Final Thoughts

Mandrake can be a frightful enjoyment, especially when set at night where the details work. However, many elements left me wanting more or better. If you’re looking for a witchy tale, I’d say there are better options, but Mandrake can keep you entertained.
2.5 out of 5 stars (2.5 / 5)

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