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.
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.
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.
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.
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 / 5)
Shutter Island (2010): Review
Leonardo Dicaprio’s films rarely disappoint. It was interesting to see him flex different acting muscles in this psychological thriller Shutter Island alongside Mark Ruffalo and Michelle Williams. When I say that I was not expecting such a turn in the story, I mean that my jaw was pretty much on the floor the entire time. Without any further ado, let’s dive into its mastery, shall we?
A cliché setup done right
We have been here before a million times. A character stumbles into a scene to solve a mystery. Everyone is acting just the right amount of suspicion to make you wonder. Dicaprio’s Edward ‘Teddy’ travels to an extremely remote island where a woman goes missing from a psychiatric institution. He’s experiencing migraines and flashbacks to his murdered wife while receiving little to no help from the hospital staff.
Teddy soon suspects that the hospital is experimenting on patients which fuels his theories on what happened to the missing woman. Things take even more of a turn when his partner also disappears. Unsurprisingly, everyone insists Teddy came to the island alone. Feeling like he’s losing his mind, our protagonist finds out that this is exactly the case. He is a patient in the hospital and the entire investigation is an attempt to get him to understand the truth.
While the whole ‘it was all in your head’ trope has a bad rep for the fans of any genre, this film uses it masterfully. Watching it for the first time not knowing what to expect is obviously a shock and then watching it again, looking at all the clues that were the which you missed – that’s a treat on its own. After all, there’s nothing inherently wrong with using cliches if they are done the right way.
Things that go bump in our minds
A huge part of this movie’s storyline is Andrew’s inability to process the truth. The roots for it stretch far beyond the plot twist. Andrew is unable to acknowledge that his wife is mentally ill and believes that moving them to the countryside will fix everything. After she murders their children, he is further pushed into the world of delusion, convincing himself to be a hero because he couldn’t save his own family.
It’s interesting to note that in his delusion, Andrew is the one who set fire to their house. Is this a little sliver of his mind whispering the truth to him? Is it his subconscious villainizing himself out of contempt, searching for answers that are never going to come? Andrew’s psychiatrist pointed out that his moment of clarity has happened before, only to be undone quite quickly. Perhaps it was easier for Andrew to shut it off rather than live with the knowledge that he could’ve done something to prevent a terrible tragedy.
Shutter Island is a movie that provides both the entertainment value you would expect from a suspense thriller and a deeper layer of thought. Coated with a perfect atmosphere and amazing acting, it’s a piece that will definitely hold the test of time. (4.5 / 5)
Wheel of Time, Daughter of The Night
We’ve reached episode four of Wheel of Time, which means we’re halfway through the season. While it doesn’t seem like much has happened so far, this is the episode where things start heating up.
We begin this episode with a flashback. Ishamael is raising something dark and twisted. As we watch, it takes the shape of a woman.
More on that in a bit.
Meanwhile, Nynaeve is healing from her time in the arches. She is quiet and withdrawn. She’s also awkward and uncomfortable around Egwene now that she’s initiated and Egwene is not. Her new friendship with Elayne isn’t helping.
But the three girls come together when Liandrin tells Nynaeve that Perrin has been captured by the Seanchan.
However, Perrin is no longer in the clutches of the Seanchan. He was rescued by Elyas and a pack of beautiful wolves. Beautiful and deadly AF by the way. If you have any fear of dogs, this episode might not help that.
Elyas explains to Perrin that he is a Wolf Brother. This means that he can communicate with the wolves, and eventually will gain some of their abilities. While Perrin and Elyas don’t exactly get off on the right foot, he does find a fast friendship with one specific wolf. After a time, he introduces himself by showing Perrin an image of himself jumping up and down. From this, Perrin assumes his name is Hopper.
Finally, we return to Rand. He and Selene have been off in the mountains. They haven’t done much more than each other so far.
And that’s exactly what it appears they’re about to do when Moiraine bursts into the cottage and cuts Selene’s throat.
Rand is surprised and furious until Moiraine explains that the woman he knows as Selene is the Dark Friend Lanfear. With this shocking revelation, the two run off into the night.
It should be a surprise to no one that I loved the wolves in this episode. Hopper himself was worth an extra Cthulhu. But this is not just because dogs are cute. It’s also because the dog playing Hopper just does a great job.
On a more serious note, I loved how Nynaeve responded upon coming back to the real world. She isn’t okay.
And it’s a good thing that she isn’t. Too often in fiction we don’t see the fallout of emotional damage. Hell, we don’t usually see realistic fallout from physical damage.
But she is hurt by what she experienced. And you can tell. That’s realistic character building, and we don’t see that enough.
I also really appreciate the special effects in this episode. The first time we see Lanfear, she’s eerie. She’s frightening. Part of this is thanks to Natasha O’Keeffe, who does a great job. But the effects are what really sells this.
What didn’t work
If Wheel of Time has any fault, it’s that there is far too much sitting about and talking about things. In this case, there’s a lot of standing about and talking about things. Some of this was necessary, and some of it could have been done better. Honestly, there just has to be a better way to convey that characters are struggling.
This was most apparent with Rand and Selene/Lanfear. Honestly, anytime the two of them were on screen it was a great time for me to catch up on Instagram.
This might come as a surprise to anyone who hasn’t read the books, but Rand is supposed to be the main character. And here we are, four episodes into an eight-episode season, and so far all he’s done is mess about with his emo girlfriend!
That being said, the story is starting to pick up. With four episodes left, I can’t wait to see how far we go.
(3 / 5)
Elevator Game, a Film Review
Elevator Game (2023) is directed by Rebekah McKendry and is the first feature-length production of Fearworks.
Elevator Game (2023) is directed by Rebekah McKendry and is the first feature-length production of Fearworks. It adapts the supernatural myth and creepypasta of the same name while providing an original plot. This unrated Shudder exclusive stars Gino Anania, Samantha Halas, and Verity Marks. In full disclosure, I had the opportunity to interview Gino Anania and Stefan Brunner about the film.
Ryan seeks to find answers to his sister’s mysterious disappearance. To do this, he infiltrates a myth-busting web series that seems to have some ties to her final confirmed moments. Desperate to force a confrontation, he encourages them to play the elevator game. Unfortunately, there seems to be more truth to the myth than expected.
What I Like about Elevator Game & as an Adaptation
I am lucky to have additional insight into the development hell this movie overcame due to COVID. It’s commendable that the film manages to make it of that, even if it requires a lengthy delay of the film.
Usually, I provide a separate section for adaptation quality. However, the source material remains the ritual, which Elevator Game performs accurately. While the myth inspires many creepypastas, Elevator Game doesn’t directly take or adapt any of these works from what I’ve seen. Instead, it makes its own film based on the legend.
As the Fifth Floor Woman, Samantha Halas creates an eerie and disturbing character. While I won’t go so far as to say terrifying, she certainly makes an impression. The revelation that the stunts and performance are all her, as an actual contortionist, I give her more credit.
Gino Anania, given a more complex role than most of his cast members, really does bring a strong performance that creates either friction or synergy with his cast members. I suppose I wanted more of these interactions as some cut sooner than appreciated.
Another amusing element is that the entire motivation for the plot to follow is a forced advertisement from an investor. Something about the chaos being a product of appeasing some investors feels uncomfortably real.
The alternate reality remains surprisingly effective. To be clear, it’s not impressively realistic but stylistic. It genuinely seems like an alternate world with a skewered impression.
Tired Tropes or Trigger Warning
I feel weird mentioning this, but endangering a sister’s life to push the brother’s story forward seems a common trend beyond one form of media.
No discredit to the actors, but the romance feels rushed and unnecessary. Without going into too much detail, to avoid spoilers, there is synergy between the actors but little chemistry in the plot.
What I Dislike or Considerations
Elevator Game remains set in providing a B-movie experience. Its tight budget leaves little room to surprise the viewer visually. While I am surprised at what it accomplishes, it’s far from overwhelming. This film also remains the first production of Fearworks, which shouldn’t surprise anyone. I’m interested in the future, but Elevator Game leaves much to grow from.
Rebekah McKendry may have a directorial style that influences dialogue, but the line delivery evokes an overexpression that’s common in Lovecraftian films. I say this not as a direct negative, but it remains a required taste best known before viewing. As this isn’t Lovecraftian, I fear it removes some of the reality and tension of those haunting elements.
Many of the characters feel underdeveloped, making me wonder if cutting these roles might lead to more invested characters. While the performances hit their marks, a tighter cast might give each role more to work toward. As this is a tight cast already, it seems an odd issue to rectify.
Elevator Game provides an interesting B-movie experience for those who know the legend. For those expecting something different, this film may not work for you. This film overcame a lot to exist but doesn’t break the mold. While I am excited to see Fearworks pursue further ventures toward its ambitious mission statement, I find Elevator Game falling short of its goal.
(2 / 5)