Shirley Jackson was and still is a revered voice in literature, but it’s no surprise to learn that, like many writers, she was a bit of a horror herself. Josephine Decker’s film takes a lead from Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by depicting an academic couple living on a US campus, playing get-the guests with a young, naïve couple. Based on this film, Susan Scarf Merrell’s book must almost qualify as a literary mash-up, even down to the pregnancy that’s pivotal in both stories. Producer Christine Vachon was also responsible for one of may favourite unofficial bio-pics, fabricating David Bowie’s life to some effect in Velvet Goldmine, and she does a similar trick here; this is more like a story in which Jackson happens to be a character than any kind of biopic.
Most people know Shirley Jackson for The Haunting of Hill House, which became a popular film by Robert Wise (1963) and was riffed on to mainstream success by Mike Flanagan for Netflix. But her short story The Lottery is one of the greats of US literature, and that’s the starting point here as Odessa Young and Logan Lerman play Fred and Rosie, two aspiring academic who are pictured reading The Lottery in the New Yorker as they journey to meet their literary heroine. But Shirley Jackson is incredibly mean to them both, as is her husband Stanley (Michael Stulberg), and a vicious game of campus and sexual politics ensue.
Jackson is played with some venom by Elizabeth Moss, looking remarkably like Jackson, and conveys a laconic hatefulness that recalls a number of writers. Shirley won’t please those looking into insight about Jackson’s supernatural storytelling, although her fascination with a local murder provides a dark sub-plot here. Shirley is a dark, poetic and deliberately unsatisfying film that conveys a mind untethered; films about writers writing are notoriously hard to land, but Decker pulls it off here by focusing on Jackson as a person rather than as a creative. Not all horror stories involve ghosts, and Shirley does a good job of showing just how cruel creative people can be.
Shirley hits UK cinemas on October 30th 2020.
Thanks to Curzon for providing early access to this title.