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Netflix's spooky Rebecca adaptation revisited: Is it really that bad? (Yes)

Netflix's 2020 adaptation of Rebecca staring Lily James and Armie Hammer serves decent spooky vibes without actually being all that scary.

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Armie Hammer and Lily James in the 2020 Netflix adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, directed by Ben Wheatley
Netflix

Last year, Netflix took us to Manderley again, only it wasn't a dream. With the help of Lily James and Armie Hammer, the streaming service resurrected the haunted house of Daphne du Maurier's 1938 novel Rebecca from the ashes just in time for Halloween 2020. And while it's not a very scary movie (especially when compared with the Oscar-winning 1940 Alfred Hitchcock film adaptation), it has the potential to send a chill down your spine.

The story of Rebecca -- whether the novel, the Hitchcock adaptation or this 2020 version directed by Ben Wheatley -- is a bit of a Rorschach test. Its genre is actually quite slippery: Romance? Horror? Coming of age? Is spooky season even the right time to watch? (Is any season the right time to watch?)

Even identifying a villain is a deceptively elusive endeavor. Perhaps it's the ghoulish head housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (played here by a shade-throwing Kristin Scott Thomas) who makes the nameless protagonist's married life hell. Or maybe it's the mercurial Maxim de Winter, a role that seems written for Armie Hammer despite predating his birth by almost 50 years, as a maybe-murderer who's just as inaccessible to his second wife as he is to viewers. It could even be the eponymous Rebecca, Maxim's dead wife whose ghost serves serious "not like other girls" vibes.

Or perhaps Lily James' unnamed narrator and protagonist, known only as "the second Mrs. de Winter," isn't as virtuous as she seems. 

The story is less of a whodunit than a who-should-we-root-for (and how bad should we feel about our choice?) and Wheatley's new adaptation attempts to further complicate the viewer's moral acrobatics. More unsettling than truly scary, Rebecca's horrors are cerebral instead of visceral, making it a good candidate for any roundup of scary-but-not-too-scary Halloween movies

Rebecca, streaming on Netflix, is in good company within the "new house, new problems" horror tradition (The Amityville Horror, The Shining, Paranormal Activity) or with 2019's marital bait-and-switch Ready or Not, in that what initially looks like happily ever after is actually the start of an unpleasant surprise. In Rebecca's case, the real horror is that marriage is sold to women as an aspiration when it's actually more of a necessary evil and the story unfolds with the sinister repercussions of the narrator's irrevocable choices.

The love affair begins with a hint of this paternalism when the adorably unsophisticated narrator is turned away from a fancy restaurant terrace on the sun-dappled shores of southern France. Maxim comes gallantly to her rescue (with a skeezy whiff of Hammer's signature Winklevii) by inviting her to share his table. He finds her gaucheness charming as she copies a lunch order she'd heard from the hotel's other rich patrons, requesting "des huîtres, une douzaine" -- a dozen oysters -- for breakfast. 

Maxim seduces the narrator -- and maybe even the audience, depending on your familiarity with celebrity news -- with some very sexy, very sandy premarital beach romps, but the film soon darkens as James' narrator marries and then follows her increasingly smarmy new husband to his sprawling English estate. Gloomy Manderley dampens their newlywed bliss: The unrefined narrator commits several faux pas as newly installed mistress of the house, Maxim's honeymoon jauntiness evaporates and Mrs. Danvers makes it clear the second Mrs. de Winter will only ever take second place to her beloved Rebecca, whose memory permeates every nook, cranny and mysteriously closed off room in the castle.

"I don't believe in ghosts," the narrator asserts before arriving at Manderley. But she soon discovers the house is haunted: by unresolved grief, or something darker. The narrator's hairbrush still has strands of Rebecca's dark hairs nestled among the bristles. Her raincoat pocket houses a lipstick-smudged handkerchief embroidered with a loopy R monogram. Even her name isn't her own: While many brides struggle to get used to the Mrs. moniker, the second Mrs. de Winter must subsume the same name as her husband's lost love.

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Netflix

Like 2017's Get Out and 2019's Parasite (though frankly undeserving to be mentioned in the same sentence), Rebecca serves up a spoonful of horror to make the social commentary go down. And like any Gothic film worth its cobwebs, Rebecca gestures at the supernatural while remaining firmly rooted in the horrors of real life. The film's spooky elements are manifested by the chilling reality of heterosexual marriage in the hyper-stratified world of early 20th century England. 

Netflix's adaptation is campy and, at times, cheesy -- and you start to get the sense the director isn't in on the joke. There are eerie dream sequences, shifty-eyed maids and a man in a courtroom alleging murrrdah! Maxim is given a new sleepwalking habit, a spooky-scary behavior with an utterly scientific explanation. There's even a carnivalesque masquerade scene that leads the audience to question, for just a moment, whether this really is a ghost story. But the scariest thing in the film is a cruel reality check from Mrs. Danvers: "He'll leave you, he'll divorce you. And then what'll you do? You can't remarry now," she taunts. If you can look beyond the film's histrionics, the second Mrs. de Winter's plight is indeed deserving of the horror treatment. But that's a credit to novelist du Maurier, not Wheatley, who manages to mostly sanitize the thrills and chills from his source material.

Wheatley's adaptation does take pains to make the narrator's struggles more legible to a 21st century audience, doubling down on the inescapable dread of scarcity -- that because there's only one Maxim de Winter, there can only be one Mrs. de Winter. 

At almost every turn, women stymie each other. The 2020 Mrs. Van Hopper, the narrator's employer in France -- a cackling Ann Dowd -- actively tries to thwart her employee's budding romance, where the Mrs. Van Hopper of the Hitchcock film is clueless. Mrs. Danvers, whose machinations in the novel target the narrator directly, does one better in the film, instead tricking other women into doing her dirty work. Female servants revel in the narrator's stumbles up society's ladder. The scarcity of resources is a financial one, but the cards are dealt based on gender. It's a zero-sum game.

So who is the bad guy here? Hitchcock's adaptation of Rebecca famously altered the ending in compliance with the moral guidelines of Hollywood's Hays code, making any attempt to identify the story's villain even more precarious. But Wheatley's adaptation crowns a villain worthy of the antihero era in its final frame. 

Without spoiling anything, let's just say the palpable relief on the narrator's face in the Netflix adaptation, upon the revelation of the circumstances of Rebecca's death, is the most chilling part of the film. With this third-act twist, she sheds the cloak of the naïf like a butterfly emerging furiously from its chrysalis. Schadenfreude personified -- monsterified.