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For the most part, horror movies and shows has been a mess for over a decade. While the occasional gem still turns up, like 2012’s Sinister, 2014’s It Follows, and this past summer’s Hereditary, the genre is largely-populated by generic franchises that focus more on gore than actual terror. From a financial standpoint this makes sense, the Saw films and the seemingly-endless clones they spawned are relatively cheap to produce, and have proven to be guaranteed moneymakers. But the scares they deliver are fueled by disgust and shock rather than pure fear, and while seeing someone get their eye gouged out on screen might make us squirm in our seats the lack of suspense in these movies means that we walk out of the theater feeling unsatisfied.
Enter The Haunting of Hill House, a refreshing take on ghost stories from writer/director Mike Flannigan. I was initially apprehensive when it was announced the Shirley Jackson classic was being adapted into a Netflix series, the bad memories of the 1999 film The Haunting resurfacing in my mind. But Flannigan’s track record gave me hope, this is the man responsible for 2013’s brilliant Oculus and last year’s Gerald’s Game, as well as another Netflix original in Hush. Flannigan has displayed an unparalleled understanding of what truly makes something scary, his grasp on the genre making his stories stand out from his contemporaries. And while it's important to acknowledge that he had ten hours to work with rather than the much-shorter time a feature-length film gets, it’s what he does (and doesn’t do) with the time allotted to his story that makes The Haunting of Hill House so great.
Flannigan wisely makes his characters and their relationships with one another the heartbeat of his tale. That’s not to say the house itself is ignored, it’s very much the main antagonist of this story. Hill House looms like a black cloud over the narrative, and while we spend plenty of time outside its evil walls it’s never out of our minds. This is largely because of how the show itself is structured, the Crain family’s story is presented in a pair of parallel timelines that Flannigan jumps back and forth between throughout each episode. It reminded me quite a bit of the original IT miniseries (albeit with far more polish), the time shifts lending an unpredictable quality to the story that works well given how everything plays out. The Haunting of Hill House is so smooth with its temporal transitions, at any point an adult character in the “today” timeline can turn a corner in their house and find themselves teleported back to their childhood, which delivers a strong sense that the two timelines are intimately connected. Which of course, they are.
As adults the Crain kids each have their unique flaws, initially presented in a way that frustrates the audience. There’s a drug addict and a control freak, a snake oil salesman and a woman so afraid to feel that she’s closed herself off to any potential for happiness. But once we see what they witnessed as children we understand how impossible it would be to grow up “normal” after having spent time in Hill House. Once we've experienced the terrors that exist under its roof we see that it’s a wonder any of these people can function outside of an institution, the story serves as a great lesson in not passing judgment before getting all the facts. Throughout the ten episodes The Haunting of Hill House will slowly strip away the defensive walls these characters have carefully constructed, as their contemporary actions work with the show’s flashbacks to unearth the secrets they’re so desperate to keep. The shadow that Hill House casts isn’t dark enough to steal the spotlight away from the characters, which is as it should be.
The Haunting of Hill House offers little gore and few jump scares, instead of physically torturing its victims it eats away at their souls, which in turn hits the audience where it hurts most: right in the heart. All members of the Crain family are fully fleshed-out characters, making them easy to bond with and root for. Nobody in this story exists solely to be a victim, there are no disposable characters to be found here. Everyone serves as cog in the spinning gear of the story, there’s not a single character whose only role is to get eaten by the house. Flannigan’s tale is lean, a physically-fit story that doesn’t waste a second of its screen time by going for the big shock. The horror found in The Haunting of Hill House is of a psychological nature, its ghosts prefer to lurk in the shadows rather than jump out at the audience (and there are plenty of ghosts to be found, so keep your eyes open).
The show does a fantastic job of maintaining the possibility that the events are nothing more than a hereditary mental disorder, which only amplifies the terror. After all, what is more scary than the possibility that a family member has lost their mind, and that your genetic connection to them puts you at risk of suffering the same fate? As children we’re told that monsters and ghosts aren’t real, and as we grow into adults we put our trust in science over faith so this makes sense. We deny the possibility that the supernatural are not only real, but that they might desire to do us harm. The Haunting of Hill House allows its characters to mature into disbelievers desperate to forget, they deny the past because it is simply too painful to remember. And once we experience the horrors Hill House has to offer we understand that these are memories everyone would repress. Mental illness makes a fantastic scape goat for the unexplainable.
The Haunting of Hill House is a masterpiece, the best Netlix series of 2018. While the entire arc is outstanding, episodes five and six stand out as the series' crown jewels. The pair of episodes serve as powerful lynch pin that connect the front and back halves of the narrative, working together to shake the Crain family to its very foundation. Ten episodes prove to be a perfect length for this story, there’s no filler to be found here and while a few story threads were left incomplete the show’s format did a great job of tying up the main plot. I’m sure there will be temptation to expand the lore of Hill House with either a second season or a prequel story, but I’m of the mind that this is all we need to see of the evil house. There’s a certain tranquility to be found in just walking away, and given how perfectly the Crains’ story wraps up I would hate to see the story soiled by an exposition-filled cash grab.
Just two months after I posted this initial article I decided to watch The Haunting of Hill House again, both to see how it holds up and to search for the many hidden ghosts sprinkled throughout the ten episodes. I have to say that I loved the story just as much the second time, perhaps even more so. With the Crain family's fate now known to me I was able to look for clues and foreshadowing, and was delighted to find that from the start Flannigan offered hints as to what was truly going on in Hill House. The series was clearly well planned from the beginning, on the rare occasion when I thought I had found a "gotcha" plot hole or character inconsistency my detective work was ultimately proved wrong. The show is so well-written and directed, and while I hesitate to label anything "flawless" it's quite difficult to find any glaring mistakes in Flannigan's work here.
My initial reaction back in October was that "The Bent-Neck Lady" was the show's peak, but I've now come to embrace "Two Storms" as the story's most-powerful chapter. While the twist found in episode five is undeniably tragic and moving, "Two Storms" simultaneously provides payoff to the five chapters that precede it and transitions the show into setting up the final confrontation. The technical work found in "Two Storms" borders on perfection, as the directing, cinematography, and acting smoothly mesh together to create what ultimately feels like one long camera shot. It's a marvelous display of planning and execution, made even more impressive by the fact that child actors played major roles in pulling it off. "Two Storms" is more than a mere chapter in a larger narrative, it's an achievement in storytelling.
While every episode of The Haunting of HIll House contains something that will make you consider buying a night light, I believe that episode nine is the scariest chapter. While we've seen Olivia Crain's descent into madness from the beginning, "Screaming Meemies" sees her finally lose her grip on her sanity. The ghosts of Hill House are certainly scary, but just like in The Shining the real terror is found in seeing a parent go crazy enough to harm their children. Carla Gugino is particularly brilliant in this episode, conveying Olivia's madness with an authentic sense of justification. Olivia's manipulated state of thought never feels forced or unbelievable, making her actions all the more tragic. The Crain family's matriarch becomes both villain and victim, a complicated character that breaks our heart in many ways. The most-dangerous thing about Hill House isn't the ghosts, but what the evil building is capable of doing to the minds of its residents.
Searching for the hidden ghosts was a treat, and I was quite surprised at how obvious some of them were once you let your eye move away from the action to inspect the corners and background of the frame. While none of them directly add anything to the narrative, they do amplify both the discomfort the audience feels while adding to the mythology of Hill House. It doesn't matter that we don't know the pre-death fate of any of these specters, their presence alone is enough to show just how many victims Hill House has claimed over the years. And I truly believe that even if you don't notice them that your brain does, and that on a subconscious level they add to the terror.
After my first viewing I felt a bit underwhelmed by the show's finale, so much so that I put it as the only "Con" in the list found below. I absolutely loved it the second time around, to the point where I amended the aforementioned list. The final chapter delivers a delicious cocktail of melancholy and optimism, two flavors that perfectly reflect the story's overall arc. We say goodbye to the surviving characters on a note of hope, their lives filled for the first time with the prospect of genuine happiness. But we're also reminded of what their character growth cost, and the sacrifices their loved ones made along the way. What an unforgettable ten episode journey the show takes us on, a trip that could never be duplicated in a sequel or reboot. The Haunting of Hill House swims in waters within the boundaries of perfection, and I hope everyone involved can resist the temptation to expand on this timeless story.
• Terrifying atmosphere and story
• Great characters
• Perfect length
• No forced social commentary
• Lots of hidden ghosts to find
• That it had to end.