WHAT IT'S ABOUT:
The Haunting of Hill House is a modern reimagining of Shirley Jackson’s legendary novel of the same name, about five siblings who grew up in the most famous haunted house in America. Now adults, they’re reunited by the suicide of their youngest sister, which forces them to finally confront the ghosts of their own pasts… some which lurk in their minds... and some which may really be lurking in the shadows of the iconic Hill House.
WHAT WE THOUGHT:
Considering how I’ve referenced it in virtually every horror movie review I’ve written in the past six months and now that we’re going to be reliant on streaming services for the foreseeable future, I can think of no better time to revisit Mike Flanagan’s sublime 10-part reimagining of Shirley Jackson’s classic novel, The Haunting of Hill House. It has been out on Netflix for over a year by now, I believe, but between its shameful showing during last year’s awards season and that it seems little talked about outside of horror and fantasy fandoms, any attempt to shout out its praises to a wider audience can never be a bad thing.
And, make no mistake, this is a series that should have great appeal not just to horror fanboys but even to those who have little interest in voluntarily submitting themselves to creepy atmospheres and supernatural scares. While Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House is simply a straightforward but extremely effective ghost story, Flanagan’s Haunting of Hill House is something altogether more complex, deeper and far more affecting.
Even calling what Flanagan has done here a "reimagining" is a bit of a stretch as he has taken a few character names, some of the novel’s more quotable lines, and, roughly speaking, Hill House itself, and crafted an entirely new story that is less about a haunted house than it is about how childhood trauma can haunt a family even decades down the line.
The family in question are the Crains who, in the past, moved into the titular house for the summer, while parents, Hugh and Olivia, renovate the house in an attempt to sell it for a tidy sum by the time autumn comes around. The Crains are a tight-knit group. Hugh and Olivia are clearly very much in love with one another and pass on that same sense of acceptance and love to their five children, who are – the odd sibling squabble aside – close enough to be happy to spend an entire summer in the company of only one another.
As we flash between that past and a present that sees the Crains coming together once more for a funeral, we come to learn more and more about Hill House and the part it played in a tragedy that destroyed their familial bond and set them on the path to becoming the broken people they are in the present. Hill House destroyed the childhood of the Crain children, and it looks like it’s not done with them yet.
To say more than that would spoil one of the more intricately told pieces of storytelling I’ve come across in years but throughout the entire series, up until its rather contentious ending, pieces slowly fall into place as each episode sheds new light on events, both past and present, and on the characters themselves. In particular, the first five episodes each focus on one of the Crain children – from oldest, Steve, to youngest, Nellie – and what starts off as a fairly straightforward-seeming haunted house story with fairly straightforward, almost stock characters expands into something infinitely more compelling.
It’s a somewhat risky move as the first episode is probably the worst of the ten and the Crain it focuses on, Steve is pretty easily the least likeable member of the Crain family. I can only promise that so inauspicious a start is necessary for the way the story and the characters blossom from there. Each of these first five episodes builds on one another, Rashamon-style, for a mid-season climax around episodes five and six that not only pays off on the work done in the previous episodes but shifts the tone of the show from pathos-infused horror into something unspeakably heartbreaking.
The Haunting of Hill House is, in no uncertain terms, my single favourite horror story of all time. Part of that has to do with Flanagan’s virtuoso direction and immaculate plotting. Part of that has to do with just how scary the show is at times as Flanagan eschews cheap jump scares (well, aside for the one...) and gore for the sort of creepy, unnerving horror that comes from realising that a ghost has been standing at the corner of the frame the whole time; never drawing attention to itself and not even acting maliciously but creating a real sense of "wrongness" that subsists long into the next scene and long after you’ve finished the episode. There are more obvious ghost sightings, but Flanagan also peppers the screen with dozens of different ghosts that are usually only really noticeable if you’re looking out for them.
This all ought to be enough to see The Haunting of Hill House climb to the top of my personal favourite list of scary stories but the real coup de grace of the series – even more than the effectiveness of its horror – is that the characters are always the focus of the series. While the Crains aren’t always "nice", they’re fully realised characters that, long before season’s end, become people that you root for, fear for, and, very simply, enjoy spending a lot of time with. The three youngest children (Theo, Luke, Nellie), in particular, are hard to forget and, by the time the final episode comes around, even harder to leave behind.
The Crains are portrayed by a pair of veteran actors (Henry Thomas as Hugh; Carla Gugino as Olivia) and a group of young up-and-comers and first-time actors who may vary somewhat in terms of acting ability (most are exceptional, but there are one or two performances that are clearly weaker than the rest), but all inhabit these characters so thoroughly that any technical weaknesses fade into irrelevance. In particular, I can’t say enough good things about Victoria Pedretti, who, in her first-ever acting job, makes Nellie the effervescent light at the heart of the show. On the flip-side, as the dryly funny Theo, Kate Siegel (aka. the director’s wife), is so perfect at giving these otherwise quite heavy proceedings a real sense of humour.
All of this is to say that not only are the ghost-story elements more effective; they’re much more meaningful too. "Haunting" is the keyword here and Flanagan is as interested in the more ghostly meaning of the word as he is in the purely psychological. This is an absorbing, powerful family drama that uses horror elements to make its point, rather than a horror story that uses family drama elements to ground it – and the difference between the two cannot be more profound. It’s also why I think the finale works when so many feel like it was a cop-out. It may not be a great horror ending, but for the story being told here, it couldn’t be more apt.
I could go on and on (and on) about this show but suffice it to say, it’s mind-bogglingly good – especially once you get past that first episode. I’ve seen it twice already, and I certainly plan on giving it another run through before The Haunting of Bly Manner (Flanagan’s follow-up to Hill House with a number of the same actors but as different characters and with Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw as the classic novel being adapted) hits our screens later this year/ early next.
It’s best enjoyed late at night, in complete darkness and in complete silence, but, if you’re just there for the excellent character drama, you may want to watch this with the lights on. Either way, just watch it. It’s a masterpiece.
WATCH THE TRAILER HERE: