The Haunting of Hill House (15)
Director: Mike Flanagan
Screenplay: Mike Flanagan
Review: David Stephens
As far as classic genre films go, 1963’s “The Haunting” is right up there with the best of them. The Robert Wise movie is a masterclass in suggested scares and top-class performances, and one that still holds up today. The clumsy 1999 remake by Jan de Bont… not so much. Crammed full of duff CGI scares and unintentional laughs, it was critically panned and now mostly forgotten. So the idea of another treatment of the source material (the 1959 novel “The Haunting of Hill House” by Shirley Jackson), could have been met with scorn and some dread by horror fans, especially as it takes the form of a TV series. That hasn’t been the case for several reasons. One being that it has been adapted by Netflix, who have gained a solid reputation with material like this lately. Another one is the presence of an excellent cast including; Carla Gugino (“Gerald’s Game”), Michiel Huisman (“Game of Thrones”), and Lulu Wilson (“Annabelle: Creation”). Perhaps the biggest sign of a quality production was the fact that it’s been directed and created by Mike Flanagan, who has been responsible for some of the most striking genre projects over the past few years, such as “Gerald’s Game”, “Oculus”, and “Hush”. As the whole season hits Netflix, YGROY takes in a viewing of the worst property to hit the market since Amityville…
Hill House was a hundred year-old mansion bought by can-do couple Olivia and Hugh Crain (Gugino and Henry Thomas), in order to flop it on the market and buy their dream home. But something happened to them and their five children in that place on one terrible night. Years later and the Crain children have grown up, but they are still “haunted” in different ways by their childhood experiences. Steven Crain (Huisman) has become a best-selling author and paranormal writer, having seen his career take off after writing a memoir about that fearful dwelling. (NB: Called “The Haunting of Hill House” natch). But the book has created friction with his siblings, and they have become the poster-boys-and-girls of a dysfunctional family. However an unexpected tragedy draws them together again and they must deal with the supernatural forces that seem to be reaching out from Hill House itself.
At one point deep into the season, a character says; “How can a pile of bricks, mortar, and glass have such a hold over people?” Well, in this superb series it certainly does. But Flanagan has created an update that circles out greatly from the source material (both the original book and the two films), and brings us something that is lyrical, moving and chilling in different ways. Gone is the idea of a small group of people investigating the paranormal in a deserted gothic folly. The names remain (Eleanor, Hugh, Luke, Theodora, and even Shirley… which is obviously homage), but these are now all members of a single family, namely the Crains who lived in that place as a home. In that respect it gives Flanagan full scope to explore the effect that Hill House has had on these people. During the full 10-episode season, the series constantly zip-zaps between the past and present, the “then” and “now”. It makes for an extremely complex and meticulously crafted narrative, but although scenes are initially signposted with subtitled dates those are quickly lost because they’re not needed. Crucially it’s never hard to follow the timelines, and that’s important for all the visual tricks and plot developments that occur.
Like “Oculus” (watch out for a cameo from THAT mirror BTW), the series plays with misdirection and expectations. Some “ghosts” aren’t what they seem, and there’s a revelation mid-season that links all the previous episodes together in one heart-breaking montage. Spectres are revealed in their true form for split-seconds, and statues change subtly in the background. A throwaway line from Olivia about renovation materials becomes startlingly prophetic several episodes later. That’s the series in a nutshell really; seeds are sown and grow into something important at a later stage. Whilst the teasing of events that occurred during one night in the house is paramount, other sub-plots are just as crucial and several incidents are eventually seen from other character’s perspective and become completely understandable. In terms of the supernatural aspect though, Flanagan doesn’t stint on that front either. Although it’s never (usually) graphic, there are fine frights in there. The crane-tapping tall-guy is genuinely unsettling, as are some of the other spectral presences including the “Bent-Neck Lady”. And there is a superb and impeccably timed jump-scare in episode 8. Not spoiling, just saying.
Whilst the supernatural element is integral to the plot, the story is primarily about the Crains and their interaction with each other. Fans of “Oculus” and “Before I Wake”, will know that it’s the characters (and their foibles) that usually drives Flanagan’s narratives and this is no different. The filmmaker has formulated a nice little troupe of dependable actors for his productions now, with Gugino and many of the cast having worked with him before. THOHH is very much an actor’s show and all the lead performances given here are exemplary. It would be churlish to pick out anyone for singular praise, but Kate Siegel as Theo Cain is brilliant. Amusingly described by her brother as a “clenched fist with hair”, the foul-mouthed character carries a psychic chip on her shoulder and is a nice modernisation of the Claire Bloom / Catherine Zeta Jones version. Timothy Hutton also impresses as the older Hugh, and Gugino remains the luminescent heart of the tale. Given the luxury of a series-long runtime, many of the episodes are given over to the backstory of one Crain allowing the cast to fully enrich their roles. But some of the supporting actors also rise to the occasion, with several compelling monologues riveting the attention. Mr Dudley’s (Richard Longstreet) reason for not staying in Hill House after dark is just one of many. At the end of the day the show is as much about the emotional scars that death and secrets can produce, as it is about floating ghouls and malignant buildings.
Also worthy of mention is the technical achievement in the show. The outstanding example is Episode 6, which contains an astounding five long single takes, with the longest being over 17 minutes long with no cuts or edits! Also be on the look-out for multiple Easter Eggs; from one character reading Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”, to a direct quote from Matt Smith’s “Dr Who” incarnation. Apparently some of those eggs may point to a direction for a possible Season 2, which is practically assured now after the overwhelmingly reception so far. From most fans and critics perspective this is a huge success for Netflix already. But it’s worth bearing in mind that if you come to it expecting a laff-riot or a breakneck-paced spook-fest, that’s not what you’re going to get. Some of the plot does echo other recent genre offerings, like certain seasons of “America Horror Story”. But for our money, this is much more heartfelt and affecting than most of those. As the reviews and reactions creep online, we’ll add to the masses with our rating and opinion and support most of the viewpoints out there… yes, it really is that damned good and one of the most intelligent ghost stories to haunt channels for years. It’ll be interesting to see if a Season 2 is announced and where Flanagan (or whoever) goes from here.