Written By: Daniel Kinsley
The Haunting Of Hill House (2018) seems to have arrived at the perfect time; horror is experiencing one hell of a surge in the mainstream, thanks to the major success of films like Get Out (2017), IT (2017) and the Halloween (2018) sequel. The story of Hill House was first told in the 1959 Gothic novel (of the same name) by Shirley Jackson–long considered to be one of the great ghost stories of the 20th century. The Netflix adaptation follows two feature film adaptations, both of which went by The Haunting. The 1963 version directed by Robert Wise is mostly well regarded, while the 1999 version…well, it is not. As it were, when Netflix announced that writer-director Mike Flanagan would be adapting the material into a television series, most of the world failed to tremble, either in fear or anticipation. Ultimately, arriving with little fanfare was a blessing as it has allowed the show’s many scares and surprises (and boy, there are plenty of both) to remain part of the viewing experience.
To hear him tell it, Flanagan determined early on that it was pointless to try and outdo the source material at its own game and instead set about crafting something new using some familiar pieces as a jumping off point. While fans of the Jackson novel may find themselves wanting, the remixed material is easily the greatest strength of the series. Both as a piece of writing as well as visual storytelling, it marks a major leap forward for Flanagan, who utilizes the 10 hours at his disposal to craft what is far and away his greatest work to date. In an era where creatives go on about how their television series is actually a 13 hour movie, Hill House is most notably a really great piece of television. In the era of streaming, everything is digested quickly, and cast aside with alacrity, and that is what makes a series like this one so special. It is so carefully constructed–thoughtful, and terrifying, and emotionally rewarding–that it forced this writer to slow down, taking in no more than two episodes at a stretch.* Unlike many other Netflix series, which are amorphous, Hill House commits to the individual episode without sacrificing the larger story in play.
Sometime in the late ’80s, the Crain family, led by parents Hugh (Henry Thomas) and Olivia (Carla Cugino) move into the titular Hill House. The plan is to fix the place up and flip it for a profit which they plan to use to buy their forever home. In tow are the couple’s five children, Steven (Paxton Singleton), Shirley (Lulu Wilson), Theo (McKenna Grace), and the twins Nell (Violet McGraw) and Luke (Julian Hillard). Unfortunately for all of them, Hill House has a long and dark history, and before the summer is over, tragedy will have befallen the family, resulting in the death of Olivia, and the remaining family members abandoning Hill House.
The first episode, “Steven Sees A Ghost” picks up in 2018, where Steven (Michael Huisman) is the best-selling author of the autobiographical novel, “The Haunting of Hill House”. Steven’s career revolves around writing books about paranormal locations and experiences, despite the fact that he does not believe in the supernatural. The episode jumps around from 2012 to the present, illustrating the events that lead to Steven’s book, and the strain it has placed on his relationship with his siblings, who believe he mined their trauma for professional success. While the episode has a good deal of table-setting to accomplish in the present, it does so in a clever way by having Nell (Victoria Pedretti) in crisis mode, making phone calls to Steven, Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser) and Hugh (Timothy Hutton) to express worry for twin, Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) an addict in the midst of a(nother) stint at a rehab facility.
Though the episode offers glimpses at all five of the siblings, it is Steven’s showcase. Steven spends his days investigating paranormal claims, debunking them, and then leaning into the supernatural aspects, anyway. In part, it is a coping method, as he was largely absent from the night of the events that led to his mother’s death. On the other hand, all of the paranormal experiences from Hill House belonged to his siblings, and his continued pursuit almost seems to be a plea of discovery for something less painful than the truth as he sees it; as Steven believes that mental illness, not ghosts, were responsible for shattering his family. The episode ends with a scare that sets the tone for the remainder of the season: Steven returns home to find Nell in his apartment, but in the midst of rebuking her for showing up unannounced, he receives a call from Hugh: Nell has committed suicide in Hill House. In a moment that still gives this writer chills to think about, Steven turns to face his sister who appears in front of him, her face contorted into a scream before she turns ashen and disappears.
Each of the subsequent four episodes shine the spotlight on the remaining siblings, employing a structure that was first popularized by LOST (2004-2010) and is used to tremendous effect here. Flashing between their summer at Hill House and the present, each actor is given at least a dozen moments to shine, with Kate Siegel ** and Jackson-Cohen battling for MVP as Theo and Luke, respectively. *** Jackson-Cohen, in particular, is given a difficult role, as the recovering addict could have easily slipped into parody or gone too big, but the actor fills him with just enough of the right notes to feel true. If the present scenes are more informed by Stephen King, then the scenes from Hill House are more akin to Spielberg; Flanagan gets seamless performances from all of the child actors, who deserve a good deal of the credit for making the adult drama work as well as it does. Henry Thomas is wholesome and open, and makes for a great foil to the twitchy and beleaguered version of Hugh played by Timothy Hutton (“I can fix this“). Special credit needs to be given to Carla Cugino, who anchors the series as the emotional linchpin that binds the Crains together in love as well as grief. The mystery of Olivia’s death becomes tied up inextricably with the horrors of Hill House, and remains the driving force that keeps Hugh and his children apart from one another.
While each episode moves the overarching story of what happened at Hill House forward, the episode structure ensures that the show remains an intimate affair, giving equal credence to the horrors of grief as well as ghosts. Though Nell’s hour, “The Bent-Neck Lady” has received a tremendous amount of (deserved) praise, for this writer, it is the sixth episode “Two Storms” that takes the title of the single best episode of the season. In the past, the family braves a terrifying storm, while in the present, the (remaining) family gathers together for the first time since leaving Hill House on the eve of Nell’s funeral. Filmed in five continuous takes, it is a dizzying technical achievement that marks the feather in Flanagan’s cap, and also serves as a victory lap for the first half of the season.
While it can be a challenge to sustain a certain degree of terror, Hill House is admirably scary for much of its run. Flanagan employs a terrifically effective bag of tricks, which yes, includes jump scares (including one in the latter half which caused this writer’s skeleton to leave my skin for a moment) though the show is masterful in its use of atmospheric horror, as Hill House itself becomes a vivid yet unknowable character, hungry and terrifyingly indifferent to the pain it causes.
The last few episodes are a bit of a shift from the first half and seems bound to spark debate among viewers. As the family converges on Hill House in the present, the series begins to move from dread to catharsis. The best, most enduring scary stories have something to say about the horrors they employ; in Hill House, the ghosts are more than just things that go bump in the night, and ultimately, this is where the true power of the show lies. By the time the final credits roll, secrets are unearthed (including the contents of the Red Room) and there are no loose ends, or lingering mysteries. The emotional finale will be sure to frustrate some viewers; those expecting fireworks will leave disappointed, as Flanagan gifts the Crains a hopeful ending to their suffering. For something this outwardly terrifying to also be so personal marks this as a worthy milestone in the midst of a horror renaissance. While the show’s final moments are a bit on-the-nose at times, they remain true to what came before, and the healing is just as satisfying, and involving, as the terrors that precede it.
* That said, I’m sure it would also make one hell of a binge watch.
** Wife of creator Mike Flanagan, making a very strong case for being in favor of nepotism.
*** Both of whom get pretty terrific showcases, with Ep. 3, “Touch” (Theo) and Ep. 4, “The Twin Thing” (Luke).