Features and Columns · TV

When ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ Performed a Cinematic Magic Trick

With “Two Storms,” the series high point pushes the Crains to their emotional breaking point with the help of an unrelenting camera.
Haunting Of Hill House Two Storms
By  · Published on September 29th, 2020

This essay is part of our series Episodes, a bi-weekly column in which senior contributor Valerie Ettenhofer digs into the singular chapters of television that make the medium great. This entry looks at the best episode of  Mike Flanagan’s The Haunting of Hill House: “Two Storms.”

When you think of the best writing on TV, what comes to mind? For most people, the answer likely involves stellar characterization, clever dialogue, and well-built plots. All are key to making a television series great, but it’s a mistake to think that writing only equals words. Great writing also involves the planning of the action, motion, and physical presence of a scene. Case in point: The Haunting of Hill House’s sweeping technical marvel “Two Storms.”

With several smart and humane genre films, including Hush and Oculus, already under his belt, writer-director Mike Flanagan was an emerging favorite among horror fans even before he cut his teeth at showrunning with Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House. The very loose adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s most famous novel is a ten-part series that immediately found a fanbase thanks to its heartfelt storytelling, strong scare factor, and visuals that reward close watchers with glimpses of hidden easter eggs. Whereas Jackson’s novel follows a group of strangers staying at the possibly-haunted Hill House, the show instead focuses on the Crain family, former residents of the mansion, as they reunite in the wake of tragedy after years spent apart.

After four episodes of slow-simmering terror and scattered main characters, nothing could’ve prepared viewers for the one-two punch of the show’s fifth and sixth hours. “The Bent-Neck Lady” is an emotional and revealing episode that instills one with an unshakeable sense of existential anxiety by revealing that the specter that has haunted Nell (Victoria Pedretti) since childhood is actually an image of herself in the moment of her suicide. It’s a gruesome, queasy catch-22 that leaves viewers reeling, only to segue directly into the grief-riddled ensemble piece that is “Two Storms.”

The episode begins with the two surviving Crain sisters, Theo (Kate Siegel) and Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser), standing over Nell’s coffin. She doesn’t look like she’s sleeping, Theo points out, even though that’s what people always say. It’s the first comment of many in the hour that aims to crack open the cultural illusion that death and grief should look a certain way. Theo and Shirley are in an empty funeral parlor and a strike of lightning flashes in the background as they speak. The camera follows the sisters around the room as they talk about their sister: ”Nelly was always trying to get us together in one place,” Shirley says. Then the Crain men show up. There’s Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), who’s newly sober and shaken up by his own recent haunting, and Stephen (Michiel Huisman), the skeptical writer whose book about the family’s traumatic childhood led to his estrangement.

It’s only when the camera captures Luke solidly in the center of the frame, lingering on his child-like face as he first takes in the sight of Nell’s coffin, that the central creative mechanism of “Two Storms” begins to become apparent. The camera hasn’t cut away. At all. In fact, for the first fifty minutes of the fifty-six-minute episode, there is only one visible cut, giving the episode the appearance of being just two or three long takes. The result is a claustrophobic, theater-like experience in which the camera swirls and loops around to capture motion, or holds steady on one character or another for a disorienting period of time. The Crain family’s grief and anger are mirrored by the progressing storm, but also by the pacing and movement of the cameras that circle and spotlight every emotional beat.

After Stephen sees Nell’s body — reacting with weird, breathless boyishness and then obvious misery — the family decides to sit out the storm in an adjoining room. Although thunder crashes offscreen, we get the sense that they’re not actually trapped, but rather staging an uneasy, unspoken vigil for Nell. Their youngest sister must know it, too, as once dad Hugh (Timothy Hutton) shows up, reuniting the entire living family for the first time in decades, Nell’s ghost begins to appear on-screen. Unlike every other episode of the series, which includes well-hidden extras doing a sort of ghostly Where’s Waldo in the background, “Two Storms” puts its undead visitors front and center.

Hugh excuses himself to the restroom, but when he turns the corner, he’s back at Hill House. It’s 1992 again, on the night of a huge, window-rattling storm. He watches a massive chandelier crash to the ground, then a younger version of himself (played by Henry Thomas) comes down the stairs in his pajamas. A gaggle of kids wanders down soon after, awakened by the commotion. Then there’s matriarch Olivia (Carla Gugino), the only character whose modern-day counterpart we never meet. In her flowing robes, she already has the air of an elegant ghost. Olivia is afraid of storms, we learn, but she reassures a young Luke (Julian Hilliard) nonetheless. “Do you know what storms do?” She says lovingly. “They pass.”

Determined to wait out the storm together, the family decides to huddle on the floor and play a board game, but as the camera tracks dreamy full circles around them from a safe distance, something goes unnervingly wrong. Theo (Mckenna Grace) is standing exactly where she had been moments ago, hand outreached to hold her sister’s, but Nell (Violet McGraw) is nowhere to be found. Panicked, the family fans out to find her. Then, twenty-three minutes into the episode, the first visible cut appears, taking audiences back to the present day. It’s a shocking and strange relief, like waking up from a dream or letting go of a breath that you didn’t know you’d been holding.

At this point, it’s impossible not to wonder how Flanagan pulled off “Two Storms.” Plenty of movies, from Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope to Sam Mendes’ 1917 have accomplished long takes, often by using invisible cuts and image matches to create an illusion of single shots. Yet there’s something exhilarating about seeing this project unfold across two sets and two time periods, with a large, multi-generation ensemble cast, all while delivering genuine scares and emotional moments. According to Flanagan, the episode script included eighteen-page-long scenes without any cuts and had much of the camera choreography written in from the start. The series’ Hill House set was built with “Two Storms” in mind, and the funeral parlor set was built nearby to make maneuvering between the two possible. The crew spent days planning camera movements, lighting cues, blocking, and plenty of offscreen quick-change set adjustments in order to pull off the long takes that make the episode come alive.

One would imagine that the mid-episode cut would break the tension, but by following it up with yet another long, unblinking stretch, “Two Storms” only grows more terrifying and heart-wrenching. In the present day, the Crain family’s attempts to memorialize Nell are constantly interrupted by their unresolved issues with one another. Stephen is a persistent voice of denial, countering his father’s claims that Nell was haunted with furious skepticism. Theo, growing drunker by the minute, is even angrier, while the rest of the family acts out each remaining stage of grief in turn. Shirley and her husband Kevin (Anthony Ruivivar) obsess over small details like refreshments and flower arrangements, doing a sort of mental bargaining technique in which they imagine that if they focus on the socially acceptable rituals of death, everything will be okay. Luke is suffering from a quiet depression, regressing into the teary-eyed child he was before he became an addict. Finally, Hugh, portrayed with steady melancholy by Hutton in a wonderfully lived-in performance, is the voice of somber acceptance. He’s seen this all happen before. He knows what Hill House does to people.

The second that we begin to ease into a sense of trust, recognizing the familiarity of a dramatic family gathering, Flanagan shocks us with a dose of horror once more. Shirley storms off towards Nell’s coffin, only to realize that the corpse suddenly has buttons placed over its eyes. Just then, the power goes out, and again we’re back at Hill House in 1992.

The third act of “Two Storms” is one of the most effective horror sequences in recent memory. The camera turns around each corner as the younger version of Hugh looks for Nell, and then, when Olivia also goes missing, for her as well. Every second of this scene has a nerve-jangling sense of suspense as if something might jump out at any minute. A jump scare would almost be a simple relief at this point. Instead, strange images seep into the corners of our vision, from a statue that subtly turns to face those who walk by to the dark edge of Olivia’s gown as she wanders, apparently in a trance, through the labyrinthine house. “Honey, I’m having the strangest dream,” she says in a daze when Hugh finally catches up with her. At that moment, the kids all scream in unison, spooked. Soon after, Nell reappears in the place where she’d been standing a half-hour before, shaking and distressed.

By this point, our nerves are so frazzled by the sustained tension — stretched rubber-band tight by the still-moving cameras and the increasingly frenzied pacing — that it’s hard to keep track of everything that’s going on. In the present day, Shirley reveals that the storm raging outside is centered only on the building that they’re in. Stephen and Hugh begin arguing again, and this time Nell’s coffin is framed squarely between them in the frame. The episode has become a visceral viewing experience by this point. Teeth are set on edge. Hearts are pounding. “My problem is that the wrong parent died,” Stephen yells at Hugh, and as if spurred on by the venom in his words, Nell’s coffin spontaneously falls over. Tension. Release. The camera cuts to the family, dumbstruck by Nell’s statement from beyond the grave. The camera is no longer a tool to weaponize our fears against us; for these last few moments, its presence becomes so normal that we stop noticing it. The lights flicker back on.

“Two Storms” is a cinematic spectacle, an ambitious vision fully realized. But it forces us into the Crains’ state of mind for a reason, one that its understated, heartbreaking ending puts in perspective. We hear audio of child Nell telling the others that during her disappearance, she didn’t actually go anywhere. She was sitting in the same spot, calling for help, but no one could hear her. Then we see the adult ghost of Nell, her neck broken and eyes filled with anguish, standing by her coffin as her childhood self speaks in voiceover. “I was right here,” she insists. Hers is a grief that her family — and we as viewers — have trouble look at directly or for too long, for fear of truly seeing the pitch-black depths of it.

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Valerie Ettenhofer is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer, TV-lover, and mac and cheese enthusiast. As a Senior Contributor at Film School Rejects, she covers television through regular reviews and her recurring column, Episodes. She is also a voting member of the Critics Choice Association's television and documentary branches. Twitter: @aandeandval (She/her)