The horror genre can sometimes be dismissed too easily as being overly reliant on simplicity and laziness in pursuit of mere jump scares, and to be fair, it more often than not deserves the criticism. Horror fans know, though, that there are plenty of examples that pair ghostly scares with real emotion. Think the likes of The Changeling (1980), The Orphanage (2007), or the recent Hereditary (2018). And to that list, in both content and quality, we can now add Mike Flanagan‘s 10-part limited series of The Haunting of Hill House.
Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel has been adapted for the screen twice before as films in 1963 and 1999, but its this newest incarnation that maintains the novel’s spooky strengths and core locale while building something truly extraordinary around them. Numerous scares and creepily atmospheric scenes inhabit the episodes, but it’s often the real world terrors of loss, guilt, and grief that hit hardest. And of the many threads woven into the thematic fabric of the series it’s the ones related to family and the past that hold strongest. Every family has its own pains, but just as our memories of traumatic experiences differ so do the ways in which we deal with them. Some of us bury the pain, others fight it, and still others pretend it never happened at all.
The house at the center of The Haunting of Hill House is most definitely haunted by ghosts with ill intentions, but just as dangerous are the ghosts of memories littered throughout our own lives.
The Crain family moves into Hill House for the summer planning to repair its chipped paint and moldy walls in the hopes of flipping it for a hefty profit, but as the days and weeks pass each of them face differing experiences leading to one hellish night that leaves wife and mother Olivia (Carla Gugino) dead. The repercussions of that night and the events that led up to it have rippled throughout the remaining family members’ lives in various ways, but while the scars look different they were made by the same nightmarish blade. Twenty years later those wounds are reopening, and the only way to close them for good might just be revisiting the place where it all began.
The show moves back and forth in time between then and now, with some stops in between, and it does a thoroughly fascinating job of exploring each character’s experiences. The widowed Hugh (Henry Thomas then, Timothy Hutton now) has kept his distance from his kids in the years since, but his reasoning may have been faulty. Oldest son Steven (Michiel Huisman) grows up to become a writer who strikes bestseller gold with his recounting of their time in Hill House, but his refusal to believe in the unknown is due to be tested. Oldest daughter Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser) is now a mortician controlling death’s final visage knowing she can’t control death itself. Theodora (Kate Siegel) is the middle girl described as “a clenched fist with hair,” and while gifted with a sensitive touch that allows her to see other’s pains she goes out of her way to smother her own. The youngest, Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) and Nell (Victoria Pedretti), are twins connected in ways the rest can barely comprehend, and while one suffers from addiction the other suffers from sleep paralysis and an additional loss.
Time shifts happen between scenes and sometimes within a scene, and while some series use the structure as a gimmick [cough] Westworld [cough] it’s applied here as an integral part of the story being told. Elements from the past inform the present, and vice versa, and while some unfold sequentially onscreen others are left floating in the ether early on only to be rewarded with a callback later in the series. Credit Flanagan for the show’s seamless nature as he directed each of the ten episodes as well as wrote/co-wrote them, but spare some praise for the three editors (Jim Flynn, Brian Jeremiah Smith, Ravi Subramanian) too for their work in helping craft the beautiful flow from one ep to the next.
It’s not all emotional weight and trauma as we’re also witness to moments of levity and true warmth. These characters love each other, and while that makes their pain more painful it also makes their joys and triumphs more, er, joyful and triumphant. Small moments shine through against the dark, and along with the tragedies they work to draw us in and wring us dry. One episode in particular ends with a sequence that’s both frightening and heart-wrenching — seriously, I was simultaneously chilled and teary-eyed. We can’t help but care about these people as characters and as reminders of our own past sufferings.
Of course, our past traumas don’t involve the kinds of ghosts that make this drama a horror story, and for that we should be thankful — because this series is terrifying.
There are a handful of traditional (but beautifully crafted) jump scares — including one in the series’ back half that left me reeling and smiling — but most of the terror-inducing moments are allowed to creep quietly into view and into our psyches. You may very well be dreaming about some of the imagery and ghostly creations on display here for weeks after, from the Bent Neck Lady to the Tall Man to whatever the hell that is in the basement, and they all work brilliantly to build the atmosphere piece by piece like a house constructed from haunted bricks.
Flanagan’s camera moves fluidly around rooms and characters revealing new terrors — or hiding them — and it begins to take on a spectral presence of its own as it floats through scenes. One episode focusing on the intensity of grief features a series of long single takes that impress without being flashy. Both practical and digital effects are used and married to perfection allowing for tangible horrors that can shift in an instant towards insanity or calm. Figures move in and out of focus, from far away to terrifyingly close, and they leave predictability behind in favor of scaring the ever-loving hell out of you. Too many horror films telegraph their scares into repetitiveness, but Flanagan respects his viewers far too much for such shenanigans. Even when we think we see the setup, it doesn’t always play out as expected, and after a series of quiet terrors train us to fear the silence he throws in a screamer.
Netflix is no stranger to padding their series with extraneous episodes, but it feels here like every second has been put to exquisite use. Each moment builds atmosphere or character, each beat strengthens the bond between these characters, and each second brings us closer to a reckoning. “Our family is like an unfinished meal to that house,” says Hugh, and it’s as visceral an image as you could want knowing these people will soon be heading back to Hill House. Production design is spot on with sets and stages helping bring the house to life, the score from The Newton Brothers nails the rise and fall of emotion without the need to announce its presence at every turn, and the performances capture the pains and fears equally well whether born from events supernatural or otherwise.
The Haunting of Hill House is a series built on delivering horror and heartache in varying measures. Each episode succeeds on both counts making for not just another notch on Flanagan’s filmography belt (Gerald’s Game, Hush, Ouija: Origin of Evil) but for the year’s greatest horror event whether it be on TV or in theaters. This is what a modern masterpiece looks and feels like. Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I’m feeling the pull of Hill House once again and should probably return to it soon.