the haunting of hill house review

Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House is a frequently scary, surprisingly emotional saga focused on both past and present. Director Mike Flanagan takes Shirley Jackson’s iconic haunted house novel and works into something wholly different, yet equally effective.

What haunts you? What ghosts from the past crawl out of the dark and descend upon you as you toss and turn, unable to sleep? You don’t need anything paranormal to visit you to be haunted. Memories alone can linger like spirits, creeping into your mind when you least expect it. They can leave you terrified, alone in the night. In the dark.

Mike Flanagan’s new Netflix adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House understands this, and makes chilling use of it. Blending the supernatural with familial trauma and drama, Flanagan crafts an exquisitely creepy, overwhelmingly emotional experience. It’s often stunning.

It’s also almost nothing like Shirley Jackson’s source material. There could be a knee-jerk reaction to shun Flanagan’s series for this. Why take Jackson’s novel, one of the most iconic ghost stories of all time, and change virtually everything? Yet as Hill House unfolds, it becomes clear that Flanagan is remaining true to the spirit of Jackson’s book, if not the actual text.

Late one night years ago, Hugh Crain (Henry Thomas) hurried his five children into the car and sped away from Hill House, leaving his wife Olivia (Carla Gugino) to an uncertain fate. What happened in Hill House that night? And what became of Olivia? Hugh (and The Haunting of Hill House) isn’t quick to provide answers. Instead, we’re left with the aftermath.

The Crain children are now grown, and each of them is haunted by the past. Steven (Michiel Huisman) is a successful writer, penning paranormal research books he doesn’t actual believe while in the midst of a separation from his wife. Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser) runs a funeral home, and seems to exist in a constant state of rigidity – you get the impression she’s so tightly wound that she might just snap like a guitar string. Theodora (Kate Siegel), who possesses possible psychic abilities, drinks too much and goes through a series of meaningless one-night-stands with women she picks up at a local bar. Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) is a drug addict, struggling to stay clean. And Luke’s twin sister Nell (Victoria Pedretti) seems poised on the edge of a mental breakdown. The same sort of breakdown the family believes Olivia suffered all those years ago. And then there’s Hugh (played in his later years by Timothy Hutton), estranged from his kids and prone to muttering to himself.

The Haunting of Hill House cuts back and forth in time, finding the adult Crain children in crisis while going back to their youth in Hill House over the course of a doomed summer. Things at Hill House start out idyllic enough – sure, the house is huge and kind of creepy, but there’s nothing outwardly spooky here. At least, not at first. The plan is for Hugh and Olivia to renovate the stately manor and flip it for an obscene amount of money, but before that can happen, Hill House begins to show its true face. Figures come crawling out of the basement; things go missing; loud pounding sounds are heard; a giant dog is spotted; a mysterious storm practically attacks the house; there’s a room with a red door that can’t be unlocked; young Nell (Violet McGraw) is tormented by a specter she names the Bent-Neck Lady. And Olivia begins to exhibit strange behavior, exacerbated by terrible nightmares.

haunting of hill house netflix

Flanagan deftly blends the past and the present through editing and visual cues (he employed a similar trick in Oculus), and one of Hill House’s charms is the way it subtly unfolds its story, never in a rush but never dragging. It takes its time, unfolding like the tendrils of fog that waft around Hill House’s foundation. Flanagan’s direction also understands how a sound, or scent, or subtle movement can trigger a memory, and bring the past crashing into view. In one magnificent scene, he slowly spins a camera around a room 360 degrees – on one side of the room stands the older Hugh while his adult children sit on the opposite end. As the camera spins, the children transform from old to young and back again – Hugh remembering them as they were then while seeing who they are now.

After setting the Crain family up, Flanagan then proceeds to have the following episodes each pick a sibling to focus on. It’s the perfect way to give the extensive cast equal screentime – no one gets left out or overlooked here. Each actor makes the most of these moments. Siegel is a standout as the brooding Theodora, afraid to touch people lest she suddenly have visions. Siegel has to balance a coldness with an inner warmth, and does so splendidly. Pedretti also makes an impression as the tormented, tragic Nell. But Hill House’s secret weapon might be Gugino, who spends most of the season in the background until she’s given the opportunity to take center stage. The actress, who worked with Flanagan on Gerald’s Game, has a gift for stillness. There’s something remarkably compelling about watching Gugino’s Olivia standing perfectly still, lost in a daze, unsure if she’s awake or in a dream.

The Haunting of Hill House is plenty scary – Flanagan doesn’t resort to cheap jump-scares (save for one or two times), and instead lets a creeping dread set in. Characters wander down dark halls, and you just know something terrible is waiting for them at the other end. The fear factor on display in the series is to be expected. What might catch viewers off guard is how unabashedly emotional the show is. We grow to care about the Crains, and when truly tragic fates befall them, we can’t help but feel sorrow. One episode that takes place during a wake is particularly gut wrenching, building towards a climax wrought with a level of sorrow and melancholy that nearly floored me.

The emotional drama makes the horror all the more effective. “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear,” C.S. Lewis once wrote, and the sentiment translates perfectly to The Haunting of Hill House. This is no mere haunted house show. It is a journey through grief, and regret, and other things that go bump in the night. It will leave you haunted and terrified, alone in the night. In the dark.

The Haunting of Hill House debuts on Netflix October 12, 2018.

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