Published on October 30th, 2018 | by Craig Silliphant0
The Haunting of Hill House
The Haunting of Hill House, loosely based on the book by Shirley Jackson, is one of the best televisions series of the year so far.
I went down a rabbit hole subgenre of horror this year for Halloween — the haunted house story. I read Richard Matheson’s Hell House (eh, it was okay) and I’m currently reading Shirley Jackson’s, The Haunting of Hill House (much more entertaining than Hell House so far). I also rewatched a number of movies in this vein, most of them based on these two books, and most of them having multiple versions. You’ve got The Legend of Hell House, The House on Haunted Hill, The Haunting of Hill House, The Haunting, etc. The majority of the stories are about scientists trying to find proof of supernatural activity while dragging along a cast of people bizarrely unsuited to that task. Many of the ideas and tropes are so similar that it’s a lot to keep in your head while you’re trying to keep the one you’re currently watching/reading straight.
Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House takes Shirley Jackson’s book in fresh directions. It may borrow some names and even some descriptions of the house, but otherwise, it’s a whole new story. It’s the tale of the Crain clan, who, almost two decades ago, inhabited Hill House briefly when they were children. Their mother and father were flipping the house, to “get rich,” which presumes they got it at a deep discount due to its sordid history. I don’t know when they invented the term, ‘flipping,’ but I don’t remember it being a thing in the 80s/90s. There must be a parody in the works somewhere — Flipping Haunted Hill House on HGTV.
At any rate, the house had other plans. The timeline in the past is crosscut with the current day, where the kids are grown up and have a variety of emotional scars, PTSD, and complicated feelings about their family. We bounce back and forth in time to uncover what ultimately happened at Hill House and what became of the family because of those experiences.
Director Mike Flanagan has been cranking out well done horror movies for a number of years, including Gerald’s Game (excellent, except the tacked on extra ending), Hush, Oculus, and even the lesser known Absentia, a hidden gem. Here, Flanagan deftly keeps the story moving, while threading through a number of characters in two timelines and slowly building mysteries both big and small.
I would have very little in the way of negative criticism about The Haunting of Hill House. Sure, there are a couple of cheesy moments and some clichés (the whole druggy storyline feels done before, though still well executed), but nothing that derails the show. In fact, many of these Netflix shows suffer from ‘the Netflix sag,’ but Hill House is well-paced at 10 episodes. It benefits from breaking the story off into little chunks with many episodes becoming ‘that character’s episode,’ so we get to focus on one thing at a time instead of trying to bite off too much at once. It also has fun playing with time and POV; we see several moments from different points of view that change the meaning of the situation.
One of the things you’ve no doubt heard about the show is that it’s so scary that it’s making people, “vomit and pass out.” I couldn’t find a real source for that, other than people parroting it on Twitter (though I didn’t look that hard), so maybe Netflix should be giving the marketing person that got the ball rolling on that one a raise. Anyway — was it scary? Do you need to sleep with the lights on after watching it?
Well, to be honest, I’m fairly desensitized to that sort of thing, so I may not be the right person to ask. My wife thought it was scary, as did several friends I spoke to. I think it had some pretty creepy moments and effective tension. Some of the CGI was poor and distracting to me. There were a few twists that I didn’t see coming, which is pretty rare for me. I watch so much stuff that it’s hard to catch me off guard, but I fell hook, line, and sinker for a couple of them. So scary? Sure. Pee your pants and vomit all over everything scary? Probably not, but hey, what is that scary? A real ghost, maybe.
The real strength of The Haunting of Hill House is the family story. Flanagan and co. don’t skimp on the characters or their relationships here, which gives the horror so much to latch onto. Primarily, it creates characters we can care about and a stake in what happens to them. The family dynamic gives us deeper themes to explore, like children with flashlights in the dark. We feel their loss, their regrets, their pain, but also their joy, their love, and their willingness to come together even through their painful histories and past betrayals.
I found it a little strange that they cast two people to play the role of the father — Henry Thomas plays the middle-aged version and Timothy Hutton plays the elder version. It obviously makes sense that the children and their counterpart adults are played by different actors, but it seems to me they could have aged Henry Thomas up for the current day scenes. It’s a little distracting off the top. That said, both Thomas and Hutton steal the show. Especially Hutton, as the husk of a man who has soured from having to keep too many secrets — secrets that ruined his relationships with the very people he’s protecting. I’d be very curious to read about if (and how) Thomas and Hutton worked out the character together. As the show progressed, it became less distracting. They really did seem to be playing the same man, just many years and a few heartbreaks apart.
So, as I said, minor issues aside, The Haunting of Hill House is one of the best television shows of the year so far and another worthy product from Mike Flanagan. While it has the jump scares that a less discerning audience looks for, it has something more important: a story with good characters and deeper themes at the heart of it. Good horror knows that the more the audience buys into those things, the more immersed they are, and therefore, the more likely they are to jump six feet off the couch when the scares hit.