'The Haunting of Hill House' Begins October 12 on Netflix Sept 29, 2018 18:05:30 GMT -5
Post by Joanna on Sept 29, 2018 18:05:30 GMT -5
The Haunting of Hill House on Netflix
Haunted house movies usually follow a formula. Whether it’s The Amityville Horror, Peter Medak’s The Changeling or the wildly successful Conjuring franchise, the basics are all the same: someone moves into a house, terrible things happen, a sinister backstory or force is eventually uncovered, and things escalate, leading to the finale. The familiarity is part of what makes the whole thing work. With the genre setting audience expectations, filmmakers can then explore their own ideas and themes, or even subvert those expectations for an entirely different result.
Another key element is time – or a lack thereof. Haunted-house stories naturally lend themselves to claustrophobic settings – ideally suited for movies – wherein audiences can be progressively more traumatized, knowing that freedom is just a couple of hours away. This is a major challenge for a horror series like The Haunting of Hill House on Netflix. Adapted by Mike Flanagan, the writer-director behind movies like Hush and Gerald’s Game, the 10-episode series reimagines Shirley Jackson’s classic horror novel of the same name. But instead of focusing on a paranormal expert investigating a haunted home, Flanagan turns the story into a sprawling family drama that is concerned with the lasting impact of grief, loss and tragedy.
The mash-up of haunted-house story and family drama is an imperfect fit, often leaving the expected haunting story elements on the back burner as Flanagan weaves a tale that’s more This Is Us than Poltergeist. The first half of the season is particularly uneven, as the show suffers the slow start that many recent Netflix series have struggled to overcome. But The Haunting of Hill House ultimately comes together in a way that’s both scary and unexpectedly moving. In the end, it offers its own fresh twist on ghosts and haunted houses, while leaving plenty of room for future installments.
The Haunting of Hill House is the story of the Crain family: Hugh and Olivia (Henry Thomas and Carla Gugino, respectively) and their five children. Some 25 or so years ago, they moved into Hill House with the intention of renovating and flipping it. But something went wrong, leaving Olivia dead and the children with a lifetime of resentment over their haunted childhood. The Crain children are still struggling with that legacy as adults in the present day.
Steven (Michiel Huisman) is a supernatural skeptic and novelist who turned his family’s story into a bestseller (which happens to feature prose from Jackson’s 1959 novel). Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser) is a mortician, using her profession to exercise some semblance of control over the death and loss she experienced as a child. Theodora (Kate Siegel) is a therapist who helps children, but is otherwise unable to form any sort of meaningful personal connections. Family screw-up Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) is a struggling addict who has spent his entire life since Hill House numbing himself in one way or another. Then there’s Nell (Victoria Pedretti), who has recently begun seeing visions of the disturbing “Bent-Neck Girl” that haunted her childhood.
When a family tragedy brings the group together – including their now-reclusive father (Timothy Hutton, skillfully echoing Henry Thomas in his portrayal of the older Hugh) – they are forced to reexamine the ways they have shut down, hurt and betrayed each other over the years. They are also forced to confront the issue of Hill House itself: what really happened when they were children? who was to blame? and what forces may be luring each of them back to the house?
The Haunting of Hill House begins with genre expectations out of the gate. It opens with the young Crain family’s last night in the house, and from there, it kicks off an interconnected series of flashbacks, flash-forwards and every other permutation in between. It’s a television show constructed for a modern TV audience, one used to shows like Westworld, where direct narrative continuity isn’t as essential as thematic and emotional through-lines. Flanagan takes deep dives into what makes various characters tick – each episode is roughly centered around a single character – and the show explores how the same events can be perceived by different people, particularly when they bring radically different emotional contexts to the table. Steven, for example, sees his novel as a way of helping his family take something positive from their traumatic childhoods; Shirley considers the novel a travesty and betrayal as though he’s profiting from the loss of their mother in the cruelest way.
The performances from the older Crain children are wonderfully restrained, lending a sense of dignity without allowing the show to veer too far into melodrama. Given this is a supernatural series, it’s impressive how grounded it is, with Reaser and Huisman serving as effective dramatic touch points for the audience. Each of their characters is indulging in his/her own recognizable and easy-to-understand form of denial and it’s easy to invest in the Crain family’s struggles even without all the haunted-house theatrics.
But there are still full-on jump-scares and moments of true horror. When Flanagan decides to unleash that aspect of the series, he brings to bear all the talents at creating tension and misdirection that he’s displayed in his films. Several times, it actually seems as though he’s using the series to pay homage to various genre classics. The way certain spirits appear and the final chase sequence, both strongly echo Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. The sound design and execution of a sequence centered on Nell come off like an extended homage to Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist.
But they don’t just play as meta-references. There are moments in The Haunting of Hill House that are downright terrifying, particularly if watched at home alone in a darkened house. It’s a reminder of how underserved TV audiences are when it comes to true, high-caliber original horror. Shows like Castle Rock flirt with scares and American Horror Story succeeds in upping the weirdness ante every season. But Flanagan’s show is genuinely haunting in a way television rarely achieves.
Or at least, it’s haunting when Flanagan wants it to be. With Hill House, he’s playing with the core tropes and expectations of the haunted house subgenre, and in the name of advancing the family drama, the show often leaves huge questions about the property’s backstory or the escalation of the hauntings 30 years ago completely unaddressed. Several times, the movie begins to feel as though it’s building up a head of steam toward one particular supernatural incident, only to pivot to the present day and leave the story thread alone for episodes at a time. This tactic works well for foregrounding the family – this is a show about the after-effects of loss and grief, not the incidents themselves – and it may well be intended as a way to amplify tension by making the audience wait for the payoffs. But at times, it also feels like the show is teasing rather than truly delivering.
Also problematic is the way some of the horror elements bleed into the present-day world. Without spoiling anything specific, the visions and trauma the Crain kids experienced in Hill House follow them into adulthood, which works from a thematic perspective; of course the things that happen to us when we’re young end up impacting us as adults. But on a purely visceral level, a monster appearing to a character on a crowded city street just doesn’t hold the same sort of visceral punch as it does when they appear in a moody, dilapidated mansion with crumbling walls. The juxtaposition steals the sense of claustrophobia that makes many of the haunted-house moments effective and it underscores the less successful ways in which Flanagan is playing with the genre.
But while the first five episodes do feel uneven, viewers who stick around will be rewarded richly by the time the series wraps up. The show isn’t particularly subtle about the fact it’s about grief, loss and the different ways people cope with these feelings, but it nevertheless follows through on these core ideas in a genuinely moving way. Likening it to This Is Us isn’t just noting the use of a fractured narrative that crosscuts between decades, it’s about the show’s ability to pack an emotional wallop, turning its 10 hours of scares, frustrations and tensions into a cathartic emotional climax that is both satisfying and surprising.
If Flanagan was setting out to reimagine what a haunted house story could be – whether in tone, medium or emotional context – then The Haunting of Hill House is unquestionably a success. It’s not a perfect journey and there are plenty of bumps along the way, but it is a series that will stick in people’s minds – not because of the familiar things it does, but all the things it dares do differently.
The Haunting of Hill House premieres on Netflix Friday, October 12.
Source: Bryan Bishop, The Verge, September 28, 2018.