The Haunting of Hill House, 2018.
Created and Directed by Mike Flanagan
Starring Michiel Huisman, Paxton Singleton, Carla Gugino, Henry Thomas, Elizabeth Reaser, Lulu Wilson, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Julian Hilliard, Kate Siegel, McKenna Grace, Victoria Pedretti, Violet McGraw and Timothy Hutton.
After a tragedy caused them to flee from the ominous Hill House as children, the now adult Crain family are forced to confront the terrifying force that has haunted them ever since.
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson is often regarded as one of the greatest horror novels ever written. In 1963, Oscar-winning director Robert Wise adapted the novel into the acclaimed film entitled The Haunting, which we looked at a few weeks ago, finding it to be a brilliantly spooky old school ghost story. Nearly 60 years after the novel’s publication, modern-day horror master Mike Flanagan brings us The Haunting of Hill House, a ten-episode mini-series that honours and innovates upon what has gone before while setting a new high bar for what television horror is capable of.
To call The Haunting of Hill House an adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s novel is somewhat inaccurate, as the series wisely discards Jackson’s plot that had already been brilliantly adapted by the 1963 film. By freeing themselves from the restraints of being a faithful depiction of the novel, Flanagan and his writing team use it as a jumping-off point to re-contextualise its themes and ideas to create a new original story.
The series follows the plight of the Crain family as they attempt to contend with their traumatic past at the titular house, the story alternating between their terrifying childhoods and their tragic adult lives decades later. The show handles the dual narrative brilliantly, evenly balancing the two halves in such a manner that ensures that one never overpowers the other. Tonally, while on the surface a horror show, Hill House is much more. If anything, the series is arguably less of a horror show and more of a serious drama, with many of its best moments often keeping the horror elements to a minimum in favour of zeroing in on the family dynamics.
The first half of the series takes a clever approach in that it takes place over the same few days, opting to tell the story of these days from the different perspectives of the Crain children, allowing for a variety of reactions to the various moments that are repeated. For instance, the image in the first episode of Nell (Victoria Pedretti), the youngest Crain, dancing alone in the dark emptiness of Hill House, is downright eerie as she sways in amongst the statues. However, when shown again in the fifth episode, that same scene takes on a much more poignant and tragic air as we see it from the perspective of her emotionally shattered mind.
The horror elements, for the most part, work well also. While the show uses jump scares throughout, they manage to land most of the time, thanks to some terrific and terrifying build-up that is often scarier than the actual scare itself, as well as an infrequency that stops them from becoming a crutch for the show to rely on. For instance, a scene in which eldest sister Shirley, while alone in a mortuary, sees the ghostly figure of her dead mother on the slab. Then her mother sits up. The icy still silence making for a chilling scene, with the eventual noisy scare, while perhaps not as scary, at least feels earned.
In my view, one of the scariest moments of the show comes when middle child Theodora (Kate Siegel), who is a child psychologist, is treating a young girl haunted by a figure she calls “Mr Smiley”. To understand the monster haunting her patient, Theo, who has psychic abilities that work via touch, visits the basement of the child’s foster home. Quickly discovering Mr Smileys origins via a genuinely disturbing scene that simultaneously shows little while showing just enough so that we have a picture of who the real monster haunting this child is.
Aside from the explicitly spooky moments, the show also has several great scenes that allow for character development while adding to the mythos of the titular house. One such that stands out as one of my favourites is when Crain family patriarch Hugh (Henry Thomas) is in the basement with Mr Dudley (Robert Longstreet), the groundskeeper of Hill House. Mr Dudley then proceeds the story of his personal connection to the ancient building through his mother and then his wife. Nothing happens at this moment. There are no jump scares, no hidden ghosts, no nothing. It’s just Mr Dudley telling a story. But despite its simplicity, it is dripping atmosphere and dread as the story grows darker, the moment when he speaks of his stillborn daughter and how he and Mrs Dudley used to hear its cries in the dead of night being downright chilling. It’s a simple scene, but a masterful one that, thanks to the brilliant writing, direction and Longstreet’s understated performance, leaves you hanging on every word.
Aside from creating the series and serving as its showrunner, Flanagan also takes on the task of directing all ten episodes, allowing the show to maintain a consistent tone and atmosphere throughout. Every hour of its runtime imbued with his very particular brand of drama infused, monologue heavy horror.
While the show as a whole is excellent, its sixth episode, entitled “Two Storms”, stands out as the finest hour of the show for Flanagan and his crew. A masterfully constructed hour that presents the dual narrative via a series of extended long takes lasting as long as 17 minutes. The scenes set in the present opt to focus more on the dramatic side of things, the actors delivering what might be their best performances. Navigating the dialogue-heavy nature of their scenes beautifully, playing their roles with passion and intensity. The flashback sequences opt for a more horror heavy approach, the long takes allowing this episode to be the scariest, with the lack of edits keeping the use of jump scares to a minimum. The scariness comes from the various things that suddenly appear/disappear or move as the camera tracks back and forth, making re-watches a must to catch all the hidden scares. I particularly like the first instance in the episode where the narrative transitions between past and present. Instead of a simple cut, we follow an older Hugh Crain (Timothy Hutton) in the present as he walks down a hall and turns a corner, suddenly finding himself walking the cavernous ominous halls of Hill House in the past. A crashing chandelier, signifying the first cut as he sees his younger self (Henry Thomas) entering the scene.
The Haunting of Hill House boasts a huge ensemble cast who deliver fantastic performances across the board. The child actors deserve considerable credit for their work, the young performers nailing their roles in such a way that serves to complement their adult counterparts and performing some of the best child acting I’ve seen in quite some time. Taking on the roles of the adult Crains, are a similarly brilliant cast. All managing to make their characters distinct from each other while still managing to feel believable as siblings. Even if the actors supposedly playing twins are actually nearly a decade apart in age, you still believe them to be twins.
While I feel it might be a tad unfair to pick favourites among the cast because they are all so brilliant, I have to praise the work of Victoria Pedretti and Carla Gugino in particular for their stellar performances. Pedretti, as the adult Nell, paints a heartbreaking portrait of a young woman wracked with anxiety and depression, her attempts to find happiness being constantly thwarted by outside forces. Pedretti, portraying this mental fragility with a delicate vulnerability that is genuinely moving. Gugino as Olivia Crain, the late matriarch of the family, gives perhaps the most versatile performance of the ensemble. Gugino, portraying this transformation from a warm mother and into an increasingly unhinged danger with a subtle and unsettling air to her performance, particularly in her certainty that she is doing what’s best to “save” her children. These two might be my personal favourite performances, but once more, I have to praise the entire cast, who all deliver superb performances throughout.
Masterfully crafted by Mike Flanagan and his team, showing the true potential of television in telling complex and terrifying horror stories to rival and even better that of film. A brilliant ensemble, giving phenomenal performances and terrific direction from Flanagan across all 10 hours with a carefully crafted pace and execution that makes watching episode after episode an addictive experience akin to reading a great novel. There is a lot to love about The Haunting of Hill House (the rest is just confetti), and while I’ve tried to spotlight as much as possible, there is a lot that I couldn’t fit into this review without it being longer than Exodus (or a Mike Flanagan monologue). In short, The Haunting of Hill House is among my favourite horror works in any medium, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.