TV Review: "The Haunting of Hill House" (2018, Netflix)
Before I help you to understand the unbridled awesomeness of Netflix’s newest hit, The Haunting of Hill House, I want you to know something:
This is not the tale you’ve gotten in Shirley Jackson’s legendary story. This isn’t the fun 1963 movie version or the underwhelming 1999 big-screen redo. There’s no investigation involving a medium and a host of other interesting characters. Liam Neeson will not show up at any point. This is a prequel (if you have to classify it). This is the story of the famous Crain family and (to a lesser degree) the Hill family, for which the house is named.
Believe me, that’s a good thing. These ten hours of top-flight terror and human drama are so much better. It’s so much more than a mere “bump-in-the-night” investigation.
Director Mike Flanagan (Oculus, Gerald’s Game) directs all ten episodes with a skill that is clearly growing with every new work. The Haunting of Hill House is the story of the Crain family, who move into the old mansion over the summer to flip it for a hefty profit. He has no idea what he’s about to put his wife and 5 children through or how it will cast a shadow that darkens the rest of their lives. Hill House is powerful, haunted, insane, and hungry. Some of them won’t make it out alive. As adults, the family has scattered to separate parts of the country, but in many ways they’ve never left. As the house calls out to them, bringing more death and tragedy, they’ll realize that you can’t escape some ghosts. They must come together in order to face the nightmare they ran away from decades ago.
The technical achievements in this show are (said without exaggeration) marvelous to behold. The story cuts seamlessly between the lives of every member of the family, with an episode dedicated to each one. The transition from the late 1980’s to the present day is done in the blink of an eye, often with the opening of a door as visual cut. The set design on Hill House itself is legitimately next-level stuff. The house is a main character…and that’s before any of the restless dead inside show themselves! You need to constantly watch the background and reflective surfaces for an almost constant barrage of subtly horrifying glimpses at a diverse cast of former inhabitants.
Speaking of technical achievements, Episode 6 (entitled “Two Storms”) is jaw-dropping. I couldn’t tell if it’s 2 or 3 ludicrously long, continuous shots, but it can’t be more than that. The camera pans, spins, lingers, sways, and blasts on a reunion that’s heartbreaking and seriously scary. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. That episode alone should win a slew of awards. It’s really that good.
It’s also not the best of the season.
Episode 5 (entitled “The Bent Neck Lady”) will make you cry in both fear and heartache. It’s the best in-depth character study I’ve ever seen. The way it unfolds and plays with your senses is nothing short of absolute genius. I couldn’t pick my jaw off my lap at the end. I was literally shaking with the response. Trust me. You’ll see exactly what I mean. Powerful is far too weak of an adjective. You could make it a mini-movie and it would win awards standing all by itself. I’m not shitting you here.
The casting is another home run. Both the child/younger adult actors the grownup/older adult choices are perfect. Young Nelly is innocent and fragile; adult Nelly is terrified and brittle. Young Steven is responsible and sturdy; adult Steven is self-important and in denial. You get the idea. Particularly impressive are Kate Siegel (Hush) as adult Theo Crain and Elizabeth Reaser (Twilight series) as adult Shirley Crain. They own every scene, embodying what would happen to you as a person if you went through that kind of sheer madness and personal tragedy. All of the children are amazing, too. There’s just not anyone you can even remotely take a jab at. Carla Gugino (Gerald’s Game) as the family matriarch, Olivia Crain, is the MVP. Watching her break, going from stunningly beautiful and strong to a living ghost is Emmy worthy. I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see her take some hardware home.
The horror work is deeply nuanced and visceral. You get all manner of ghosts from the more or less freshly dead to the rotted out. There’s jump scares done to the perfection of an exquisite medium-rare steak balanced with subtle background creeps that dare you to look away. It’s been a long time since I’ve let out a sound of terror during ANY movie or show; I yelled out more than once. I still can’t believe it, a hardened horror vet letting out a bitch noise.
The Haunting of Hill House has the scares and tension of the best Gothic horror, but that’s actually the least of its achievements. You can’t go through ten hour-long episodes without really caring about the plight of this family, and that aspect is the jaw-dropper of the whole series. It’s as honest and raw as This is Us, but it’s presented with a sense of danger that makes your skin crawl and the hairs on your neck stand up. These people are standing at the threshold of Hell. That nightmare drips from every frame, yet it’s countered with strong love and all the unadorned ugliness of great family drama. What a combo!
Whether you get into it for the tears or the fear, you won’t be able to sit down and take this one with any kind of pacing. It’s a guaranteed binge. You may actually regret starting it as it will completely fuck up your schedule.
You’ve been warned.