It has to be said that most horror movies or TV shows today usually go for shock value, gore, and cheap jump scares above great storytelling. What makes Mike Flanagan’s (Oculus, Hush) The Haunting of Hill House (based on the 1959 novel by Shirley Jackson) so unique is that while it has horror elements and thrills and chills aplenty (and a couple of cheap jump scares for good measure of course), at its core is an emotional roller coaster ride and an examination of one extremely disturbed family coming to terms with their past.
Season 1 consists of ten episodes and each of the episodes leading up to the finale jump back and forth between the past (Hill House) and the present. In each episode, we get tiny nuggets of information regarding Hill House and what the Crain family members, which consists of the children, Nell (Violet McGraw/Victoria Pedretti), Luke (Julian Hilliard/Oliver Jackson-Cohen), Steven (Paxton Singleton/Michael Huisman), Theo (Mckenna Grace/Kate Siegel) and Shirley (Lulu Wilson/Elizabeth Reaser) went through living at the house and what led to them fleeing with their father Hugh (Henry Thomas/Timothy Hutton) and leaving their mother/wife Olivia (Carla Gugino) behind to die. It’s through these flashbacks to the past and back to the present that we come to understand the characters motivations and what ultimately led to that fateful night.
One of the children, Luke, an adorable little boy with glasses, is haunted by a floating man in a top hat while living at the house. As an adult, Luke is now a heroin addict and is suffering in rehab because of what he went through (I’d probably shoot heroin too if I saw the things he saw). It’s not just Luke though. Each of the kids goes through something traumatic at the house that shapes and affects their adult lives. Piecing the puzzles together is fun but what makes The Haunting of Hill House scary and engrossing isn’t just the ghosts that go bump in the night, it’s the emotional toll the house takes on everyone. Living in Hill House seriously messed the entire family up and it’s something they just can’t seem to recover from. The show can get extremely emotional at times (you might even cry) which surprised me. This is a refreshing change from the usual show or movie where terrible things happen to the characters but they get out and live happily ever after. Even after the family left Hill House, they never really “left” it.
Each episode is handled well and at least for the first five, they each deal with an individual child. Episode 5 – “The Bent-Neck Lady” is one of the best episodes I’ve seen for any TV show and the way it sets up its twist at the end is gut-wrenching. Thinking they couldn’t top that, Episode 6 – “Two Storms” is a technical marvel. I love continuous shots in anything really (Children of Men and Netflix’s Daredevil come to mind) and here it’s done masterfully. The whole episode is pretty much two sets of continuous scenes over one hour, one after the other. It jumps from Hill House to the present without skipping a beat and I was honestly impressed with the way it played out. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. The time it must have taken to set everything up from the lighting to the actor’s and their perfect execution for each shot in this episode would have been exhausting. If you want to see what went into making it you can check out the video below. Also, speaking of acting, everyone is fantastic throughout the series. Even the children are perfect. I’m expecting some nominations come award season for everyone involved with this show.
While some of the jump scares are cheap (like a fucking screaming dead woman popping her head out from the back seat between two people who are in the front seats of a car). What scared me most while watching it was when the characters would explain what they went through. The caretakers of the house Mrs. Dudley (Annabeth Gish) and Mr. Dudley (Robert Longstreet) who live on the outskirts of the Hill House property (and only work during the day, which should have been a sign to not move into the house) provide backstory and shed light on the history of the house and the people that lived there before. The stories these two tell are far more terrifying because you don’t see the stories play out in front of you, you have to play it out in your head, and that really got under my skin. Also, be on the lookout for ghosts hidden throughout the episodes. They’re hidden in plain sight and don’t do anything other than stand there as a kind of creepy Easter egg you can pick out. My wife and I found one early on and then we couldn’t stop looking for them in the background right up until the end.
Now while I loved the show, my only gripe with The Haunting of Hill House was the finale. It really went back on what my expectations of what Hill House was up until that point and in the grand scheme of things for me, it almost ruins some of the stories that happened earlier on. It undermines certain events and really didn’t have the impact I was looking for. It definitely wasn’t what I was expecting coming off of the previous terrifying nine episodes before. It almost makes it out to be a happy place? I don’t know. It’s strange to say, but I had a good nights sleep after watching the finale (which can’t be said for the other episodes. Falling asleep was hard after watching them.. like really hard).
So, with Halloween just around the corner now is as perfect a time as any to watch something really scary. While it isn’t gory or violent, The Haunting of Hill House will take a toll on your emotions and disturb you. If that isn’t a recipe for a good time I don’t know what is. – NVJ
The Haunting of Hill House is now streaming on Netflix