SPOILER WARNING – THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR THE NETFLIX SERIES THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE
I have found that the best way to enjoy TV shows movies comic books everything is to avoid any mention of them on the internet.
Obviously as someone who writes about such things I don’t think that’s good advice for you, but I try to stick to it as much as I can for myself.
I went into The Haunting of Hill House with very little knowledge of this particular adaptation. I think I read Shirley Jackson’s novel when I was in high school, though I don’t remember it well. I’ve seen both the 1963 and 1999 film adaptations. They’re very different and I enjoy them for different reasons, but the older one is the superior film.
If I’m being honest, my main reasons for being excited about and watching this series are Mike Flanagan and Carla Gugino.
I’ve been a fan of Gugino ever since seeing her in Son in Law, though she really became one of my genre favorites in the Cinemax film, She-Creature (I could write a whole other post about those weirdo AIP re-imaginings and the related action figure line). After that she became a regular fixture in films like Sin City, The Unborn, watchmen and Sucker Punch (which I still have unresolved feelings about).
As for Flanagan, he did two things that impressed the heck out of me – he created an excellent sequel to a shitty movie with Ouija: Origin of Evil, and he successfully adapted a Stephen King novel. And not just any novel, but Gerald’s Game, one that is basically a single protagonist tied to a bed for days straight. Obviously if you’re going to tie someone to a bed, you’re gonna want Carla Gugino.
But in all seriousness, those two working together produced absolute cinematic magic, and I was up for more of the same, especially with a longer format and a larger cast to interact with.
Did the show deliver on the promise implicit from Flanagan’s past, smaller scale projects? Read on.
1 – Fulfilling My Ghost Dreams – There are ghosts in the background of the flashbacks all the time. And they’re just there being spooky and not doing anything. It’s wonderful.
For years now I’ve been wanting a ghost-related show or movie to do that sort of thing – specters that are there to establish a certain atmosphere and sense of unease rather than being part of the plot in any way. I’m sure it’s been done before, but not in recent memory and not in anything I can think of off the top of my head.
You know what? It’s like the ghost kid from Three Men and a Baby.
That whole thing went down when I was still young enough to be unsure about such things. The first time I actually saw the kid, I got chills so strong it was almost painful and it disturbed me for years. I still get chills just from seeing the image, even though I know the truth.
I want to feel that kind of unease again. I want the shock of realizing there’s something in the background that should not be. And even though they’re part of the story and I’m older and more cynical now, The Haunting of Hill House gave me that particular brand of creepy. And I loved it.
2 – Family is Complicated – The Crains are just like your family, except that they went through a horrible supernatural experience.
Each of the family members is relatable and each has their foibles. The tragedy that befell them – the loss of Olivia, the mother of the family – magnified their weaknesses and strained their relationships with one another. This narrative point allowed the creators to examine a fraught family dynamic in a sort of blown-up way.
Hill House, however, was so effective at exploring this family dynamic that it possibly could have been just as effective as a family drama without the supernatural elements.
3 – Long Shot – Episode 5 got lots of people talking, and rightly so, but I’ll get to that in a minute.
For me, episode 6 is the one that was a masterful piece of television.
Much of the episode had the appearance of being one long take – with the cast carrying on conversations and moving about Shirley and Kevin’s mortuary as they hash out their problems and deal with all being together again for the first time since Olivia’s death. The seeming lack of cuts creates what I found to be the most tense situations of the entire series, even though there were no ghosts involved. Cuts allow the audience to take a breath – if even for just a second – and the lack thereof amped up the drama and the intensity of the scene.
I didn’t have a timer, but I’d estimate that the first continuous scene of the episode lasted at least fifteen uninterrupted minutes, and for that entire time I was on the edge of my seat.
4 – Daddy Issues – What I’m about to say is probably going to make me sound like a dummy, but I like to be honest with you guys.
I spent the first several episodes of the show wondering how the heck Henry Thomas’ old age makeup looked so good.
I don’t do a whole lot of research prior to watching shows. I just want to watch them and enjoy them. Going in, I had no idea that two different actors were playing patriarch Hugh Crain. Thomas and Timothy Hutton – portraying the older version of Hugh – do such a phenomenal job of playing the same character that they got me.
The funny thing is that I was watching the eyes and the mouths so closely – because those are always telltale signs of makeup – and still didn’t catch it because Thomas and Hutton very much resemble one another in those areas.
In any case, both actors provided remarkable performances. Thomas was inspiring as a young, hopeful father dong his best to manage his deteriorating family while Hutton was heartbreaking as a lost soul who simply doesn’t know what to do – until his family finally comes back together and he once again has to provide leadership and strength.
5 – PTSD – The adult Crain children are all broken in different ways. The loss of their mother devastated them all, but each has unique psychological scars.
As the show proceeds, each of the children receives the focus of an episode. We learn who they are and how they live. Shirley is a control freak, Steven is essentially an unscrupulous con man making a living as an author, Theodora can’t develop relationships, and Luke is an addict.
Eleanor has held onto the actual memories of what happened at Hill House more tightly than any of the others, and is constantly haunted by the horrors she and her family experienced there.
The show weaves its exploration of the family in with supernatural activity and weirdness in a very satisfying way. It’s neither a spooky soap opera nor a dramatic horror story – it incorporates the story elements so smoothly that it stands above either of those simplifications.
6 – Episode 5 – I have to admit that out of the first five episodes, this one was a drag. Eleanor’s life was, for the most part, significantly less interesting to me than her siblings’. But the storytelling was a necessity and almost lulled the audience into a sort of comfort zone with her particular brand of damage.
Until the end of the episode when we witness her final, horrifying fate – that her death in the house is not self-inflicted and the she becomes the very entity that damaged her younger self.
Due to weird time displacement hijinks, upon her death Nell travels back through time to each incident of her younger self experiencing “The Bent-Neck Lady”, one of the more upsetting phantoms seen in the show. Only she is witnessing these events because she is the bent-neck lady. Her death propagates her own ghastly fate.
The last ten minutes of this episode justify the slightly plodding narrative that precede it and make it one of the most memorable and shocking TV experiences I’ve had.
7 – Might As Well Jump – Speaking of Nell and memorable experiences, there’s a jump scare in episode 8 that got me like a mofo. I can say with some degree of confidence that the last time I was that startled was the first time I watched The Exorcist III. It was brilliantly staged.
8 – Children Are Our Future – What the heck is going on with all of these brilliant young actors today?
When I was coming along I feel like people under twenty were all kind of shitty actors, with a few exceptions. Or maybe not shitty actors, but just portraying a certain kind of unrealistic child.
Nowadays we’re getting all of these incredible performances from the likes of the Crain kids, the Stranger Things cast, the cast of IT: Chapter One, and more. Each of the young actors in The Haunting of Hill House has amazing range and, most importantly, charm. It almost seems that the era of the annoying child character has passed.
9 – Luke – Out of all of the Crain children, Luke got me the most.
While the various crippling emotional issues of his siblings are tragic in their own ways, there’s something much more tangible and immediate about drug addiction. And to see the sweet, innocent child that Luke was become the helpless, hopeless junkie that he did.
I thought for sure that he had died in episode 9 and the thought truly upset me.
10 – Theodora Crain, Psychic Psychologist – In episode 3 Theo gets a bit of a side quest that I found particularly engrossing. I’d gladly watch her in her own spinoff show.
11 – Persistence of Time – I loved how this show played with sequences of events. It’s always thrilling to me when showrunners can successfully pull off twists and turns that reveal plot points and different perspective on familiar situations.
12 – The Tall Ghost – In episode 4 (the Luke episode), young Luke has a ghostly encounter that is shot to perfection. The ghost itself is unnerving, but the way that the
13 – Hill House – Finally, there’s the house itself.
The actual location is in Lagrange, Georgia, and before you ask – no, I don’t plan to visit.
It’s a massive, creepy manor and the interior is full of twists, turns, and all kinds of nooks for spooks to hide in. There are statues of people lining some of the halls, so often what you think might be a statue is actually one of those background ghosts, and vice versa. This works to keep the audience tense and unnerved at all times – there are no “safe” spaces.
All of the classic haunted house elements are present – convoluted architecture, long corridors, vast rooms that still seem somehow crowded with furniture, and of course a dumb waiter, which leads to one of the most terrifying scenes in the series.
The house itself is a character. It feels hungry and malevolent. Even during times of peace, I felt concern for the family and that overwhelming sense of “GET OUT!”; not that the house wanted them out. It wanted to devour them.
14 – But They Didn’t Stick the Landing – Your mileage may vary, but I found the final episode to be a massive letdown.
It wasn’t so much the story as the execution. The previous nine installments were masterpieces of horror – both psychological and metaphysical. The creators used every trick in the book to tell a moving and terrifying tale. The visuals were beautiful and amazingly choreographed. The narrative was expertly paced and compelling.
Then, in the final episode, it felt like the reigns were handed over to the CW’s least competent storytellers.
The action felt clunky and uneven, the story seemed drawn out, and the momentum went from “we cannot stop this disaster train” to “okay, I guess we have to do this now”.
I wasn’t a fan of portions of the resolution, including the supposed happy-ish ending of Hugh being reunited with Olivia and Nell, mostly because Olivia was never really redeemed. She went insane in life, but even in the afterlife was never shown to see the error of her ways.
I also don’t understand why Steven had to keep Hugh’s death a secret from Theo and Shirley. I mean, at some point they’re gonna be like, “Hey – where’s the dad we just reconciled with and survived a massively traumatic paranormal experience alongside?”
And that lousy song they played over the final sequence was just the drizzling shits. I expected far better from such a lofty, well-produced show than the type of drivel we’d see from the denouement of any run-of-the-mill teen angst show from the last two decades.
Still, the preceding nine episodes make the tenth worth enduring.
If you haven’t watched this new Netflix original series yet, I highly recommend you get to it. It’s engrossing and fascinating. Okay, 90% engrossing and fascinating.
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