Synopsis – Flashing between past and present, a fractured family confronts haunting memories of their old home and the terrifying events that drove them from it.
Episodes – S01E01 to S01E10
My Take – For years now the haunted house has been one of the most common staples of the horror genre. As an audience we burst with sheer enjoy and terror as we witness an unsuspecting families deal with supernatural surprises and malevolent horrors lurking around in the dark of the night. However, Netflix’s latest series from director and writer Mike Flanagan (Oculus, Ouija: Origin of Evil) is far from a familiar version of a well-known tale, mainly as this isn’t just great horror it’s also brilliant film making.
Driving inspiration from author Shirley Jackson’s 1959 literary classic, which till date is considered as one of the best horror stories by many including Master of Horror Stephen King himself, here, director Mike Flanagan takes a crack at the story by expanding the source material into this era’s most popular narrative medium: a television series. While the book itself has been adapted into film twice before to varying degrees of success: once to critical acclaim by Robert Wise in 1963, and once to universal panning, in the form of the Liam Neeson and Catherine Zeta Jones-led 1999 remake. But never before, has anyone dared to stride this far from Jackson’s source material in their interpretation – and who could have predicted that such a loose re-imagining would be such a success?
Unlike the original novel, which centers around four eclectic intellectuals attempting to prove the existence of the supernatural over one spooky summer, director Flanagan’s take follows an unsuspecting family renovating the titular house. As such, it’s a liberal adaptation, though director Flanagan carries over the names, character quirks, themes, motifs, and scares in a multitude of clever ways. The most obvious nod is the family’s namesake, the Crains, who fans of the novel will recognize as the enigmatic architect of the nearly century-old house itself. The new version is really more like fan fiction about the haunted house at its center laid atop the bones of the source material.
But luckily for all of us, what it loses in faithfulness to plot it makes up for in faithfulness to Jackson’s fixation with the psychological nature of terror, and close studies of her characters. And everything from the writing to the cast to the cinematography to the editing is just amazing. Haunted-house stories are, by their very nature, self-contained, hence it’s quite impressive to witness how this series, manages to be both sprawling and terrifying at the same time. Director Flanagan and the show’s writers take pains to include at least one horror sequence in each episode of this 10-part series, ranging from hauntingly subtle to nauseatingly intense. They’re all elegantly executed, however, and powerful enough to keep you awake at night once it’s over.
The story follows the Crain family led by Hugh (Henry Thomas) and his wife, Olivia (Carla Gugino) and their five children, who in the summer of 1992, moved into Hill House with an aim to restore it to its former glory and then sell it on. And they continue to live in the house, all the five children begin having strange encounters. While Steven (Paxton Singleton), the oldest, is the least susceptible mainly due to his rationalizing nature, but the rest are not quite as the second one, Shirley (Lulu Wilson) fosters a family of abandoned kittens that die one by one, the middle one, Theo (Mckenna Grace) senses monsters and feels a hand that isn’t apparently human clutch hers one night and the youngest, Luke (Julian Hilliard) and Nell (Violet McGraw), twins are haunted by recurrent ghosts, a woman who she calls “the bent-neck lady,” and an eerily tall apparition with a bowler hat and a cane that taps along the floor.
However, in the present day, it’s clear that Hill House’s ghosts aren’t the only ones tormenting the Crains. Now fully grown, the siblings have never fully dealt with, or really even made sense of, the terrifying night they left the mansion — the night that resulted in the death of their mother, leading to their estrangement from their close-lipped father (Timothy Hutton). Eldest son Steven Crain (Michiel Huisman) continues to rationalizes away his family’s paranormal experiences as manifestations of mental illness; ironically, he’s also the one member of the family to talk about Hill House publicly, in a book that caused many hurt feelings between him and eldest sister Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser), who has channeled her early experiences with death into a career as a mortician, typical of her tightly controlled approach to life.
Meanwhile, although stubbornly independent middle child Theo (Kate Siegel) has also channeled her trauma into a career as a child psychologist, her heavy drinking and callous treatment of her sort-of girlfriend, Trish (Levy Tran), betray a deeper inner turmoil. While Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) is now a recovering heroin addict, and Nell (Victoria Pedretti), ends up suffering from a profound personal loss. When tragedy strikes again, the family reunites, grappling with decades of tightly held secrets, a long-bubbling cauldron of repression and family tension which finally comes to a boil, forcing a confrontation.
The series feels like a passion project for director Flanagan, and as an assured collection of 10 episodes it never wavers in the slightest. It’s a slightly slow climb, sure, but only because anyone tuning into a horror show these days expects the generic tropes of a horror show. To be fair, this series indulges in a few of them, there’s one recurring Ryan Murphy inspired ghoul that taunts Olivia in a manner, but director Flanagan muscles by prioritizing story over scares. Yes, it’s a monologue-heavy series, but the writing is rich and haltingly expressive.
Characters often talk around each other rather than to each other, because talking is a way for them to stave off their confrontations with the house and with their past. It reads like a novel, taking its time to convince us of things that go bump in the night, forcing us to watch these things unflinching as they eat away at the light. A good portion of the series’ timeline is given to retelling the events that have led up to the family’s reunion from the different vantage point of each character. The original Jackson novel, and The Haunting film based on it, both end with one character’s death from what may have been suicide, or may have been a sort of spectral murder by the house itself, but here, director Flanagan chooses to open the series with this death, and then spend the rest of the narrative exploring the buildup to it and the resulting fallout among the rest of the family.
Over the series’ ten episodes, director Flanagan adopts a lingering pace that’s almost excruciatingly measured, in order to take a long, close look at the Crain family, the last residents of Hill House. Weaving the past and the present into an almost continual overlap, director Flanagan lets us get to know each of the seven Crain family members, particularly the children, Steve, Shirley, Theodora, and twins Luke and Nelly. The real marvel of the series is in its execution. Plot threads that initially may seem to go nowhere, or seem obvious, actually have welcome, complicated layers that reveal the relatable family dynamics underneath the heightened horror as the series goes on. The intermingling of imagery and emotion here is especially well done, using the actors’ expressions to telegraph the emotional tenor of the scene while keeping the framing and editing restrained.
Even the order in which the Crain siblings are introduced is smart, changing our perceptions of characters’ behavior and giving chilling new context for minor details as significant moments are re-introduced later in the series. What’s also remarkable is the measured care with which he unfolds every close-held family secret and every glimpse at the many dark things lurking in the shadows. Director Flanagan’s camera loves making slow, lingering sweeps of characters in empty rooms, as if to imply the extent to which each member of the Crain family is isolated in his or her own head. The question of how much of the terror the family is experiencing is in their own heads, and how much of it is about untreated mental illness, is a source of building conflict among the family. “Luke’s an addict, Shirley’s a control freak, and Theo is basically a clenched fist with hair,” Steve tells frustrated at his father at one point. “It’s not the house, it’s our goddamn brains.”
Through carefully considered staging and editing transitions that ping off visual or verbal cues, he creates a seamless overlap between the past and the present that makes it clear how entrenched the family still is in the brief time they spent at Hill House. The sixth episode is the most technically ambitious of the series, opening with an unbroken, flawlessly choreographed 23-minute tracking shot that incorporates both casts of Crains.
After that stunning directorial achievement, the series dips for a few dialogue-heavy episodes, but the extra exposition is necessary for Flanagan’s directorial masterstroke: As the puzzle pieces fall into place, the tone of the supernatural sequences changes from terrifying to tragic, evoking the primal fears parents and children have for and of each other. That’s not to say that there aren’t any significant scary moments; this is a horror story, and when the terror hits, it hits in full supply. Without spoiling too much, there’s a particular harrowing sequence involving a recurring specter roaming the halls with a cane. It’s a scene that any filmmaker without some sense of patience could screw up, but director Flanagan leans on the shadows and utilizes proximity for maximum effect, teasing the suspense with the repetition of sound.
Sure, the Crain family are savvy, but the ghosts who haunt them are as solid and convincing as the house in which they reside, so much so that questioning their existence puts the characters at risk. Here, director Flanagan tells his story like a family drama interspersed by ghosts, eschewing most standard horror-movie cues, with the result that when the ghosts drop in, it’s often eerie, unnerving, and in at least one moment legitimately scream-your-head-off scary. Know that there are at least a dozen more chilling scenes like this. On the surface, director Flanagan might seem like an unusual choice to pair with Jackson’s deft exploration of mental collapse. Though he made his name on slow-burning indie fare like Oculus, his recent bigger-budget films, like Ouija: Origin of Evil, and his collaborations with Netflix, like last year’s Gerald’s Game, haven’t exactly been subtle. But with this series, director Flanagan embraces serial storytelling in order to slow down and deeply explore the long-term effects of trauma.
However, a problem with what’s essentially a 10-hour horror movie, though, is that familiarity breeds contempt. It stands to reason that the show might’ve been better off at a tighter eight-episode run as not every episode lands as it should. It’s also not going to exactly satiate those who want cheap jump scares 24/7, though the Bent-Neck Lady, will creep your dreams for at least a night or two after the show’s over, as will the, well, haunting production design of Hill House.
However, one can’t deny the fact that the series could not have worked if not of the stellar performances of the cast. While Carla Gugino, Timothy Hutton, and Henry Thomas, without a doubt lead the ensemble superbly, young actors like Lulu Wilson, Paxton Singleton, Mckenna Grace, Julian Hilliard and Violet McGraw nail their roles excellently. Michiel Huisman, Elizabeth Reaser, Kate Siegel, Victoria Pedretti and Oliver Jackson-Cohen also put in sincere efforts as their adult versions. In supporting roles, Anthony Ruivivar, Annabeth Gishand, Robert Longstreet and Levy Tran manages to leave a mark despite their limited scope. On the whole, ‘The Haunting of Hill House‘ is a masterful, restrained work of horror that works as a slow-burn character study interspersed with genuine scares.
Creator – Mike Flanagan
Status – Season 1 (Completed)
Network – Netflix