Mike Flanagan’s Netflix series is among the greatest haunted house tales ever filmed
Many years ago, when I was coming of age as a horror film obsessive, my mother mentioned that – to her- the scariest film ever made was Robert Wise’s 1963 movie THE HAUNTING. She cited the lack of blood, of violence, of anything remotely exploitative in the picture and praised the way it had the power to terrify with sound and mood and the reactions of its characters to things that went bump in the night. For someone who was in love with FANGORIA magazines and who was waking up in the era of practical special FX from goremeisters like Tom Savini, this sort of antiquated picture seemed a bit too tame for me. But then I saw the film. And I got it. And man, did it get me…
Wise’s adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s novel “The Haunting of Hill House” is indeed a marvel of dread and seems only more powerful when stacked against Jan de Bon’t vulgar 1999 FX-soaked stinker of a remake, a migraine-inducing dud that fills in all the delicate blanks of its predecessor with unimaginative shocks and overbaked imagery. News of yet another mounting of Jackson’s tale, this time as a Netflix series, might have annoyed some of THE HAUNTING’s puritanical fanbase (especially in the wake of that de Bont bummer), but turns out there’s no need to fret. Because this new incarnation, THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE, is helmed by OCULUS and OUIJA 2 director Mike Flanagan, a director who is probably the only voice in contemporary horror worthy of the moniker “master”. Here is a filmmaker who truly, deeply understands the mechanics of the haunted house drama, who almost always shows a deft hand at balancing character and carnage and refuses to submit to cheap shocks and savagery. Flanagan developed, wrote and directed every episode of THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE, making this the ultimate Flanagan experience, a ten hour free-fall into domestic hell that honors the source novel and the Wise film and still manages to feel contemporary, fresh and accessible.
In short, it’s one of the greatest small-screen horror entertainments I have ever seen.
In long, the series charts the down-spiraling fate of the Crain family – father Hugh (played in youth by Henry Thomas, in the twilight of his life by Timothy Hutton), mother Olivia (Carla Gugino) and their five children – who move into the dreaded Hill House with the aim to renovate and flip the mansion while also living within its walls. Veering between this evocative past and dismal present, we meet the now grown Crain children. The oldest boy, Steven (Michael Huisman), has changed his name to Crane and is now a successful author, whose semi-fictional account of his family’s childhood time in Hill House has made him a very wealthy man indeed. Steven is cynical and skeptical and exploits the supernatural to his own ends while harboring a Gibraltar-size grudge against his father whom, even decades later, he still suspects of killing his mother. Oldest daughter Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser) is a mortician, married with children of her own; troubled therapist Theo (Kate Siegel) is blessed/cursed with telepathic powers and wears gloves so as not to psychically react to everyone and everything she touches; and twins Nell (Victoria Pedretti) and Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) have led troubled lives since living through a terrible event in Hill House (she experiences paralyzing night terrors and he is a hopeless heroin addict), one that they can’t remember but has something to do with a “bent-necked woman” who has continued haunted them well into adulthood. When Nell’s life hits a wall and she ventures back to the now abandoned, monolithic Hill House, she is found hanged, like her mother before her, a suspected suicide. This tragedy slowly, surely and often horrifically draws the fractured family back together, steamrolling this nightmarish narrative towards its surprising, blood-chilling and deeply emotional conclusion.
Everything that marks the best of Flanagan is alive and well in THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE and his delicately constructed, beautifully observed story takes the essence of Jackson’s tale and makes it his own. Everything works, from the startling performances and richly written character arcs, to the alarming production design, deliberate pacing, harrowing emotional beats and a series of swelling, brooding scares that are as sophisticated as they are merciless. This is not the formulaic modern spook show stuff of Blumhouse, nor is it the nihilistic arthouse misery of acclaimed supernatural shockers like HEREDITARY, rather Flanagan’s THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE is, at its core, a tragedy, using hauntings as a metaphor for a family fractured by mental illness and – despite a tapestry of trauma – is still held together by an unbroken string of genuine love, one that endures even after the grave. Flanagan excels at this tightrope act, of delivering sensitive, devastating notes on familial collapse with a macabre eye for primal cares that you feel deep inside. And the emotion pushing both isn’t one of cruelty or exploitation, rather it’s sadness and a deep-seated empathy. something so rare in the genre.
While some might argue that the show’s pace and meandering dialogue might harm the end result, we strongly disagree. THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE is a masterpiece of its kind and one of the most satisfying and affecting entertainments Netflix has yet to produce. Binge it late at night, all night, for maximum, creep-under-the-covers effect.