Take an award-winning novel, throw in a director that has proven (more than once) that he’s capable of producing a decent horror film, and you have in your hands the recipe for Netflix’s latest hit, The Haunting of Hill House.
Director, producer, and co-writer Mike Flanagan (Hush, Gerald’s Game) proves his mastery over the horror genre, by skillfully adapting Shirley Jackson’s award-winning novel of the same name. Unlike other, earlier adaptations of the novel though, this series takes only the title, the character’s names, a few other plot points, and not much else.
Before delving any further, here’s a spoiler warning for anyone who has yet to watch the series. The series has been out on Netflix for a little over a month now, if you’re currently enjoying your school holidays or are looking for a new show to watch, we’d suggest you give this show a shot.
Hill House opens with a voice-over of what the New York Times called “the greatest opening paragraphs in the history of horror”; the ever famous “Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within,” courtesy of Steven Crain (Michiel Huisman), the eldest of the Crain siblings. It then introduces us to the rest of the Crain family and why they ended up in Hill House in the first place – Hugh (Henry Thomas & Timothy Hutton) and Olivia (Carla Gugino) Crain are “fixer-uppers” who are planning to renovate the house, and sell it off for a higher price. It is also in the first few minutes of the show that we are also introduced to the ever-unsettling ghost haunting the baby of the family Eleanor “Nelly” Crain (Violet Mcgraw & Victoria Pedretti) – the Bent Neck Lady.
The story of Hill House is essentially told in two main parts, the past, and the present. It is from the past that we see the various events that led up to that tragic night for the Crain Family. It is also from the past that what led the once tight-knit Crain’s to where they are in the present, where calling their family ‘a little distant’ might be a bit of an understatement.
The present shows us where the various Crain siblings are now – Steve is a famous novelist, getting famous after writing a novel about the family’s experience in Hill House. Shirley (Lulu Wilson & Elizabeth Reaser) runs a funeral home and is now haunted – rather literally – by an affair she had several years before the start of Hill House. Theodora (McKenna Grace & Katie Siegel) is a child psychologist who uses her gift of ‘sensitivity’ to help her gain insights into her patients – case in point, how Theo managed to figure out her patient’s foster father was sexually abusing her after touching a sofa in her patient’s basement and having to relive the sexual assault.
Luke (Julian Hilliard & Oliver Jackson-Cohen) is a recovering drug addict who, by the time the series starts proper, is simply trying to do his best, having just received a chip to celebrate being 90-days clean. Finally, the youngest of the Crain siblings, Nelly, is mourning the death of her husband and trying her best to put the memories of what happened in Hill House behind her – it was this thought that led to her, admittedly somewhat predictable, death by the end of the first episode.
Whilst the show certainly has its fair share of jump scares, with bugs crawling out of tiny dead kittens and ghoulish looking faces with gaping mouths appearing out of nowhere, the true horror of the show lies in how it shows us the ways familial love can hurt. That the ones that are supposed to support and guide you through life, can also be the ones to bind you, scar you – both mentally and physically – and even strangle you to death. Ouch.
The sixth episode “Two Storms” also attracted a lot of attention for the way it was shot – namely in several long, single-shot takes. The episode was indeed crafted from these long single takes and where it was not, employed ingenious cuts to keep the illusion going. The episode also seamlessly blends the past with the present, with Hugh walking into the backroom after the lights go out in Shirley’s funeral parlour following a heavy storm, only to find himself back in time, in Hill House’s parlour with his wife and kids.
Though well done, The Haunting of Hill House is certainly not without its faults. For one, the family drama between the members of the Crain family can seem a bit too much, with viewers feeling a need to tell the siblings to ‘get over it already’ with their constant bickering. The show also suffers from a fairly predictable plot though there are certain instances that might surprise some viewers – the revelation of the Bent Neck Lady’s identity anyone?
Some have also asked a fairly important question – with a series so far removed from the source material, can it really be called an adaptation? Should Hill House be so closely associated with Shirley Jackson’s novel when all it has in common at the most are the names of its characters and the title?
The Haunting of Hill House, while not a masterpiece ala The Shining, is definitely worth a watch. Over the course of the series, you follow the Crain’s as they try their best to come to terms with the ghosts of their past that are still haunting them and by the end of the 10-episode family drama, you’ll be left rooting for the Crain’s as they slowly learn – courtesy of Nelly the ghost – how to move past their various trauma and the pain they’ve experienced, to earn their happy ending.
GEEK REVIEW SCORE
Every family has its own drama, the Crain’s just have a little more, and then some. A horror adaptation that at times can feel episodic and slow, The Haunting of Hill House still offers audiences a fairly solid plot and a take on horror that isn’t ridden with needless jump scares.
Story - 7/10
Direction - 7.5/10
Characterisation - 9/10
Geek Satisfaction - 8/10