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TV Review: The Haunting of Hill House

There will be spoilers in this review. I’ve watched The Haunting of Hill House on Netflix and I’m having a lot of feelings about it and I know I’m not alone in this. It is less based on Shirley Jackson’s book of the same name as it is in the spirit of it. It has been decades since I read The Haunting of Hill House, but I fully intend to get myself a new copy to reread as I would very much like to refresh my brain on this now and see how it holds up. There won’t be any commentary about the book translating o screen in this case because I honestly don’t remember the source material well enough anymore.

After the image, there will be all sorts of spoilers for the show.

The Haunting of Hill House (image: Netflix)

 

 

Rather than taking this show piece by piece and episode by episode, I would like to go at this from the big picture. The way Mike Flanagan has used time, fear, grief, addiction, background, focus, and the supernatural together is masterful. It’s my opinion that this is the best horror put out in a very long time. There are shades of King’s Rose Red, places that feel more like pieces of Hill’s Horns, a rich and dark atmosphere like Rickman’s Curfew.

I love horror movies and tv shows. I love being scared. It’s been a long time since I have honestly jumped and screamed the way I did while watching this show. I screamed loud enough to scare my dogs awake on two separate occasions. The magic of it is that I saw all but one of those jump scares coming a mile away and I still jumped and screamed. That last jump scare I didn’t see coming and I’m very lucky I didn’t have my coffee cup in my hand at that moment.

In so many scenes there are faces you miss or slight movements by the statuary. Blink while you’re watching this and you could miss a girl in a window or a statue turn her head or a strangely dressed figure just out of focus. The costuming for most of characters doesn’t matter quite as much but with Olivia, there was a progression. The closer she gets to the House, the more she interacts with it, the more ethereal and flowing her clothes seem to be. She became very whispy, maybe even thin, before she was ever part of the House.

My only real criticism is actually of the house itself – it doesn’t exactly look real when we see it from the outside in the dark, in the places where they flicker the lights and we see the hulking beast of a house in the fog and the dark, it looks more like a Kincade painting gone all the way wrong. The inside is almost as confusing, until it isn’t but that revelation doesn’t come until the end. Hill House is an enormous gothic style mansion that has fallen to disrepair and been purchased by the Crain family so Hugh Crain and his wife Olivia can fix it up, sell it, and build their dream house.

The casting is brilliant both for the younger cast and the older cast. After meeting Hugh Crain for the first time, I may have whispered, “Elliot” in a weird voice but really, he hasn’t changed much since he was a kid. Henry Thomas is still brilliant at being both curious and scared. The older Hugh Crain, Timothy Hutton, is no slouch either. It took me a minute to place adult Luke but you might remember Oliver Jackson-Cohen from the ill-fated Emerald City as Lucas or from the also ill-fated Dracula on NBC as Jonathan Harker. For me the two girls playing Eleanor Crain Vance, Nell, stole the show, Victoria Pedretti as an adult, Violet McGraw as a child.

Hill House is a place that has seen a great deal of pain and grief and insanity and its whispers linger everywhere. The spirits who live there manipulate and prey on the fears of everyone. The youngest of the Crain children see it especially. Nell sees the Bent-Neck Lady, feels the fear of seeing this horrible apparition at the very worst moments. Luke sees monsters that are never fully revealed outside of his drawings, a floating specter in a bowler hat, a shadowy figure in a prohibition era cellar, and a little girl named Abigail who everyone thinks is imaginary. He comes to realize that no one will ever believe him about anything. It is around these two children, their fears, their pain, that the bulk of the story revolves.

The middle Crain child, Theo, shares a very important gift with her mother, Olivia. They are both gifted with some kind of psychic abilities, sensitivities. It pushes Olivia to the brink and pushes Theo into the cold where she isolates herself to keep from feeling those things, from following down the same road as her mother. The older children are mired in their own problems, the oldest, Steve, doesn’t even know what he’s seen, not that he would believe it if he did, and the second oldest, Shirley, is so angry at everything she can’t really see anything.

Olivia Crain is tormented by migraines and nightmares until she can’t quite see the difference between awake and asleep and becomes the perfect target for the most insidious of the House’s permanent residents, a crazy woman named Poppy who wants Olivia to bring her whole family and come to stay at Hill House. Forever. Where they would be safe and never hurt or broken by life. In a stroke of brilliance, this ghost shows Olivia selective bits of the future where Nell is dead on a mortuary table and Luke is on the floor with a needle in his arm and tells her that this will be their future if she doesn’t wake them up. Even if Miss Poppy’s idea of waking up is pretty well the exact opposite of that.

The caretakers of Hill House are very strange people and I don’t quite know how I feel about them. I think they should have tried to tell the Crains, to warn them ahead of time. I also pity them. When their story unfolds, you can’t help but pity them. I know Mr. Dudley made me think of Tom Waits in tone, timbre, and pacing when he told young Hugh about him and his wife’s personal history with Hill House. It’s easy to understand why they don’t stay in the house but a little less easy to understand why they’ve stayed as long as they have, until the night Olivia finally snaps and kills their daughter, adding her to the collection of Hill House Ghosts, then I absolutely understand their staying on to take care of the house.

Beyond being haunting in the traditional scary sense, it is haunting in the lingering emotion way also. I have a lot of very big feelings about Nell and the Bent-Neck Lady. Honestly, Nell in general. The House played on her fears as much as her mother’s, about her being alone and unseen in that crowded room. The House folded time to show her the truth of herself and ensure Nell would come back, would be driven next to mad just trying to find a moment’s peace. The House waited until she had known true and utter happiness and may or may not have had something to do with stripping it away to bring her back into its clutches. She might have been the only one of the kids to find real happiness before the postscript.

There is something I don’t understand though. If for Luke the Red Room is a treehouse and Steve also sees it as a treehouse when Luke is in it, how did they get into the room and still believe it’s a treehouse? Does the door extend beyond the limits of the house somehow? Do they just not remember the walk to the treehouse somehow?

This is a haunted house story, but it is so much more than that. It is a story of loss, of others and of self. A story of family, forgiveness, grief (and all the stages of it), sacrifice, and, at the last, healing. Yes, it’s atmospheric and scary and will make you jump a little and go eeww a time or two but it’s not just anything.

There’s a little talk here and there about a season 2 with some assurances that it won’t be the Crain family we’re watching get ripped apart again which I’m glad about. I could see it being a bit of an anthology type series, a la Channel Zero and American Horror Story. If they go that route, I hope we see another haunting tale. Flanagan has proven he can give us something unexpected and amazing and I’ll be very interested in seeing whatever he brings to the viewing table next.

What did you think of Hill House?

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