‘The Haunting of Hill House’ is psychological family horror done right

Emil Hofileña
‘The Haunting of Hill House’ is psychological family horror done right

Steve Dietl/Netflix

The new horror series from director Mike Flanagan proves to be one of Netflix’s better dramas, with strong performances and lots of creeping dread.

Mike Flanagan’s new Netflix series, The Haunting of Hill House, tells the story of the Crain family — five siblings who briefly spent their childhood at the titular house until their mother’s violent death. In the present, they’ve become estranged from each other and their widower father, but several disturbing events threaten to bring them together again.

While the show ultimately has little to do with the 1959 Shirley Jackson novel that inspired it, Flanagan and his writers still understand what makes the original story so effective. With tortured performances, sharp editing, and direction soaked in dread, The Haunting of Hill House shows how real horror lies in other people and in things unsaid.

Most of the uneasiness that runs through this series comes from seeing how deeply scarred the Crains really are. It’s heartbreaking to watch the show’s child actors play these characters with such mutual protectiveness, and then to see the older actors filled with so much vitriol. The entire ensemble excels when they expose their desperate attempts to cope with tragedy or when their interactions explode into confrontations.

Still courtesy of Netflix

 

However, it’s the women who end up making the strongest impression: Elizabeth Reaser (Shirley) and Kate Siegel (Theo) confront their demons with profound regret, while Victoria Pedretti (Nell) and Carla Gugino (Olivia) guide us through some particularly horrifying psychological torture with a real depth of feeling.

It goes without saying that The Haunting of Hill House isn’t the kind of horror series that simply dispenses cheap thrills. It’s far more interested in slowly building tension and an atmosphere of despair. But this doesn’t mean that the show is devoid of overtly frightening moments. Apart from several genuinely creative jump scares, the series largely relies on unsettling sound design to break down the barriers between reality and the supernatural. There are unseen things that pound aggressively on the doors, scrape their nails from inside the walls, and whisper through the pipes. The show dares us to listen closely, and forces us to challenge the nature of everything we hear.

Likewise, the more time we spend at Hill House, the more suspicious we become of the things it shows us. It’s a gorgeous puzzle box of a location, meticulously constructed and shot in either soft lighting or full, pervasive darkness. It demands our attention despite our fear, leaving us with small details that hint at the house’s twisted history. And the spirits that haunt the Crains are scarily convincing—a product of excellent costumes and makeup, and minimal visual effects. The only time this illusion is broken is in The Haunting of Hill House’s finale, when the series sadly abandons these tactile scares in favor of heavy, half-baked CGI and green screen.

Speaking of that finale: as good as the show is at setting up its individual mysteries, The Haunting of Hill House arrives at an overstuffed and heavy-handed last episode that assumes every mystery needs solving. This is the only time the series ever feels like it’s trying to please anyone. Lessons are learned but not entirely earned, the malevolent forces oppressing the characters have eased back, and the show loses its ambition. The rest of the series isn’t perfect by any means — it isn’t immune to the occasional illogical decision and meaningless scare — but the level of daring it displays in its first nine episodes is, unfortunately, sorely missing in the tenth.

However, a disappointing finale almost never invalidates an entire show, and The Haunting of Hill House remains an effective ghost story — one that just happens to double as a series of shocking and beautifully constructed character studies. Each member of the Crain family is depicted as a person who has become tragically incapable of caring for their loved ones and for themselves, no matter how professionally successful or comfortable they’ve become. As the series continues, it reveals its true nature behind all the horror; it’s just as much about the supernatural as it is about grief, mental illness, addiction, storytelling, and how all of these things can splinter a once unified family.

Still courtesy of Netflix

This might seem like too much to take on all at once, but The Haunting of Hill House structures itself in such a way so that every idea leads cleanly into the next. The editing within each episode is snappy and purposeful, jumping around the timeline but always staying rooted in one core theme or central narrative. It’s a simple way for the show to mirror the characters’ streams of consciousness, as they attempt to separate their reality from their persistent nightmares, and as they try to bury their memories of trauma.

The series makes it clear that whatever really happened to the Crains in the past refuses to remain in the past.

The Haunting of Hill House is ultimately difficult to describe without spoiling. But anyone who’s familiar with Flanagan’s other projects can expect something more refreshing than a standard haunted house romp. This is simply a well-written drama that uses horror to more effectively explore difficult subject matter.

It’s also a showcase for Flanagan, who pulls off some of the most audacious, atmospheric filmmaking of his career. His crowning achievement in the show is a 17-minute-long tracking shot in which the Crain family completely falls apart in real time. This kind of storytelling is unseen in most horror movies today, and that alone makes it worth seeking out, even if from behind clasped hands. – Rappler.com

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