'The Haunting of Hill House' review: A masterful showcase of how to do horror right
'The Haunting of Hill House' will be one of Netflix's first major forays into horror television, and looks set to be genre-defying.
Over the past year or so, Netflix has made significant strides in producing and releasing original content. Their shift in strategy has seen them pour in hundreds of millions to ensure that when the time comes, other networks pulling their content from its platform will leave a minimal impression. The likes of 'House of Cards,' 'Bojack Horseman,' 'The End of the F***ing World,' 'Daredevil,' 'Master of None,' and so many more have helped establish the network as a genuine competitor in an already oversaturated market, and these successes are only making executives bolder in their calls.
Netflix has been dipping its toes in horror of late as well, with 'Veronica,' 'Before I Wake,' '1922,' and a few more making a decent splash. But the network needed something big slated for Halloween, so it turned to Mike Flanagan, the same man who made the seemingly 'unadaptable' Stephen King novel 'Gerald's Game' into a movie for the platform.
And while Flanagan has been honing his skills in the genre since he made his breakthrough with 'Absentia' in 2011, by his own admission, his latest would present an altogether new challenge. His adaptation of Shirley Jackson's seminal 1959 gothic horror novel, 'The Haunting of Hill House' would be Netflix's biggest foray into horror yet, and considering it would be borrowing one of the 20th century's best literary stories, the pressure would be on.
To what I imagine will be the dislike of many, 'The Haunting of Hill House' bears resemblance to Jackson's novel in just name alone. Flanagan's borrowed the title while changing practically everything else, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. It means that the series doesn't have to withstand unfair comparisons — as most fans are won't to do — and can be judged on its own merit. And if you were the types who did not want to read an entire review, here's one word to describe the series: spellbinding.
The series unfolds with an introduction to Hill House, a decades-old mansion that stands menacingly in the backdrop of a forested estate. Be it the archaic windows, the spiraling staircases, the nightmarish hallways, or the dozens of antique adornments, Hill House offers you an oddly terrifying welcome; one that stays with you as the story progresses, lingering in the recesses of the mind and never failing to evoke this sense of impending dread.
The Crain family are the unlucky souls who will have to call Hill House their home for the summer. Hugh Crain (Henry Thomas) fixes and flips houses for a living, and Hill House happens to be his latest project. Accompanying him are wife Olivia (Carla Gugino), and his five children, Steve (Paxton Singleton), Shirley (Lulu Wilson), Theo (Mckenna Grace), Luke (Julian Hilliard), and Nellie (Violet McGraw). As the series progresses, we visit both their younger and older versions in turn as they come to terms with the sinister impact the house has had on their lives without them ever realizing it.
One can appreciate how well-structured 'The Haunting of Hill House' is. Instead of relying on the odd scare here and there to keep the viewer engaged, Flanagan trusts his storytelling ability to keep audiences hooked. There's never a dull moment as the first five episodes play out the lives of each of the five siblings and how Hill House has, unbeknownst to them, influenced who they've turned out to be and slowly chiseled away at their sanity. A running theme that I noticed was of how almost every character in the show had a long monologue at some point in the series, combine that with the fact that each is given the time and space to develop a story arc, and you end up with people who you find yourself invested in and care about.
The non-linear narration style that the series embraced could have gone horribly wrong —choppy transitions could easily have given the impression of a mangled storyline — but Flanagan manages to strike the perfect balance. The audiovisual cues he employs to trigger the passage from the present to past and back aid these smooth shifts, ensuring you're not left behind at any point.
Whenever I rate horror, I like to look at this aspect that has come to be popularly known amongst netizens as "anticipation porn." Simply put, anticipation porn is that time between the music and the background score going all suspenseful and macabre and the actual scare unfolding on your screen. James Wan perfected the art with 'The Conjuring,' and if I'm being honest, 'The Haunting of Hill House' isn't too far behind. The creaking doors, the rattling doorknobs, the violent banging on the walls, the heavy breathing and the 360-degree camera pans — which I do feel Flanagan may have overused to an extent —are inevitably followed up by whatever unthinkable fright the show has in store for you next, and it unfailingly gets a scare out of you each time as well.
But, what I did find annoying was — and bear with me here — all the screaming. It seems like such an odd thing to critique, doesn't it? How can you admonish someone for screaming when they're scared? It's the essence of horror itself. But my criticism pertains to how it was done more than why it was done. Because of the anticipation porn I'd mentioned previously, the buildup to these scares was almost always punctuated by this disquieting stillness and silence. Taking that into consideration, the screams, in contrast, sounded grating and harsh and made you want to gnash your teeth in annoyance. There were more than a couple of occasions when I had to take off my headphones because my ears wouldn't stop ringing, and whether that's by design or by accident, it did dampen the viewing experience.
Speaking during his featurette, Flanagan had explained how the genre was in a transformative phase and that the traditional, tried and tested ways were now outdated. "Horror is changing," he had said. " It got to the point where the genre was content just to startle people. Now, we're seeing that audiences are much more sophisticated. For our show, I want to go back to a time when horror was much more profound than being just afraid." He had also spoken of how he wanted to approach the series differently compared to a feature film, saying, "In 90 minutes, you can get away with scaring people three or four times. For something like this, for over ten hours, the rules are very different. I want to build a sense of tension and to sustain it for as long as possible."
Break those statements down, and you find that 'The Haunting of Hill House' has nailed pretty much all of what Flanagan was going for. While certain aspects of the show are an ode to traditional horror — there are a few jump-scares scattered in between that make you jump out of your chair — it's all the other bits that are done so well that make you appreciate how well made it is. Flanagan stays true to Jackson's motif of prioritizing terror above all else, something he manages to showcase very well by playing out a large portion of the story through the eyes of five small children. There are only a few things in the world purer than true, unadulterated fear, and the wide-eyed looks of bewilderment, shock, and betrayal conveyed via some stellar acting induces that raw emotion like little else.
I can't really complete the review without giving a shoutout to the incredible attention to detail. As the episodes go on, we see Olivia, who was once bright and peppy, look more and more gaunt-faced and broken. Her flowing brown hair also gets more frazzled, her eyes develop these heavy bags underneath them, and her cheeks sink in; it may be minute but I find it fascinating nonetheless. The actors played their part in making the show what it is as well, though I'd like to give a special mention to Timothy Hutton, whose stuttering, resigned, and apologetic portrayal of the older version of Hugh Crain was exemplary. The cinematography and the music went some ways in giving 'The Haunting of Hill House' its eerie, otherworldly quality.
In the end, maybe what makes 'The Haunting of Hill House' so truly terrifying is how close it hits home. The supernatural aside, the series is the story of five siblings who are haunted by a past that refuses to let go. Each has their trials and tribulations, and issues embedded so deep in their psyche that they've built coping mechanisms that do more harm than good. Each has demons they need to confront before they can move on with their lives. It's something that most can understand and relate to, and it's this very relatability that the show relies on, in the end, to deliver its punches. And boy, do they hurt.
'The Haunting of Hill House' was shot with a simple directive — "What you don't see is scarier than what you do" — that has worked exceedingly well for it. Flanagan will rightly take most of the plaudits, and who knows, as time passes, we may very well see him mentioned alongside horror greats such as John Carpenter, Wes Craven, and George Romero.
On October 12, you're expected. Do not miss out.
Watch the trailer for 'The Haunting of Hill House' here: