The Haunting of Hill House (2018)
Figurative and literal ghosts abound in Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House, not so much an adaptation as an actual creative reimagining of Shirley Jackson’s utterly essential 1959 novel of the same name (go read that thing now, it is absolutely F.I.R.E.). In the hands of rising horror superstar Mike Flanagan (Absentia (2011), Oculus (2013), Gerald’s Game (2017) — go watch all his stuff, too), Jackson’s gothic procedural is expanded and complicated and modernized, becoming a terrifying and moving treatise on generational trauma.
The kids are not alright. Decades after terrifying events in the titular Hill House drove their mother Olivia (Carla Gugino) to suicide, the five Crain siblings are not doing so well. Eldest son Steven (Michiel Huisman) has alienated his family by using their shared history as grist for a popular ‘true’ paranormal book he’d written. Eldest sister Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser) works as a mortician, and is withdrawn and controlling towards her own family — husband Kevin (Anthony Ruivivar) and their kids Jayden (Logan Medina) and Allie (May Badr). Middle child Theodora (Kate Siegel), a child psychologist, is emotionally isolated and promiscuous.
Hardest hit, however, are twins Nell (Victoria Pedretti) and Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), the former wrestling with clinical depression and other mental issues, the latter a hopeless addict whose frequent rehab stints are an emotional and financial burden on the family. The other three have found ways to channel and thus contain their trauma: the writing, the mortuary work, the counseling are all avenues of catharsis to one degree or another, to varying degrees of success. Nell and Luke, by refusing to find ways to dismiss or explain what happened to them, bear the full psychological brunt of their trauma.
Tragedy is inevitable.
Coming together for the funeral of one of their own (hardly a spoiler: a) this is a horror series b) death is most assuredly not the end in this world), the Crain kids are reunited with their long-estranged father, Hugh (Timothy Hutton, with Flanagan regular Henry Thomas subbing in during flashback sequences). The surviving family members must navigate years of denial, mistrust, blame, guilt, and straight up horror to not only resolve the mystery of Hill House, but also heal the festering wounds that have driven them apart.
There is, to my mind, probably not a single better horror director working today than Mike Flanagan. Starting off with the micro-budget Absentia back in 2011 he has, in less than a decade, established himself as an assured, intelligent, master genre craftsman, comfortable in franchise workhouses (Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016) eclipses its predecessor completely), adaptation (Gerald’s Game, a Netflix Original, is what really made everyone sit up and take notice), and his own singular explorations of time, memory, and emotion (Oculus — but all of his films are thematically compatible, I think).
The Haunting of Hill House marks his most ambitious work to date. It’s a sprawling, complex narrative that takes place across multiple timeframes, slicing and splicing the chronology to follow a large cast of characters as they try to navigate a life and a world that they know, thanks to their childhood experiences, is only a part of a larger, stranger, more terrifying reality. Every character is a fully realized individual with their own desires, fears, foibles, and strengths, brought to life by a hugely talented and fully committed cast.
That includes the child actors, too — comprising of Lulu Wilson, Annabelle: Creation (2017), Mckenna Grace, Gifted (2017), and newcomers Paxton Singleton, Violet McGraw and Julian Hilliard. Flanagan has paired the older and younger versions of each character perfectly, and a lot of dread is milked from knowing that these charming kids are going to go through so much hell later in their lives. Violet McGraw and Julian Hilliard are particularly affecting as the young twins, while among the adults it’s Oliver Jackson-Cohen’s turn as the self-destructive Luke that really resonates.
The series takes its time, letting us get to know everyone, building up the mystery, drip-feeding information in a carefully controlled way to maximize our dread and discomfort (as the storylines in the two main time periods unfold in parallel, it’s some time before we’re privy to exact events that drove the Crains from Hill House). Yet not a minute is wasted. This is not another Netflix series that stretches four hours of story over a ten hour running time — the characters matter, the set up matters, the mood, and tone and the tension all matter.
And the horror matters.
This is not a non-stop thrill ride, but when the horrors do come they pack a punch. There are queasily creepy moments (those damn kittens), conceptually horrifying bits of business (as seen in the trailer, the twins as kids predicting their own awful lives), and, when the time calls for it, grandiose moments of the macabre and supernatural. They’re all unified thematically, though — Hill House is very much concerned with how we deal with the reality of death, how we mourn, how we deal with the inescapable fact of our own mortality, and what our brief lives might mean as part of the larger tapestry of human existence. And yes, it articulates these themes through scenes like a reanimated corpse sitting up on a mortuary table, unwiring its own locked jaw.
That’s masterful stuff — not just scaring your audience, but doing so in service to greater, universal themes. A lesser auteur would have cleaved closely to Shirley Jackson’s source text, but in using it as a jumping off point to once again address his own, oft-visited narrative concerns, Mike Flanagan has created not only one of the best horror series of the year but quite possibly one of the best ever.
5 / 5 – Don’t Miss!
Reviewed by Travis Johnson