When we think of haunted house horror, we often think of bump-in-the-night cliches and a sub-genre that has been beaten to death. On the surface, The Haunting of Hill House (a Netflix exclusive) is just another one of these haunted house horror movies. However, after multiple viewings, it is easy to see how Mike Flanagan’s ten hour adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel breaks the mold, and lulls its audiences to into spending hours wrapped in its gothic horror setting.
The story flips between the past and the present to tell the story of the Crain family as they deal with the tragedies inflicted upon them in their childhood. The show utilizes flashback scenes to reveal the root of this psychological torment. In the summer of 1992, Olivia (Carla Gugino) and Hugh Crain (Henry Thomas/Timothy Hutton), along with their five children Steven (Paxton Singleton/Michiel Huisman), Shirley (Lulu Wilson/Elizabeth Reaser), Theo (Mckenna Grace/Kate Siegel), Luke (Julian Hilliard/Oliver Jackson-Cohen), and Nell (Violet McGraw/Victoria Pedretti) move into a dilapidated mansion somewhere in Massachusetts. This is Hill House, named after the Hill family, who were the first and only family to have lived in the home. Their plan is to spend the summer living in Hill House while Olivia and Hugh fix up the neglected home in hopes of selling it. These plans quickly turn sour, as the house and the paranormal entities living inside of its walls begin to manipulate the family. The setting and plot through the first few episodes can be confusing as it quickly jumps between present and past. As it progresses, we begin to follow more clearly who these characters are and what events led them to this point in their lives.
The acting is phenomenal and sets the tone for the entire show. Excluding Olivia, each character is played by both a younger and older actor. These younger actors allow us to watch as the excitement of moving into a new home is slowly lost on the family, replaced by terror as the house becomes increasingly active. Their older counterparts, in turn, give us a glimpse of this trauma after it has been allowed to ferment for decades. These actors are paired up very well, each being able to stand on their own as the focal point of their respective episodes, while still being able to take a backseat in episodes that are meant to revolve around other characters. The show delves into the minds of each character and breaks down their unique emotional issues to develop a form of torture unique to each character. This concept is made more obvious by the choice to give each member of the Crain family their own episode.
The cinematography and overall feel of the camerawork change between past and present, helping to better differentiate the two time periods. Flanagan’s decision to utilize long shots helps to build the drama while setting viewers on edge as we follow the actors and can better connect with the characters. These long shots become more numerous and much more important later in the season as the Crain siblings and their interactions with each other take a more central role in the plot.
The Haunting of Hill House is a must watch for horror fans, as well as anyone who loves a well-put-together story. It does a great job of pacing itself and filling in the blanks left by the early foreshadowing. The mix of psychological horror and jump scares provides a similar tone to the 2017 movie adaptation of Stephen King’s It. It holds the viewer’s attention, even during the few moments when the script shows signs of slowing down. The characters are flawed, vulnerable, and relatable which allows people to sympathize with them. The atmosphere grips viewers with with its unique mix of gothic themes, psychological horror, and family drama. The passion of the cast and crew is apparent in every scene. All of these factors blend to form a masterfully done television series; a refreshing change of pace from today’s horror that tends to rely heavily on jump scares and gore. While perhaps not the pinnacle of the genre in terms of pure terror, The Haunting of Hill House provides a fascinating story about the struggles of a family torn apart by trauma and loss.