The Haunting of Hill House (2018)
Written by Mike Flanagan, Meredith Averill, Jeff Howard, Charise Castro Smith, Rebecca Klingel
Directed by Mike Flanagan
Hugh and Olivia Crain bought Hill House in the summer of 1992 with grand plans to renovate & flip the house as the final stepping stone on their way to building a dream home of their own. The Crains brought their five children to live with them and over the course of the next few months, their lives descended into a nightmare. Twenty-six years later the Crain children are dysfunctional and distant, each attempting to make his or her way through life with little hope. Steve is a famous horror author who lives in denial while Shirley runs a funeral home and always seems on the verge of exploding in anger. The rest don’t fare any better. An event occurs one night that forces them all back together, forces beyond their control as moving them towards a moment of confrontation with their family’s past and their horrors. It is time to come home.
I went into The Haunting of Hill House reasonably skeptical. I am not the biggest fan of Mike Flanagan though I have enjoyed some of his work. I thought Absentia and Oculus were very competently made and atmospheric horror pieces, I did not enjoy his Ouija prequel though. I also must admit I have not read much Shirley Jackson, whose novel was the basis for this series, but I have enjoyed the work I have consumed. There was an extremely positive buzz surrounding this Netflix adaptation, so much so that I sat down and watched the first episode. I have to say; I was pleasantly surprised in all the best ways.
Flanagan took a pretty standard concept: “A group of disparate people gathers in a haunted house to study its horrors” and reinvented it so brilliantly by turning those people into siblings. Immediately the emotional stakes of the story are amped up. You have the evil presence in the house that feeds on the fears of individuals and when they are related it makes sense that those fears are shared or are in conflict with each other. When a horror story carefully takes its time to lay out the human stakes of its characters, then the evil has a real sense of urgency. I care about the person on the screen; therefore, I empathize with their emotional and physical plight.
The Haunting of Hill House is like if Lost were about a haunted house, though you could argue that the classic tv series already was. The Island, much like Hill House, is a place that collects souls, especially tormented and conflicted ones. Those who visit the Island and Hill House are compelled to return to it, to try and resolve the pain inside them that seems to fester, not realizing entities in that place want to feed on their suffering. Haunting also uses flashbacks and spotlight episodes to flesh out each sibling and parent so that by the time we reach the tenth and final episode the audience is clear about what is at stake and wants this family to find some form of healing.
I deeply appreciated how Flanagan refused to give an origin to Hill House. Much like the Overlook Hotel in The Shining, we don’t need to know how or why it became such a fount of corruption, just that it is and that the dark forces behind these places are near omnipotent. Flanagan also makes this particular haunting unlike most we see, which are traditionally just specters of the past crying out from their undeath. Something else is going on underneath the surface that I won’t divulge but isn’t so obscured that a viewer would be unable to pick up on it. The fifth episode is when Flanagan lays it all out on the table, and we know that more is going on than we previously realized, but even then there are more mysteries to be explored.
The Haunting of Hill House is the program I was clamoring for after the conclusion of Lost. There were many Lost clones to come along, but they all believed the mystery was more critical than multi-dimensional characters and honest, intelligent writing. The Haunting of Hill House, while not a perfect piece of television, feels like the network drama I wished was aired. Instead, new media outlets like Netflix are the home to this refreshing original programming. Better than Stranger Things in the development of its characters’ humanity, this is a flagship series for the platform.