Author’s note: Updated from original posting. All ten episodes were provided for review. The show arrives on Netflix on October 12th.
The Haunting of Hill House, Netflix’s new horror series, is a new telling of the Shirley Jackson novel of the same name. Developed, directed, and almost completely written by Mike Flanagan, it’s a show not meant to scare you full on; it focuses solely on character, using its hours to create a bond and an understanding of who they are and why they are the way they are. Some characters work more than others, and in the early hours, the focus on each one individually can lead to some duller moments, but once the threads start connecting, the show becomes riveting and clever in how it approaches a devastated family looking for answers. By the end, it stands as a ten-hour horror epic.
Something happened in Hill House, something terrible. It’s left the Crain family reeling, years later, teetering on estrangement and not as loving a family as they once were. Some chose to profit from it, while others turn to vices to cope and move on with their lives. But the events and its effects will not let go, and so the Crain family are brought together, slowly but surely, to confront what happened all those years before.
The cast is full of Flanagan alumni, with Elizabeth Reaser, Carla Gugino, Henry Thomas, Kate Siegel, and Lulu Wilson. They join Michiel Huisman, Victoria Pedretti, Timothy Hutton, and Oliver Jackson-Cohen as the story is told in the present and the past, the puzzle pieces laid bare of this family, now and then. It’s a good way for the story to be told, even if it does focus too much on the present at times. The major standout of the series is Pedretti as Nell, the youngest sibling, a major focal point of the season and whose episode is deeply moving and heavy on the heart. Pedretti is able to convey a lot of emotion with just her eyes and is a major reason the season picked up when it does. Gugino, too, in the later hours, is wonderful, diving deeply into her character in a way that elevates all of the hours that came before.
Another standout is the set design. The Hill House is the classic gothic horror mansion but with character and charm in its various rooms and nooks and crannies. The funeral home, too, run by Reaser’s character Shirley, gives a good impression of its owner and provides a great setting later in the season. The production itself is slick and polished, Flanagan using shadow and effective tricks to provide some haunting moments. He also uses long takes at certain points, letting a moment breathe and giving its actors the room to play off one another.
The show does not dive into dread or terror; rather, it focuses on a slower, more methodical take on these characters’ deep fears. It’s psychological, keeping to a steady pace of getting to the pit of these characters’ cores. It’s not always rewarding in that regard, as some prove more taxing and closed-off than others. But in some instances, and episodes, it excels vastly, and becomes like a psychological horror film just under the feature length requirements.
This comes in the back part of the episodes provided, the third episode onward. The series becomes engaging at that point, building and taking these characters to places the first two episodes only hinted at. The show had an upward trajectory I was completely surprised by, as I was starting to wonder if it was going to settle into jump scares here and there but focus on personal things in these characters’ lives. But it marries the psychological to the character in such interesting and personal ways, that the show instantly became fascinating to watch.
Flanagan does crib from himself, at times. There are hints of his Gerald’s Game in here, along with Oculus and Ouija: Origin of Evil. They could be construed as nods, if they weren’t almost copies of scenes from the films. This isn’t quite a detriment, as they are memorable moments; however, if you’ve seen his past work, it can leave some bigger moments and visuals as “been there, seen that”. But he certainly has good taste, taking good moments from his own stuff.
The last stretch of the show is magnificent. It builds on these characters in such a careful and calculated way that makes all the little pieces before all the more satisfying. It takes on a heavy burden in delivering these characters into their fears and becomes something far more psychological and gripping. The final hours are more defined horror than before, settling into these characters’ hearts and minds as the house and its toll come creeping back. The house itself becomes far more prevalent, and it is a hell of a place to spend some time in with the show.
As a version of Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, this is almost a completely different take with only names and little bits and pieces attached back to the original source material. This is Flanagan’s interpretation, a version about childhood trauma, and what affects family and time can have on a person. It’s not always running on all cylinders, focusing too hard on the minor details at times. I was completely taken by surprise from hour three onward, especially in its final four, as the show settled into itself and started toying with the concept of personal perspective on events, longstanding grievances, and the horrors of belief versus mental trauma. In The Haunting of Hill House, character is paramount, and their inner turmoils are just as haunting as the haunting of the house they once lived in. It’s worth the stay, and worth your time.