Horror has no doubt become an over-saturated genre, especially around the Halloween time of year. Over the last few years, horror has tried to make a come back, with new ideas and concepts constantly being tested to see what works and what doesn’t. Leave it to Netflix to deliver an absolutely incredible horror series in The Haunting of Hill House, one that is actually scary.
The Haunting of Hill House was originally a book, penned by author Shirley Jackson in 1959. Since then, it has received a couple film adaptations, the most recent being the 1999 “The Haunting”, which wasn’t that great. This time around Occulus director Mike Flanagan has taken a turn with America’s scariest haunted house, and holy shit does he deliver.
Those looking for a 10 episode gore-fest will probably walk away from this show disappointed. There is some gore, but what truly drives this series is the slow build up that leads to fantastically scary payoffs. The Haunting of Hill House focuses on the Crain family. The parents, Olivia and Hugh, purchased Hill House and moved their family into it in hopes of repairing the mansion and flipping it for enough money to retire and build their forever home. Obviously, things aren’t that simple and the Crains slowly descends into madness as the house toys with their brains. It’s here that we learn of the horrors the kids discovered growing up in that house, and the traumas that follow them into adulthood.
The concept of trauma is a focal point of the show. Each sibling has grown into an adult, and each battle with their own failings that they blame on the house they grew up in. From a “recovering” drug addict to a lying writer, to an unfaithful spouse, each Crain child has a skeleton or two in their closet. What Flanagan does a remarkable job of is toying with the audience about what is real, and what is in their head. Are these kids really seeing the ghosts of Hill House? Or is it a projection of their mind caused by a rough childhood. Flanagan takes his time revealing answers, especially in the first half of the season. However, once the framework is laid out, the second half delivers some truly memorable payoffs that make all of the backstory worth it.
The way the show is filmed is a spectacle in and of itself. Slow camera movements pan across a dark hallway, creeping up to a door. Other moments see the camera spiral around some central characters which then transition into captivating, fluid, one-shot scenes. The camera never leaves the main characters during these times and as it follows them through the scene, it never cuts to another moment or time. These continuous shots suck you in as a viewer and they don’t let go until they’ve delivered a scare or two. It’s almost hypnotic in a way, really, and some of the scares just come from things happening out of focus, in the background. By the fourth or fifth episode, I had learned to keep one eye on the background at all times, anxious about what might emerge if I wasn’t paying attention.
The siblings are inevitably brought back together after one of them tragically dies. The first half of the season uses each episode as a way to show us who these kids are and how each child is affected by their sibling’s death. This mechanic is used throughout the rest of the season as well, but it allows the parents to have their time in the spotlight also. Every major character gets their dues, and the actors/actresses portraying them, both young and old versions, do a phenomenal job; some delivering truly memorable monologues.
While the primary focus is on the siblings, the screen time the parents get is just as emotional, and important. Carla Gugino’s performance as Olivia is brilliant and she dominates the screen whenever the camera is on her. The older version of Hugh, played by Timothy Hutton, is just as vital to the series and has his own incredible moments as well. While the kids are the primary targets of the house, Olivia and Hugh experience more than their own share of paranormal activities.
The slow burn of this show culminates in some absolutely stellar final episodes as the family inevitably returns to Hill House. While I’m sure this will be renewed for a second season, Flanagan does a great job tying up loose ends and leaving almost all of our questions answered. The house is home to dozens of spirits and most have equal time in the spotlight. I only wish we had a chance to learn how they ended up their or how they died, but I suppose that would be a great jumping on point if the show was to return for another season.