Mike Flanagan is quickly making a name for himself in the horror genre. He’s directed a number of notable horror movies in the last several years including Ouija: Origin of Evil and Hush. In 2017 he launched his partnership with Netflix with the original film Gerald’s Game based on the Stephen King novel of the same name. His latest venture with Netflix is the terrifying The Haunting of Hill House, a horror series which launched in early October.
The series is based loosely on a novel by Shirley Jackson which shares the same title. The story has been adapted into several feature films, most notably the 1969 Robert Wise classic The Haunting. However, Flanagan puts his own mark on this story and ventures well beyond the source material in crafting a psychologically riveting and deeply unsettling horror family drama.
The Haunting of Hill House follows the Crain family. The narrative takes place over a decades-long span, but mostly shifting back and forth between the childhood and present lives of its protagonists. The main players involved are the five Crain children. Steven (Michiel Huisman & Paxton Singleton), the eldest, has earned his fortune by selling true horror stories including that of his own family, despite being the most stubborn skeptic of the bunch. Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser & Lulu Wilson) has found her calling as a mortician and the owner of a funeral home. Theo (Kate Siegel & Mckenna Grace), blessed with an unexplained psychic gift stretching beyond the peculiarities of Hill House, takes up child psychology. Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen & Julian Hilliard) has fallen deeply into addiction. The youngest, Nell (Victoria Pedretti & Violet McGraw), remains tied the closest to the events that befell Hill House and the mysterious circumstances that lead to their mother’s death when they were children.
The series follows a familiar fractured narrative. In addition to jumping forward and backward in time, the first several episodes take the time to explore each character individually. Each episode delves into one of the siblings’ stories and chronicles the events which lead to their current state. Their relationships to each other are explained through each flashback. Each narrative, past and future, ties the stories together building toward a traumatic shared moment for the siblings. In the past they build to the horrific night when they last saw their mother and in the present they move toward learning of the suicide of young Nell. Flanagan helps the audience to put the story together in pieces, each sequence gaining value as we learn more about the backstory of the characters.
One place in which The Haunting of Hill House succeeds wildly is as psychological horror. So many ghost stories have explored ghosts as symbols of the past. The idea that haunting is a sign of unresolved issues and deep set distress is not unfamiliar, but often in the bounds of a two hour feature film it’s difficult to fully flesh out the characters while maintaining a scary atmosphere. Over the course of a ten hour series however, Flanagan has the chance to tell his characters’ stories fully and without excessive exposition or a rushed pace. He is able to truly analyze the psyche of the Crains while still steeping the audience in slow, gruelling terror for each and every second.
The scares of The Haunting of Hill House are well earned. Flanagan allows his camera to pan slowly around rooms. He lets his audience soak in the space and become familiar with the settings so that when something is out of place or an unwelcome specter appears, the audience will have been long unable to resist settling into a comfort with the characters’ surroundings. The slow camera movements keep one’s eyes darting from corner to corner of each vast room waiting for a ghostly figure to appear, and Flanagan refuses to justify his audience’s expectations to the point where you may find yourself wishing for the ghost if only to escape from the horror that something even scarier might soon arrive.
The matriarch of the Crain family, Olivia (Carla Gugino), is the litmus for much of the plot even though she is one of the least utilized characters on screen, particularly in the season’s first half. The mystery surrounding her death drives the characters even once they have long accepted that it is something they will never understand. When Flanagan offers us bits of characterization, it is often brief and it alters our entire understanding of the house, its secrets, and its significance to the Crains.
If I have one gripe with the show it’s Hugh (Timothy Hutton & Henry Thomas), the siblings’ father. While he serves to guide much of the plot, I never found myself quite invested or sympathetic to his character. He drives the Crain kids with the wisdom of somebody with a greater understanding of what they survived all those years ago, but his apparently intricate knowledge of the house’s inner workings is never really earned. As Flanagan draws us deeper into the truth, it is never revealed where Hugh apparently learned to understand the how and why of Hill House which he seems inexplicably equipped with in the present.
The child performances in the series are sublime. It is always difficult for a director to find a child actor who can fulfill their vision, but in his youthful cast Flanagan finds five. They display innocence and naivety which complement their mother’s psychological struggles and the unexplainable events in the house. They react to horrific sights with believable fear. Best of all, they perfectly align with the adults that their characters grow in to.
The Haunting of Hill House is a beautiful, terrifying, and perfectly contained story. It engages with its characters in a way that few horror movies have shown capable and maintains its atmosphere in a way that few horror series have had the self control to. Its ending poetically draws together the themes that it set up and fulfills the story’s mystery in a way which is thoughtful but deeply satisfying. There has been no confirmation of a second season of this show and in the near perfection of the first season, I hope that Netflix will refrain from tarnishing a beautifully told story with a forced follow up. The tale of Hill House is done and done spectacularly.