An exceptional new show launched on Netflix today. The Haunting of Hill House is the terrifying 10-part tale of a family being terrorised by the ghosts of their past. Written and directed by Mike Flanagan, the series is filled with stunning visuals, heartbreaking performances, and carefully crafted scares that help turn it into an instant classic. And your new horror obsession, for the following reasons…
It’s Based on an All-Time Great
The Haunting of Hill House is one of the greatest ghost stories of all-time. Written by Shirley Jackson and published in 1959, the story concerns four characters — a paranormal investigator, his flamboyant assistant, the heir to the titular estate, and a shy recluse — gathered together at Hill House to uncover the secrets hidden therein. The quartet are chosen because of past experiences with the paranormal, though the terrifying events that follow are just as likely to be in their heads as real.
It’s a subtle, slow-burning tome that’s as chilling as it is effective. And in 1963 it was turned into equally potent horror movie The Haunting. Which told a similar tale, but leant even more heavily on the psychological elements of the story. Written by Nelson Gidding and directed by Robert Wise, it’s now considered a classic of the genre. Which can’t be said of the 1999 remake. Directed by action helmer Jan De Bont, this Haunting replaced the story’s subtle scares and ambiguities with expensive special effects that looked good, but failed to ever truly engage or convince.
Now, writer-director Flanagan — whose previous credits include Ouija, Hush and Before I Wake — tackles the same material over the course of 10 hours. Giving that 1963 version a run for its money, Flanagan takes the basic story and extends, expands and updates it in ingenious ways that remain true to the source material, while at the same time adding original and unexpected elements to the mix.
The Story is Filled With Heartbreak and Tragedy
Shirley Jackson’s book is a sorry tale with a sad ending. But the new series is tragedy on a pretty grand scale. Like those Guillermo Del Toro movies that scare you senseless, then leave your heart broken into bits. We won’t detail the full story here. But this is the basic set-up…
In around 1990, the Crain family move into dilapidated country pile Hill House with plans to renovate, then flip for a tidy profit. But mother Olivia starts to have terrifying visions and dreams, their five children come to believe they are surrounded by ghosts, and father Hugh struggles to hold it all together. The family eventually fleeing when tragedy strikes one fateful night.
That story is told in conjunction with the plight of the Crains in the present. And time has not been kind to the kids, the trauma of what happened that night rearing its head through grief, depression and addiction. It’s a family that couldn’t be more dysfunctional, but they find themselves forced together when Hill House starts calling them home.
Timelines Connected Through Thrilling Transitions
Flanagan expertly juxtaposes the two stories via both character and theme. With most episodes focussing on a Crain parent or kid, their experience in the past, and the fallout from that haunting in the present. Often ending on a cliffhanger. Some stories are more interesting than others, but Flanagan cleverly switches between the two time periods through a series of thrilling transitions.
So the young version of a character walks through a door in the 1990s and the older version of that character emerges on the other side. Windows and mirrors are used in similar ways, emphasising that the past is repeating itself in the present. And it’s the same with dialogue; conversations connecting stories and timelines in exhilarating fashion. Lending a feeling of inevitability to proceedings, as if this has always happened. And no matter what the characters do, it always will.
This isn’t the only trick that Flanagan employs to make The Haunting of Hill House so compelling. Episode 6 is a technical tour de force; a theatrical hour of drama that takes place in a funeral home and unfolds via a series of lengthy, unbroken takes. We follow the characters through rooms and corridors as they grieve, argue and fight, and back-and-forth in time as the setting switches from funeral home to old Hill House and back again. All as ghosts appear, disappear, and reappear in unpredictable fashion. It’s grandstanding stuff. And isn’t even the show’s best episode…
Hill House Concentrates on Chills, Not Gore
Mike Flanagan understands the mechanics of a great ghost story in the same way that Charles Dickens, HP Lovecraft and Shirley Jackson did. And the way that 1999 Haunting director Jan De Bont very much did not. This is slow-burning horror that unspools at a stately pace, and is punctuated not by blood or guts or gore, but by chilling moments that send a chill up the spine. Or burrow under your skin.
The show, therefore, spends a great deal of time introducing each character, the audience shadowing both their younger and older selves in everyday life. So that when the scares do eventually materialise, we know the family, like them, and genuinely care for their wellbeing. And nowhere is this more effective than in Episode 5, a quite brilliant piece of television that’s unquestionably the high point of Hill House. A self-contained ghost story that could be a standalone special were it not part of the ongoing narrative, the episode documents the tragic tale of Nell Crain, and is filled with twists and turns, causes you to questions everything that’s gone before, and ends with a devastating denouement. It’s also scary as hell.
Unfortunately, the show’s final few episodes fail to compete with the dizzying one-two punch of Episodes 5 and 6. Haunting builds towards an effective and satisfying climax, but it’s not a barn-burner. Though there’s so much to admire along the way. Most notably the stunning production design and art direction, with Hill House a home that lives and breathes onscreen, and really does feel like it has evil in its walls. There are also superb performances everywhere you look, the kids almost supernaturally good (think Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense) and the adults so believable as a family unit that it’s deeply distressing when they fall apart.
That, ultimately, is the show’s secret weapon. It’s a horror story, about the dead bringing terror and misery to the living. But it’s also the story of a family, like yours or mine, or the people who live next door or across the road. Whose trials and tribulations are sometimes believable, and always relatable. And whose plight would be just as compelling if the supernatural element were removed. Making The Haunting of Hill House not only the horror event of the year, but also a fine drama in its own right, and very possibly the best version of this story yet seen.
The Haunting of Hill House is streaming on Netflix now.