The Haunting of Hill House (2018)
Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House is considered one of the best literary ghost stories published during the 20th century. It was adapted for film in 1963 by Nelson Gidding and directed by Robert Wise under the title The Haunting. Although only doing moderate box office upon release, the movie was moderately well received at the time and over the years has gained a critical reassessment. Contemporary critics consider it one of the finest genre movies of its era. Hence the prospect of a new ten-part television adaptation made exclusively for Netflix, was initially met with a great deal of scepticism. However, writer and director Mike Flanagan has wisely chosen not to retell the original story, but instead taken its themes and concepts and woven them into a compelling and very contemporary tale of a dysfunctional family traumatised by their collective experience at Hill House. Jettisoning the classic trope of a paranormal investigation into a haunted house, he instead presents us with two narratives that run in parallel and regular intersect with startling results.
Hugh and Olivia Crain (Henry Thomas and Carla Gugino) professionally renovate and refurbish dilapidated houses and “flip” them for resale. Both are gifted professionals; Hugh being the consummate problem solver and Olivia the creative and sensitive interior designer. The couple move into Hill House with their five children, Steve, Shirley, Theo, Luke and Nell only to find the building problematic in several ways. There are no accurate plans, there’s a hidden basement and a locked room that remains resolutely inaccessible. The children start to experience disquieting nocturnal phenomenon that their parents at first ignore or rationalise away. Yet over time Olivia begins to succumb to the malign atmosphere, culminating in a tragedy and the family fleeing the house. Years later each surviving member of the Crain family are dealing with the fallout of their respective experience. Nell suffers night terrors and sleep paralysis, while Luke struggles with drug addiction. Theo is a child therapist and Shirley has become a mortician. Steve the eldest who believes he never actually experience the supernatural and that his family is blighted by hereditary mental illness has become a successful author specialising in writing about the paranormal. Events begin to occur which then begin to draw them inexorably back to Hill House.
The Haunting of Hill House unfold at a measured pace to facilitate focus upon the central characters. The first five episodes are designed to explore the backstory of each family member both in the present and in the past. Over time, several key events are shown from different perspectives, each adding another layer of complexity and nuance to the proceedings. The adults cast, and their child counterparts are universally good, providing strong and credible performances. Viewers need to keep the wits about them as there is often a lot going on at key moments, both front and centre and in the periphery of shots. There is often a palpable air of tension and the jump scare and shocks are well crafted. Several spectral characters such a “bent neck lady” and “bowler hat man” are well conceived and suitable ghoulish. Hill House itself has a grim and morose presence and although largely digital, the illusion of a decaying, malevolent and possibly sentient structure is well maintained. The screenplay frequently uses passages of classic dialogue from the source text at exactly the right moment. Iconic scenes are also expressed in interesting new ways, such as “who’s hand was I holding” and the seminal wall pounding sequence.
But the productions real strength is the way it uses the family in crisis trope as the foundation of the story. Not everyone is a sympathetic character but they’re all relatable. The female leads are especially strong, and their story arcs have the most substance to them. There are several genuinely emotional revelations that have real weight, rather than being just arbitrary kicks in the “feels”. The final resolution of the Crain family’s trial and tribulations is complex and dares to explore the paradoxical symbiosis between the supernatural and those who experience it. The only major criticism I can level against this production is that the languid pace may not be to everyone’s taste. Some viewers may want a more concise story, where I was content to let matters unfold at their own pace. This point notwithstanding, The Haunting of Hill House is a superior piece of dramatic, cerebral genre fare. It successfully takes something old, established and much loved and revitalises it with a healthy dose of imagination, creativity and human insight. It is features robust scares as well as moments of note and is superior to a great deal of its current cinematic counterparts.