The Haunting of Hill House (2018) TV Review
By John Gray
Horror is one of the trickiest genres for film-makers. What leaves one viewer watching through their fingers may be met with a bored shrug from the person next to them. There’s a mountain of horror out there, most of it pretty forgettable if I’m being honest. When Netflix announced they were reworking ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ I assumed it would be added to this pile. I’ve never been so happy to be proven wrong.
The Haunting of Hill house tells the story of the Crain family, who move into the eponymous mansion one summer hoping to renovate then sell it on for a tidy profit. The series splits its time between those fateful couple of weeks and the present day. One of the things I found most ambitious was the size of the cast. Although it focuses on one family almost exclusively throughout, it’s a fairly large group, comprised of father and mother Hugh and Olivia, children Steven, Shirley, Theo, Luke and Eleanor. That’s a main cast of seven characters, all with distinct personalities, personal and literal demons, and differing points of view about what happened that summer.
Thankfully, writer/ director Mike Flanagan proves deft at handling family dynamics in a way that never feels bloated or soapy. These characters feel real, both as individuals and as a family unit. The writing is superb, digging into each main character’s individual damage and ultimately making you root for everyone to pull through. There is a slight tendency for characters to break into long, unbroken monologues at times, but the sheer quality of writing and acting here mean you are never pulled out of the story completely.
When the scares come, they hit harder because you’re invested. And make no mistake, this series is properly frightening. There are very few jump scares here. In fact, the only notable one serves to heighten the emotional power of one particularly fraught scene between two characters. For the most part the series starts with a sense of dread and slowly ramps it up to near unbearable levels.
Mike Flanagan certainly has form in the horror genre, directing gems such as Occulus and prior Netflix hit, Gerald’s Game. The latter is especially notable as it’s based on a story by Stephen King. Flanagan’s storytelling instincts seem to run close to King’s; strong characters with rich inner lives, the experience of childhood, detailed family dynamics…There’s an understanding that the audience has to invest in these characters as real people with real lives, not just generic sacrificial lambs. Some of the strongest horror here is the horror of the human condition; addiction, grief, suicide, estrangement, guilt. The ghosts will spook you- the designs are awesome- but it’s each individuals personal demons you’ll want to see defeated most. As King once wrote, ‘Monsters are real. Ghosts are too. They live inside us, and sometimes they win.”