SPOILERS. You know the routine.
Horror is a funny thing. We’re scared by such a wide variety of things. Take me, for instance: I was terrified by HAL in 2001, during the scene where Dave was disconnecting him (yes, that’s a spoiler for a 1968 film; yell at me later). I walked out of The Great Waldo Pepper after a plane crash scene. I walked out of Alien the first time Brett started saying “Heeeeere kitty kitty kitty kitty,” but that time I made my brother tell me everything that happened, including the end, and I went back another time to see the whole thing.
Jump scares reliably scare most of us, and as a result often dominate modern horror productions. Sloppily-done jump scares are just annoying, but it’s possible to do them well, especially if they’re not the only source of horror.
And then there’s the spooky-as-hell Something’s Not Right Here kinds of shots. That would be the stuff that gives me nightmares.
To be honest, I only watched THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE because I thought my kid would like it. She loves horror films, and as a result we’ve seen a wide variety of very good ones. (Oculus–not coincidentally also directed by Mike Flanagan–is her favorite film, with the 2004 Thai film Shutter a close second.) Her tolerances are different than mine–she enjoyed Alien and Aliens but didn’t think either of them were scary–and HILL HOUSE appeared to be the sort of real-world-based ghost story that really gets under her skin.
And it is. For nine amazing episodes*, it is.
THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE tells the story of the five Crain siblings: Steven, the oldest, a successful author of paranormal non-fiction; Shirley, an undertaker and married mother of two; Theodora, a child psychologist; and twins Nell and Luke. All five are still traumatized from the time they spent as children at Hill House, an old mansion their parents, Hugh and Olivia, had purchased to refurb and flip. One night, Hugh hauls them unceremoniously from the house, leaving Olivia behind to die. Each sibling has different memories of that night, but none of them know it all–or what really happened to their mother.
(I should also say this isn’t an “Oh, here we go again, they fridged the mom” story. Flashbacks to Hill House are about half the story, and since we’re in spoiler territory, I’ll mention that Olivia shows up in the present day as well. She’s very much a part of the narrative.)
When we meet the adult Crain children, they’re all estranged from Steve, who launched the successful phase of his writing career with a “true” tell-all of their time at the house.** (Shirley in particular feels he’s profiting off their mother’s death.) What the siblings know that Steve’s fans don’t is that he doesn’t believe any of it was supernatural–any more than he believes the strange things he’s seen from time to time in the years since are anything but mental illness. The others, who have all seen inexplicable things, are less inclined to dismiss the influence of the house itself.
And then Nell returns to Hill House to commit suicide, and the remaining siblings are drawn together to hash out their differences.
There are two parallel stories going on in THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE: the slow reveal of the horrors of the house itself, and how one night’s trauma–and subsequent silence–has shaped and damaged the lives of the now-grown Crains. For most of the series, the balance drawn is masterful. The mood is uneasy throughout, and although there are a few jump scares here and there (including one marvelous one in Episode 8 that made me yell so loud I scared the cats), the feeling of menace is mostly built up by showing the audience things the characters don’t recognize until it’s too late.
And the menace isn’t always what you think it is. At one point, Luke is visited by Nell’s spirit, urgently telling him “Go.” He interprets this in one way, but by the end of the series it’s clear Nell meant something entirely different. The narrative is littered with things like this: offhand comments that turn out to be vitally important, anecdotes that end up meaning exactly what you think they don’t. I suspect if I were to watch it again I’d spend a lot of time in early episodes yelling “OH NOW I GET IT” at the screen. (And I think, even when you know all the secrets, this is a series that would stand up well to a re-watch.)
But the powerful core of the story is the family. There’s an undercurrent of “united we stand” in the storytelling: none of them do as well alone as they do when they’re supporting each other. That there’s still such a powerful family bond, even with all of the bitterness and arguments, is a fairly subtle point: an outsider might see the screwed-up Crain kids, whose mother went crazy and killed herself, but before Hill House they were a solid, close-knit family. This is a family shattered by one event, not a lifetime of abuse and neglect. You can almost see the people they might have been if it had all gone differently.
I’m a sucker for good characterization, and HILL HOUSE delivers beautifully. (Theo is my favorite. One character calls her “a clenched fist with hair” which is such a perfect phrase I want to frame it and hang it on the wall.) I’m also a sucker for a happy ending, but if HILL HOUSE were true to itself, it would have stayed the hell away from that.
The final episode is not without its moments–the initial sequence with Steve and his no-longer-estranged wife was a marvelous feat of slow-burn horror–but in the end it manages to undermine the entire series. The house full of ghosts that whisper to Olivia to kill her own children? Becomes a sanctuary for generations of ghostly families, happy to have a place where they can be together. Hugh is able to convince Olivia’s spirit that maaaaaybe killing children doesn’t keep those children safe, and as a reward he gets to die and spend eternity with her and Nell in the red room. (No, really; that’s played as a good thing.) There’s also a thing with a dead five-year-old, whose mother, upon discovering she can hug the child’s ghost, displays almost no real grief, instead briskly insisting that the house has to be preserved so she can be with her kid.
Remember that talking-Olivia-into-murdering-children thing? Keeping this house around seems like a really bad idea.
I didn’t mind the happily-ever-after for the surviving siblings, although both Steve’s and Shirley’s marriages surviving their respective speed bumps is a bit of a stretch. That’s classic melodrama, though, of which I forgive much.
But it’s frustrating. The folks who wrote this adaptation clearly know how to write horror, and they clearly know how to write character, and I have to believe they could have found a way to end the horror story properly and still give Luke his two years of sobriety. Instead they went full-on All You Need Is Love, and maybe we’re supposed to forget the Crains were terrorized in that house and three of them were murdered by it and it tried to kill all the rest of them too.
What was the point of the house being so deliciously horrific if in the end we’re told “Well, actually, the insanity thing doesn’t matter because now we’re reuniting families”?
- Creepy as all hell
- Really well-drawn characters
- Solid, realistic, flawed relationships
- I don’t know a lot about cinematography, but WOW
- OMG THAT [REDACTED] SCARED THE DAYLIGHTS OUT OF ME but I’m fine now
- Another high-quality production from Netflix, which should always be encouraged.
Less Good Stuff:
- The ending did not follow from anything else
- None of those sets resembled Boston or Amherst or any of the other places around here but fine, it’s fine, we’ll all pretend Georgia looks like Cambridge.
RECOMMENDED with the caveat that it doesn’t stick the landing.
*I missed most of Episode 2 because I was warned about the kitten thing. I know, I know; hordes of people dying, and I get squeamish over kittens? YES I DO. And no, the show doesn’t go back to the kitten thing, so if you’re like me you can FF over those bits and you’ll be fine.
**Apart from the ending, this was where I side-eyed the narrative. When telling Shirley he needs to publish his book on Hill House, he’s meant to be a failed fiction author writing out of desperation. And yes he’s apparently been offered an advance big enough to both buy a house in Los Angeles, and offer to bribe his siblings.
Look. I’ve only published three books, but I’ve heard about all kinds of deals, and there’s no way an author with a bad sales history would be offered that kind of money for a book outside of the genre they’ve been writing in. If the first book was a massive hit, then yes, they’d probably be showered with gold for Book 2, but for the first one? It doesn’t work like that (although yes, he’d make it in royalties, but that doesn’t bribe anyone before the book comes out).
(Is that a nit-pick? I feel like that’s a nit-pick.)