[Review] "The Haunting of Hill House" offers more scares per square foot than any other show on the market
[By Mark Gonzales] October is here and with it have come a spate of series and movies from Netflix that aim to scare the pants off of you. The Haunting of Hill House is one of the subscription service's most recent offerings and it does, for the first two episodes at least, manage to bring the scares. At the time of this publication, I have only viewed the first two episodes of the series but I am very excited to finish watching the show in the coming days...
...Written and directed by Mike Flanagan (Oculus, Gerald's Game), The Haunting of Hill House starts out strong. The opening scene introduces us to the show's main characters in their youth: four young siblings, a doubting but loving father, and, of course, the haunted house itself. We understand just enough about each character to care about them and to be worried for them as the scene gradually builds to the show's first big scare. This well acted, nicely directed, and perfectly edited cold open lets us know that we are in competent hands.
The series jumps back and forth through time (a difference of roughly 20 years). This structure gives us an It style of story that tells us two tales in one--the story of the haunting of a family and the second tale of the now grown children who must return to the haunted house to face down their fears. While we don't get back to the house in the first two episodes, the pull of the home is undeniable. The audience watches in fearful anticipation as we both dread and desire for the family to go back into Hill House.
The ensemble cast includes Carla Gugino (Gerald's Game), Henry Thomas (E.T.), Kate Siegel (Oculus), Michiel Huisman (Game of Thrones), Elizabeth Reaser (Ouija: Origin of Evil), and Mckenna Grace (The Bad Seed). Many of these cast members have worked with Flanagan before, some more than once. While it is unclear to me whether Flanagan's motive for working with the same actors on multiple projects is based in comfort or if he writes his roles with these specific men and women in mind, the results are undeniable. Cast members fit perfectly into their rolls. Elizabeth Reaser's Shirley is subtly haunting and haunted while still giving us the impression that she is over this ghost shit. Huisman's Steven is sweetly sincere with strangers while managing to effortlessly lie to his family.
The contradictions that lie within each character give the show the emotional depth that it will need to hold our attention for the run of the season. The character's individual conflicts also seem to hint at a larger theme of the dichotomy of a home. That is to say, how can a home be a place of security and a prison at the same time? I look forward to seeing how the series resolves this question.
The show's child actors are especially good. While most are relatively unknown, the one exception being Mckenna Grace of I, Tonya and Captain Marvel, the children play their rolls like veterans of the screen. The decision to cast former child actor Henry Thomas as the paterfamilias is more than just a cute in-joke, it is genuinely good casting. He leads the kids well and we see that when it comes to acting, they are his equals.
Watching the child actors as they live and get the bejesus scared out of them inside Hill House, we are struck by how beautifully designed the set is. The set design is perfect in this show. The long hallways, creepily ornate doorknobs, and oppressively tall walls all draw us in while also scaring us away. The set design somehow manages to make us want to be inside the house without wanting to live there. It is another clever contradiction that is masterfully executed.
The Netflix structure for its streaming series is, at times, incredibly frustrating. Individual episodes are designed to keep you watching and lead directly into the next episode. It's rare that you will watch one episode and feel satisfied or to really mull over the events of one scene. You are meant to binge through the series and immediately move onto their next bit of Netflix original programming or, in my case, episodes of Frasier. While I am usually turned off by this format, it works perfectly in the case of The Haunting of Hill House. The viewer will be effortlessly drawn along from one episode to the next and will find it almost impossible to stop watching. I had to force myself to stop at the second episode just to write this review. The mysteries that the show promises to solve are captivating and the scares are handed out at the right intervals.
When it comes to the scares they are effective and tend to say something important about the story. There are few, if any, cats-out-of-nowhere scares and plenty of thoughtful, earned scares. One of the most effective and smart examples of this comes in the second episode. Shirley, as a young girl, discovers a wasp nest in the shape of a screaming face. Upon closer examination, we learn that the nest was built around an old Halloween mask, giving the nest its distinctive shape. What could have been a throw away scare is instead shown to be a thoughtful example of the hidden nature of what frightens us, how a home takes shape, and how under secrets there are only more secrets. The series is rich with this type of symbolism.
While people will justifiably be talking about the performances and writing when speaking of this series, they might overlook the very effective editing. Most scenes end with a continuity cut where we transition from say, a person looking at an old Halloween mask at the end of one scene and into a person looking at a new mask thousands of miles away and twenty years in the future. This is a cute editing trick that is as old as filmmaking itself. But in the case of this show, it manages to show the interconnected nature of the characters, their pasts, and their futures. More than mere familial bonds connect the characters; they are bound by their fears. They are haunted by the past, if you will.
Based on the Shirley Jackson novel of the same name, The Haunting of Hill House makes little attempt at fidelity to its source material. This is to be expected as Jackson's 250-page text could hardly be expected to fill the show's 10-episode order. If you aren't a Jackson devotee, the differences will not be an issue. Most changes are for the better. But if you were offended by the liberties taken by the 1999 film adaptation The Haunting, you will be ripping your hair out after the first five minutes of this show.
We will never know if Jackson would have agreed with the changes that this show has made to her original work. It is doubtful that they have Netflix in the afterlife. But I believe that she would have approved. The series brings new life to her novel and does a fantastic job of doing what she set out to do in 1959--to scare the shit out of us.
By Mark Gonzales