You’re going to have to let go of a few things to enjoy Netflix’s “adaptation” of The Haunting of Hill House. First, you’re going to have to let go of any comparisons/expectations regarding Shirley Jackson’s original novel or the classic 1963 horror film directed by Robert Wise. Aside from a few quoted passages and the names of characters and places, this series has very little to do with the original titles on which it’s loosely based. If you can’t let go of that, you will never truly enjoy it. We don’t know why director/showrunner/horror master Mike Flanagan went this route for a story that could have easily been stripped of any references to the source material and stood on its own, but what’s done is done and as a viewer, it’s one of those things that will only annoy you as the show goes on if you can’t get past it.
The second thing you’re going to have let go of is the idea of a haunted house story being terrifying. While every episode has its jump scares and moments of horror, they comprise maybe 10 percent of the series as a whole. Instead, the focus is on the trauma of people who survive their time in a haunted house and how that trauma eats away at them for decades. There are plenty of things that go bump – or more accurately, shriek – in the night during these ten episodes, but this is more of a story about a family bound together by loss and horror while simultaneously torn apart by it. It’s a story that uses very basic haunted house tropes as metaphors for mental health issues, grief, suicide, family dysfunction, addiction, and the all-too-human state of being in denial about your true self and the inability to see or claim your flaws. It’s no coincidence that the goriest, most horrifying scene in the series is a relatively mundane but graphically depicted human embalming. It’s by design that most of the problems faced by the Crain family members – infidelity, shame, dishonesty, addiction, emotional withholding, obsessive behavior – are all fairly “normal” family issues (in the sense that pretty much every family can tick off one of them in their family tree). Each of those problems are painstakingly traced back to their childhood summer living in Hill House and the horrors they faced there, not just blurring the line between supernatural horror and mental illness, but erasing and eradicating it with great fanfare. And while that’s fascinating in its own way and yields some interesting story results, it means this ten-episode horror series is ninety percent conventional family drama. Which dovetails nicely with our next point.
The third thing you’re going to have to abandon is any expectation that this season of television will tell its tale in a tightly concise, coherent and economical manner. This is Netflix, after all. And like so many Netflix series, it goes on several hours longer than the story warrants, in a now-familiar structure that circles back on itself so many times that it veers fairly close to self-indulgence. While Flanagan makes some masterful choices in order to allow this story to unfold with some flair, when he starts returning to the same scene for the third time halfway through the series, you might find your patience waning. In addition, if you binge-watch it, you’ll probably quickly notice that every episode contains at least one scene where all the action comes to a halt and someone gives a five or six-minute monologue that builds in intensity and comes to a climactic finish. Some of these scenes are pretty great, like ghost stories around a campfire, but the repetition gets monotonous and expected if you watch too much of it at once. Several of these grandly dramatic monologues are given by characters who have almost no other lines, which makes the use of them all the more notable over time.
So, having listed all these problematic aspects to the series, are we panning The Haunting of Hill House? Not at all. While the structural issues could definitely use some tweaking, the fact that it’s essentially a sprawling family drama punctuated with jump scares and a pervasive creepiness is pretty interesting. As if we checked in on all the Poltergeist movie kids in their middle age and found out how fucked up their lives were from living in that house. It helps that the cast is pretty uniformly great. Elizabeth Reaser as control-oriented older sister Shirley (yes, they went there) and Victoria Pedretti as mentally unstable youngest sister Nell are the real standouts, but Carla Gugino as their mother gives a charismatic performance of a woman being slowly driven mad and Oliver Jackson-Cohen gives a heartbreaking rendering of an addict very nearly gone for good. The casting of E.T. star Henry Thomas as the younger version of the Crain family father and Timothy Hutton as the older version was nothing less than a master stroke. All of the child actors are similarly well cast, to the point that it’s ridiculously easy to get up to speed as to who’s who and what everyone’s name is because they all look like the same people at different ages and the actors all work to give seamless performances that match up. And the script does a fairly spectacular job of depicting how adult siblings interact and speak to each other. The arguments – and there are many – feel as real as if you’d rounded a corner in your own house and came upon members of your family ready to tear a piece off each other.
Moving away from performances and plot, there’s as much to be found in the cinematography and art direction to recommend the series. It looks simply gorgeous at times. There’s an entire episode (one of the best in the series) set in a standard modern funeral parlor that is as richly cinematic, dramatically sweeping, and interesting to look at as any Gothic mansion or natural vista.
But its true heart and the real reason to get caught up in it is the depth of feeling and poignancy that occasionally bubbles up in depicting the tragedies of the Crain family history. There are scenes of such beauty, love and sadness that they make the moments of horror all the more emotional and … well, horrifying. Like a really well-cooked and perfectly seasoned dish that activates different areas of your tongue; a mixing of sweetness and bitterness, each making the other quality all the stronger. As horror, it’s very good at keeping the tension level high, making every setting seem potentially terrifying, and punctuating every episode with moments that are truly scary or creepy, but it’s nowhere near the scariest thing we’ve ever seen and there’s virtually no gore at all. In that sense, it tips its hat slightly to the original film, which became a horror classic more for what it suggested than what it showed (which was practically nothing). Don’t get us wrong, by the end, it sheds most of its demureness and you’ll be treated to rotting faces and shrieking horrors. If you pay attention, you might see how it pulls quite a bit from horror classics like The Shining, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Amityville Horror rather freely, with an ending that comes so close to the ending of a certain season of American Horror Story that it may feel like a bit of a ripoff. That is to say, this show’s got its horror bona fides and it will work to make itself an essential part of your Halloween season of TV viewing, but its true strength comes in how well it gets you to care and get caught up in the emotional trauma of the Crain family and their decades of attempting to get past the brief but life-changing events of Hill House.
If you can get past a few things, that is.