Netflix has given us some truly great original programming. House of Cards, Orange Is the New Black, Bloodline, Stranger Things. The list could go on and on without even cracking the list of Marvel shows, all of which (yes, EVEN Iron Fist) have been good … well, at least decent (sorry, Iron Fist). However, if you don’t count Stranger Things as horror and you discount the solid Castlevania animated series, the horror genre has eluded the streaming giant. Until The Haunting of Hill House.
Netflix made the brilliant move of hiring the director who gave them one of their earliest horror movie original success stories (2016’s brilliant Hush) to correct the wrongs of their first attempt at a horror series, Hemlock Grove. There were a lot of wrongs. Like, a lot. But that’s another post entirely. Enter Mike Flanagan and The Haunting of Hill House. If we get honest, we loved everything about this show. But we’ll use the show’s own “rule of seven” and limit our list to:
The 7 Things We Love About The Haunting of Hill House
1. The Emotional Side of Horror
Director Mike Flanagan has been on a successful ride of late. Following Hush and Oculus, he had another Netflix original, Gerald’s Game, and a savior of a second Ouija movie (Origin of Evil). The movie most forget is his 2011 film, Absentia. Centered around a woman being forced to accept her husband’s death in absentia, the film explores the emotional toil of death and loss (I mean … there’s scary sh*t, too). More than any other, Absentia gave us a glimpse of what Flanagan could do with the source material.
To catch you up (where ya been?), The Haunting of Hill House is based (very loosely) on the classic Shirley Jackson novel of the same name. There have been other adaptations of it (some good and some bad … we could dedicate a post to the Razzie nominated 1999 Liam Neeson film which was an insult to every Scooby-Doo plot ever). The novel also inspired numerous haunted house films and books. But what is new and fresh here are the emotional elements.
Flanagan is not dwelling on jump scares and creepy atmosphere. While the series has those by the hidden room full, the focus is on the after effects of living in a haunted house. Hill House cleverly pieces together a complete narrative by jumping around in time. We get the experiences of the five Crain siblings during their childhood in the house. But we get more of what it does to them as adults. The story is all about how ghosts become more than something you saw. They become memories and emotions and choices throughout life.
2. Carla Gugino
Without giving away too much, this whole show teeters on the shoulders of the Crain matriarch, Olivia. Every emotional underpinning needed to make this show work gets traced directly back to her. The biggest “name” in the series is probably Timothy Hutton. But if you look back at Carla Gugino’s career, you find the mom from Spy Kids, Karen Sisco from the short-lived Elmore Leonard inspired ABC show, Silk Spectre from Watchmen, and the lead in one of those (also short-lived) TNT mystery movies called Hide. Essentially, these are all wonderfully played roles in under-appreciated works. Carla Gugino deserved a place to shine. Hill House gives her exactly that. And she does not disappoint.
3. Little Details
Screen Rant did a great dive into the ghosts you missed in The Haunting of Hill House. Mike Flanagan even commented that they missed a few. A good ghost story keeps your head on a swivel. And Hill House reached wizard level. Countless scenes have you watching the background as much as the main action, constantly on the lookout for faces peering out at you.
4. Family Drama
At its core, Hill House is not a ghost story with some family drama sprinkled in. It is a family drama revolving around a shared ghost story. The ghost story almost (almost) becomes irrelevant. Every family shares memories. For this family, those memories happen to involve ghosts. The story would be every bit as intriguing had the story involved most anything else. Don’t get me wrong. This show is scary as f**k. And you will come to the show for those scares. But you won’t stay for more scares. You will stick around because you care about this family. Many have labeled the series a spooky This Is Us. While I take some issue with the comparison, I can admit … it’s not far off.
5. The Scares
This does not need to be glossed over. Did I mention this show is scary as f**k? Hill House has an old fashioned ghost story vibe. Some of the ghosts even border on a cliché: the floating man in a top hat, the ghastly faced woman in a dress, etc. But it works. Every. Time. And something about the call back to those stock ghosts in our collective consciousness have an effect of connecting with nostalgia and terror simultaneously. The end result inserts us into the mind of children being haunted. We can see the personification of a childhood nightmare and recognize it as wholly ours while appreciating it as a unique experience to the characters. And there is nothing scarier than completely identifying with a character who is scared sh*tless.
6. The Crains Are the Perfect Blend of Likeable and Punchable … You Know, Just Like Your Actual Family
There are five Crain siblings. The eldest, Steve, is so punchable you should probably sit far away from your TV (one foot for every hundred dollars your TV cost). Shirley is supposed to be completely likeable, but we still kind of want to punch her, especially when she is right. So, you know, like any big sister. Theo (played by Kate Siegel from Hush) is supposed to be punchable, but all we want to do is stare at her as she swallows up every inch of the screen in each and every scene she is in. The babies of the family are twins Nell and Luke. While Nell is a special case (for reasons that become clear very early on) and is almost impossible to dislike, Luke is probably the most interesting character in the show. We, like his siblings, have every reason to write him off. But we just can’t do it. Luke is the epitome of the one relative we all have who works so hard to self destruct, but remains our favorite the whole way down his spiral.
Next to the original presentation of the emotional side of horror, the most impressive thing about Hill House is its shifting perspectives. Each episode takes on the subtle (or not so subtle) perspective of one of the characters. And with each new perspective, we gain new clues to unravel the mystery. Or maybe we simply get a new angle on a door we thought had been closed.
Flanagan, like several contemporary horror directors, is a fan of the long tracking shot. But, unlike it is normally used (to build dread … which it still does here), Flanagan is giving us a wide angle of a moment. It serves as a reminder that multiple characters witnessed the same series of events. And after only a couple of episodes, we feel confident we will eventually get to see every angle of every moment. It may not be a brand new approach to filmmaking, but it works. And there is something very fresh here as it applies to horror. This is horror with a bloody heart.
The Haunting of Hill House is now streaming on Netflix.