Mike Flanagan is a unique master of horror. Not only are his movies riveting and terrifying, but they often initially sound like terrible ideas. 2016’s Hush centers on a deaf woman stalked by a masked killer, which sounds hokey, but was harrowing. That same year, he unleashed Ouija: Origin of Evil, which by rights should have been uninspired trash as it was not only based on a board game but also was the prequel no one wanted to a pre-existing trash horror movie based on a board game. And yet, it was thoughtful, surprising, and scary as hell. In 2017, Flanagan took a Stephen King novel in which a woman is chained to a bed for most of its story, and turned it into the masterfully suspenseful Gerald’s Game, which boasted one scene so graphic it had premiere audiences gagging for mercy. So, while some might have scoffed at news that Netflix was adapting Shirley Jackson’s 1959 gothic horror The Haunting of Hill House into a series, I was giddy with ghoulish anticipation as soon as I saw Flanagan is the show’s creator.
Netflix gave critics the first six of ten episodes of the The Haunting of Hill House, so what follows is a review of those episodes as a whole, minus any major spoilers.
As was tipped by the first look at the series, Flanagan has done more than put a fresh coat of paint on The Haunting of Hill House. The novel centered on a motley crew of strangers invited to the house to investigate its ghostly reputation. Flanagan’s series re-imagines Jackson’s characters as a family, who came to Hill House not to search for proof of the paranormal, but to refurbish and flip it. (Okay. So Flanagan applied a new coat of paint in a literal sense.) But strange occurrences and creatures not only shatter this family’s happiness but also send shock waves of trauma through their lives. The series sways back and forth between the children’s terrifying youth in the house to their present as adults still struggling to cope with what happened there.
In the show, Hugh Crain is not the long-deceased owner of the house, as he was in Jackson’s book. Instead, he’s the warm husband of Liv (Gerald’s Game’s Carla Gugino) and loving father to five spirited kids. The eldest is Steven Crain (Game of Thrones’ Michiel Huisman), a writer made famous for exposing the secrets of his family’s ghostly past in a book called “The Haunting of Hill House.” As a boy, Stevie is protective of his siblings. As a man, he’s a cynic who doesn’t believe the ghost stories they told him and claims to have never seen proof of the supernatural himself.
Steven’s siblings have roots in Jackson’s novel. The eldest sister Shirley (Ouija: Origin of Evil’s Elizabeth Reaser) seems to be named after the author. She’s the proud owner of a funeral parlor, where she caters to the dead and living with equal care. For her siblings, however, she has less patience. Still, Shirley offered her guest house to middle sister Theodora (Kate Siegel), a sultry and snarky free spirit/psychologist who has a penchant for one-night stands with beautiful women and a fixation with wearing opera length gloves. Then there’s the twins: Nell (Victoria Pedretti) and Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). Nell (short for Eleanor) was the first of the Crains to have a run-in with a seemingly sinister spirit, whom she dubbed The Bent Neck Lady. As in the book, Nell’s encounters with the supernatural are called into question by those around her, who suspect she might just be going mad. But Luke believes her. He’s seen things too. Which might be the strain that pushed him into the drug addiction that now rules his life and makes his older siblings doubt his every word and action.
Basically, even without ghosts to contend with, this is a family with baggage that includes grief, rivalry, mental health, and addiction. Flanagan regards them with an earnest compassion, adding new textures with each episode. It’s not just that we learn more about the Crains as more exposition is unrolled. It’s that each episode favors one family member, then another. Sometimes scenes are replayed, but from a new perspective, offering a startling new insight. For instance, a scene in the first ep where Steven catches an apparently strung-out Luke pilfering his apartment is shown again in Luke’s ep. But why he’s there and why he’s shivering defies Steven’s impression of his brother as a greedy, useless junkie. Revelations thick with emotion and humanity encourage binge-watching, and realizing the layers of clues and callbacks Flanagan’s been building will inspire rewatching.
The family drama of The Haunting of Hill House seems to peak in episode 6, where an awkward reunion is forced upon the Crain clan. Rather than leaping around the country to its far-flung family members, Flanagan embeds us in Shirley’s place. Following the family with a dizzying string of long takes, we’re seamlessly spun through past and present as an old Hugh (Timothy Hutton) walks through one doorway in Boston, and a young Hugh (Henry Thomas) enters another as we’re transported back to Hill House and a pivotal night of paranormal activity. The sense that we can’t escape the house, just as they can’t escape their past is deliciously suffocating. Flanagan, who directs each ep, is a master of tension, ratcheting up emotional stakes along with scares. It’s the emotional intelligence and complicated characters that Flanagan presents in his films that ground their world, embed us in their plight, and make the scares all the sweeter.
This is not like American Horror Story, flush with soap opera-style revelations, campy acting, and lurid, slickly ghoulish scares. True to its gothic horror roots, The Haunting of Hill House is less about gore or jump scares than it is a swelling sense of dread, a psychological bent that urges us to question what is real and what is delusion, and scares that may be sparse, but are deeply satisfying.
There’s something in the air ahead of a Flanagan scare. You know it’s coming, but not from where. And that tension gnaws at you, curdling your stomach, pulling your fingertips to your agape mouth and maybe up over your wide eyes. It’s a divine thrill. I confess, The Haunting of Hill House made me cower and scream maybe once an ep. A good rich scream, where I could feel it brewing but couldn’t stop it coming. And yeah, after watching the first six eps back to back, I had nightmares. The Bent Neck Lady left the safe confines of the show and found her way into my bedroom. In my bad dreams, she stood at the foot of my bed, staring. And when she opened her mouth wide in an apparent howl, I heard my own scream rattling in my ears.
The Haunting of Hill House hits Netflix on October 12.