Release Date: October 12, 2018 (Netflix)
Director: Mike Flanagan
Length: 10 Episodes
It seems like every project in director Mike Flanagan’s filmography has been leading up to the release of The Haunting of Hill House, an exquisite Netflix original series inspired by the Shirley Jackson’s novel of the same name. His films often carry a gothic tone, exploring themes of family and grief, but Hill House expands upon these themes in ways that a 90-minute film can’t, diving deeper into the minutiae of the characters and the terrible circumstances that have befallen them.
The show follows the Crain family, comprised of a loving husband and wife and their four children as they embark on an adventure to fix up and flip an enormous old house once owned by the wealthy and reclusive Hill family. It’s evident very quickly however, that all is not as it seems in this house, and there may be some haunting afoot. Flanagan smartly plays with time throughout the show, jumping from the past, when the children were having their experience in the house, to the present, where the events of the house, which are unclear from the onset, caused serious psychological turmoil within them.
This is something we’ve seen explored in horror films before- instead of focusing simply on the traumatic event itself, the narrative spends an ample amount of time looking at the ripple effect the horror caused, leaving all those involved damaged in some way or another, unable to truly lead healthy lives. But it’s the level of detail and rich development of these characters that sets this apart from others like it.
After establishing the characters and setting, Flanagan spends the next several episodes diving deeper into each of the children, dedicating an episode to each one, where we get a bigger glimpse of their past, along with where they were and how they reacted to a tragedy that takes place in their present. This structure adds more mystery and intrigue to the gothic horror tale, with each episode giving us more perspective and running us through past events again, but with more clues as to what dark secrets the house holds.
Like many effective horror films, it frequently luls one into a sense of calm before pulling the rug out from underneath, delivering an unexpected shock, but after one or two episodes the tone is set for a series that leaves its audience in a constant state of unease, vigilant for the next moment of terror.
This is exacerbated by Flanagan’s expertly crafted cinematography, often shooting in such a way that the out of focus background is prominently displayed, keeping the focal point off-center, making us explore every inch of the scene, often spotting hidden apparitions, of which he hid throughout the show in nearly every episode.
A highlight is episode six, which begins with a roughly 15-minute single take shot of the family when they’re all together for the first time as adults. The entire episode, which contains another fantastic single take shot shortly after the first, oozes with cinematic style and a looming stress caused by Flanagan’s refusal to cut and the performers growing increasingly more hostile towards one another. It makes for not only a highlight of the show, but truly one of the best episodes of television this year.
It also underscores why The Haunting of Hill House is a masterclass in horror storytelling. Yes, the show contains a slew of jump scares and creepy ghouls to keep the audience on its toes, but it’s all delivered in service to the characters of the story, who are dealing with some very real world horrors, many of which we can relate to. It’s a story about guilt and grief and loss, emotions that are very closely related to fear, and it’s something that Flanagan explores with grace and verisimilitude.
The ensemble cast does an incredible job bringing these haunted characters to life, even the young versions, and the supporting roles are equally effective, giving everyone adequate screen time and opportunity to develop. Robert Longstreet plays one of the house’s caretakers, Mr. Dudley, and he gives an award-worthy monologue in one episode, solidifying my unending fandom of his work.
The Haunting of Hill House is an exceptional gothic horror story that brings heart and horror in equal measure. In a year where we saw a number of gothic horror stories, this is the one that stands out as something special. By nature, it’s perfectly suited for a rewatch, which I can’t wait to do, catching all the nuanced clues I missed the first time around. This is a show I can’t recommend highly enough.