Entertainment » Television

In Netflix's 'Haunting of Hill House,' a Haunted Family Struggles with Grief

by Jason St. Amand
National News Editor
Friday Oct 12, 2018

Director Mike Flanagan is one of Hollywood's best under-the-radar horror filmmakers. He's found success on the big screen with his outstanding "Ouija: Origins of Evil" and "Oculus" and also on Netflix. He's got a few movies on the streaming service, including the intense cat-and-mouse game involving a deaf woman called "Hush" and an adaptation of Steven King's kink-gone-wrong thriller "Gerald's Game." Despite turning out several solid projects over the last few years, Flanagan has yet to join the upper echelon of horror auteurs — he's more of a filmmaker's filmmaker. (His next project? "Doctor Sleep" — an adaptation of Steven King's sequel to "The Shining.")

That could possibly change this week. Flanagan is returning to Netflix Friday with his take on "The Haunting of Hill House," loosely based on Shirley Jackson's 1959 gothic horror novella. The ten-episode series isn't a straightforward or typical haunted house tale — it's a thoughtful and atmospheric show that's made for adults, offering meditative thoughts about loss, death, grief and family relationships while still dishing out some truly terrifying scares.

"Hill House" follows the Crain family in both the past and present. In the past, the young family is living in, and flipping, Hill House, a creepy old mansion towering in the middle of western Massachusetts. Parents Hugh (Henry Thomas) and Olivia (Carla Gugino) have five children who help fix up the creaky home: Steven (Paxton Singleton), Shirley (Lulu Wilson), Theodora (Mckenna Grace) and twins Luke (Julian Hilliard) and Nell (Violet McGraw). But nothing is as it seems and as "Hill House" unfolds, the house's secrets history and the way in which it impacts the Crains plays out in terrifying ways.

A scene from "The Haunting of Hill House." Photo credit: Steve Dietl/Netflix

In the present, when the Crain kids are adults, we learn that a bone-chilling event at Hill House has disrupted the family in a major way. Hugh (played by Timothy Hutton in the present) is estranged from his kids, who are each dealing with the ramifications of Hill House in their own way. Steven (Michiel Huisman) is an author, who spun his family's headline-grabbing tragedy into a book, earning a huge paycheck (plus royalties!). Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser) and her husband run a floundering funeral home. Theo (Kate Siegel) has gone on to become a child psychologist but is still struggling with some intense demons. Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) is a drug addict, bouncing in-and-out of rehabs, and Nell (Victoria Pedretti) is still plagued by Hill House and other tragedies that have occurred in her adult life.

The first five episodes mostly focus on each of the Crain children, delving into the characters by cutting between the past and the present. Each episode highlights one of the Crain kids, fleshing them out and getting to the bottom of how the events at Hill House shaped who they are today — for better or for worse.

"Hill House" is often told out of order, with scenes playing out from different points of view. The first five episodes has a "Run Lola Run" set-up but with a spooky twist. Telling this story this way also allows Flanagan to make certain scenes pack a powerful and devastating punch; knowing the fate of a certain character and then watching how they got to their demise is awfully chilling.

Flanagan also trusts that his audience can follow the mostly nonlinear and the eerie threads of this family's tragic story. Episodes of "Hill House" build off each other in a slow-burning prestige TV way that has a wild payoff during the back half of the series. Episode five is a gut-wrenching hour-and-ten minutes with a brutal climax. Episode six is an impressive technical feat with Flanagan pulling off some incredible long tracking shots; his camera is hectic and swirls around the drama that plays out with the Crain family in the present day.

From left to right: McKenna Grace, Lulu Wilson, Henry Thomas, Julian Hillard, Paxton Singleton, Violet Mcgraw and Carla Gugino in a scene from "The Haunting of Hill House." Photo credit: Steve Dietl/Netflix

Mental illness and complicated family dynamics have been a prominent theme in horror in 2018. The deeply unsettling "Hereditary" examines a woman's inherited mental illness and how it plagues the ones she loves the most. On HBO's Southern gothic nightmare "Sharp Objects," a young woman's trauma and her mother's mental illness are at the center of this curdled family drama. "Hill House" takes these themes a step further, suggesting paranormal activity can be baked in one's DNA; that the supernatural is passed down from generation to generation and can eat away at a family from the inside out.

Flanagan's "The House of Haunted Hill" proves the filmmaker is at the peak of his craft. Though it's not perfect (again, thanks to the Netflix model the show is probably just a few episodes too long, and for some, it'll feel like an eternity getting there), there's much to admire here. Flanagan is an affective and considerate storyteller who injects humanity into this dark and traumatic family drama. He cares about the psychology of the Crain family and about their journey. His "Hill House" is a compassionate take on a modern horror story and one that's surprisingly powerful.


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