Leave it to unpredictable Netflix to start a Halloween tradition by launching the second season of Stranger Things last October only to have the beloved ’80s nostalgia-fest promptly take the next autumn off.
Offering substantially more grown-up chills, albeit with perhaps less escapist fun, is Netflix’s creepy October substitute The Haunting of Hill House, one of the more effective and sustained exercises of this type ever attempted for the small screen. The Haunting of Hill House, adapted very loosely by Mike Flanagan from the iconic Shirley Jackson novel, is often scary as hell and possessed of enough character-centric nuance to carry viewers through to the end — even if some of the visceral frights peter out well before the conclusion.
In Western Massachusetts, set far off any main road, lurks Hill House. Sometime in the late ’80s — Paula Abdul’s “Cold Hearted” video represents one of very few signposts — the Crains move into the crumbling abode for what seems like a reasonable summer activity: Parents Hugh (Henry Thomas) and Olivia (Carla Gugino, a strong anchor for the whole series), accompanied by kids Steven (Paxton Singleton), Shirley (Lulu Wilson), Theodora (Mckenna Grace) and twins Luke (Julian Hilliard) and Nell (Violet McGraw), plan to quickly rehabilitate Hill House, flip it for a huge profit and parlay that money into their own “forever house.” Unfortunately, Hill House has a dark and miserable history, shady corners that aren’t featured on any blueprint and one conspicuous red-doored room that can’t be opened with any key. Bad things happen. How much of what’s bad comes from the house and how much comes from coding in the Crain DNA and psyches is unclear.
Two decades later, the Crains are estranged from Hugh (Timothy Hutton, whose age gap with Thomas is math best ignored) and they’re each scarred in their own way. Steven (Michiel Huisman) is a best-selling author of books about the paranormal, selling his history for cash. Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser) runs a funeral home. Theo (Kate Siegel), prone to wearing dark gloves for supernatural reasons, is a psychiatrist helping troubled children. Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) is a junkie and Nell (Victoria Pedretti) is being lured back to Hill House for the sort of final confrontation the genre demands.
In stretching out a story that could have been told as a two-hour movie into a 10-hour TV series, and doing it in a way that somehow feels less egregiously overextended than much of Netflix’s output, Flanagan and his small cadre of writers have crafted a dizzying and layered narrative. Although propulsively crafted for binge viewing, Haunting of Hill House is still structured episodically, each hour putting primary focus on a different character while simultaneously filling in narrative gaps from as many as four or five different windows of time. Context and perspective are emphasized as the keys to unraveling pieces of a mystery. It means that certain characters and actors virtually disappear for long stretches of time and certain relationships don’t always build as clearly as they should, but it also means each actor gets a showcase episode or two. More important, it allows the show to examine varied experiences of childhood tragedy. Were it not also a haunted house story, it could just be an absorbing drama about the intersection of family trauma, individual responsibility, mental illness, addiction and real estate, like the unholy union of This Is Us, Intervention and Flip or Flop. With ghosts.
Flanagan, who admirably adapted Stephen King’s essentially unadaptable Gerald’s Game for Netflix, directs Haunting of Hill House in its entirety and deserves much of the credit for how long and how well the series remains impactful. This isn’t a genre that necessarily rewards prolonged exposure as viewers can become immune to a certain kind of horror, yet Flanagan keeps the jolts coming. Yes, there are a lot of jump scares of the sort you can grow to anticipate when the sound drops out and silence begs to be filled with screams. But Flanagan’s bag of tricks goes deep. Hard scares carried by musical stings or the abrupt introduction of something disturbing into the frame are balanced with well-executed gore-driven scares and moments grounded in primal fears of bugs or darkness or aloneness. The gaps between the major reactive moments are still pregnant with unnerving misery and occasional bursts of levity, meant to disarm you ahead of the next shriek.
It all builds nicely to Flanagan’s aesthetic tour de force in a sixth episode that functions as a variation on a bottle episode, largely set in Shirley’s funeral home and filmed primarily in lengthy tracking shots that make astounding use of production designer Patricio M. Farrell’s sets. By this point, the show’s momentum is so great that it’s easy to ignore that the closing episodes go a little slack and fall victim to a case of over-articulated metaphors as characters say things like, “Ghosts are guilt. Ghosts are secrets. Ghosts are regrets and failings. But most times, most times…a ghost is a wish.” How poetic! How on-the-nose! There’s a lot of that in the series’ home stretch.
Haunting of Hill House is sometimes staged a bit like a Eugene O’Neill play — think Long Night’s Journey Into Hell — and the actors are given a lot of leeway to go big, a place they mostly thrive (though Huisman and Jackson-Cohen’s faint Dutch and English accents are prone to emerging when they get emotional). The cast has been impeccably chosen for plausible family resemblance and Reaser, Siegel, Pedretti and Gugino, all excellent as individuals, sometimes blur together in ways that are intentionally unsettling and disorienting, underlining externalized and internalized inherited traits. Most of the adults in the cast have worked with Flanagan on his previous films and there’s an evident comfort to the ensemble. The kids, perhaps the easiest way for a project like this to fall apart, are used marvelously, especially McGraw and Hilliard, whose unforced Spielbergian innocence is only reinforced when they share scenes with Thomas, himself the ultimate avatar of unforced Spielbergian innocence.
After 10 episodes, The Haunting of Hill House reaches a conclusive end. Barring possible disappointment at the feelings-over-fear resolution, though, audiences are likely to go nuts for this edge-of-your-couch nightmare, and Netflix has questionably turned limited series into ongoing dramas before. It wouldn’t surprise me if this closed story opens up again as Once More Back to Hill House or a prequel featuring Annabeth Gish’s stern caretaker. The questionably wise possibilities are limitless. After all, you can’t count exclusively on Stranger Things for your Halloween traditions.
Cast: Michiel Huisman, Carla Gugino, Timothy Hutton, Elizabeth Reaser, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Henry Thomas, Kate Siegel, Victoria Pedretti, Lulu Wilson, Mckenna Grace, Paxton Singleton, Violet McGraw, Julian Hilliard
Creator: Mike Flanagan, from the novel by Shirley Jackson
Series director: Mike Flanagan
Premieres: Friday (Netflix)
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