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)