Recently I have begun to question whether or not my Netflix subscription is worth the price. Every day I browse through their catalog and find more and more high-budget low-quality trash, and almost every time I open the app I resign to watching The Office for the eight hundredth time. However, after bingeing the streaming giant’s most recent original production, my faith and subscription have been renewed.
Adapted from the beloved Shirley Jackson novel, The Haunting of Hill House is an intelligent episodic fright fest with scares that can compete with the most revered horror flicks of all time. The narrative follows the young Crain family as parents Hugh (Henry Thomas) and Olivia (Carla Cugino), move their five children into an old Victorian estate in upstate Massachusetts – Hill House. The Crains thought they had finally found the new peaceful way of life they longed for, but terrible visions and spirits soon began to plague members of the household forcing them to flee one harrowing night, leaving their mother Olivia behind. We are initially given fragments of this escape from the children’s perspectives in the first episode, but amongst all the excitement the kids and audience have no strong answers to what exactly transpired.
The series then jumps years into the future and follows each surviving Crain’s daily struggle to cope with and interpret the traumatizing events of their childhood. This is where Hill House really starts to shine, as the hour-long episodes become captivating psychological case studies on the effects and dealings of trauma. Several of the show’s ten episodes are almost entirely devoted to one particular damaged family member, which perhaps drives some characters to be more appealing than others. Yet the actors’ and actresses’ dynamic and chemistry is so believable as a real family that no one member feels underdeveloped. Even the younger performers act ordinarily convincing and show immense skill for their age.
It rare to find so many talented child actors who can thrive in such a mature subject matter, but all of the scared little Crain siblings hold their own against their broken older counterparts. The young twins Luke (Julian Hilliard) and Nell (Violet McGraw) give especially outstanding performances as victims of the otherworldly phenomenon. That is not to say the older family actors do not have shine in their own light, in fact, the adults bring the bulk of the believable grief and fear that will shake even the hardest of horror veterans. Newcomer Victoria Pedretti gives a breakthrough performance as the older PTSD-riddled Nell Crain and Michiel Huisman of HBO’s Game of Thrones fame perfects his role as the skeptic older brother Steven, who slowly begins to realize that the events that haunted him all those years ago were indeed real.
These fantastic performances could not have been delivered without the genius vision of writer, producer, and director, Mike Flanagan, most known for his 2013 horror film Oculus and for his successful 2017 rework of the acclaimed “unadaptable Steve King novel”, Gerald’s Game. Flanagan has been making a name for himself in the horror film community as of late, but The Haunting of Hill House’s exceptionally written family drama and breathtaking atmospheric cinematography could earn him recognition as one of the most competent directors in any genre of a film right now. Flanagan beautifully weaves his story together by intertwining two diverging timelines – the period of time when the Crains were originally living in Hill House and some twenty years later as the effects of living in that house beared heavy on them still.
Viewers would like this style of storytelling similar to the likes of HBO’s Westworld, – which is thankfully much more coherent in Hill House, but Flanagan uses this method to make each reveal purposeful and impactful. Most modern-day horrors revolve around the origins of a haunting, like what specific event gave root to the evil that terrorizes innocent residents? But in a bold break from tradition, Hill House does not use an origin story as a crutch; instead, it is much more personal than that, as it focuses on the individual effects of trauma and questions what a ghost really can be. Flanagan’s brilliant method of writing confronts the audience with tough but relevant discussions of mental illness, as one of his characters reveals, “Ghosts can be guilt, fear, and shame”.
Flanagan achieves something truly remarkable with Netflix as he successfully delivers one of the best thrillers the streaming service has ever put out; layering the drama in ways where even the more shallow moments uncover rewarding details to watchfully eyes or careful listeners. Flanagan recalls in an interview, “Whenever you see those movies about those crazy people who are putting together a conspiracy theory and they’re tying together red string to push pins on a big board, that’s kind of what the writers’ room felt like”. He also praises Netflix for their hands-off approach in translating the script to the screen and for instantly releasing all ten episodes at once, which Flanagan credits for making the show feel more connected and conclusive.
On top of superb writing and acting, Flanagan also found success in perfectly capturing the unsettling ambiance of a haunted manor and the ghosts that haunt its residents. The cinematography and lighting are especially impressive in their variation and immersion; a welcome change from the bland desaturated films that conquer the modern genre. Additionally, some of the camera techniques the crew pulled off were absolutely mind-boggling – one particularly great episode consists of just three perfectly executed one-takes that run for almost 20 minutes each. With Hill House and the freedom Netflix granted to him, Mike Flanagan is able to truly shine as a director, as he uses the camera as a tool in storytelling as well as filming; rarely keeping his shots stagnate and using its movements to expose information or scares. The editing is equally remarkable as the camerawork, managing to juggle and transition through multiple timelines in a way that is both straightforward and gratifying.
At its heart, The Haunting of Hill House is about family, and the highly skilled actors of all ages bring tremendous life, love, and hatred to the troubled Crains. Like any show, some characters are more fleshed out and compelling than others, but in Hill House Flanagan has crafted a fictional family that viewers can genuinely care for. As we experience each character’s life-shattering moments and the hardships that ensue. From this, gives rise to the ghosts of Hill House as manifestations of the character’s own fears and secrets, who’s unique interpretation makes for some of the most terrifying elements in any horror I have ever seen. Mike Flanagan’s expertise as a filmmaker burns the most memorable scenes of the show into your psyche well after your ten-episode viewing. Netflix has recently gotten a lot a flack for seemingly greenlighting every script that comes their way, consequently flooding their streaming service with underproduced garbage, but with The Haunting of Hill House, Netflix and Flanagan have knocked it out of the park. The first and so far only season of Hill House is the perfect self-contained story for the Halloween season, with strikingly hard-hitting family drama and the best ghost story I have seen in years; its satisfying conclusion cements itself as one of the greatest shows produced by Netflix and I only hope it does not get milked for a second season.