Creators: Mike Flanagan, Shirley Jackson (based on the novel by)
Starring: Carla Gugino, Michiel Huisman, Victoria Pedretti, Henry Thomas, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Kate Siegel, Elizabeth Resser, Timothy Hutton
Interestingly, if you remove all the supernatural elements of The Haunting of Hill House, what remains is still a harrowing and sinister tale, proving that character-driven horror is the best kind of horror there is.
This phenomenal new mini-series from Netflix represents an acknowledgement that fans of the vast sub-genre which is supernatural horror are not appeased by standard jump-scares and ghostly goings on. Many horror films of the last decade have been based on the common misconception that the more sinister or insidious the supernatural component of a film is, the scarier that film will be. In reality, the supernatural element simply provides context - what provides the true scares is the effects of the supernatural on the minds of the people it torments.
Some films have successfully been able to tap into this idea. This year's Hereditary (2018) is a good example - Toni Collette's vicious tirade at her on-screen son is one of the most emotive and affecting scenes in the film. Another is Oculus (2013) (also from Mike Flanagan), the final moments of which are more distressing than anything in the rest of the film, while a less recent one is the divisible The Amityville Horror (2005) remake. The supernatural elements of these films set a scene for our characters, but the real horror of these stories is what happens to those involved. Stories in which we see characters driven apart and pitted against each other, where families are destroyed and relationships are desiccated, those are the truly horrific stories, and is something that no amount of ghosts will ever be able to top.
Hill House masterfully deploys this very concept, but rather than cram it into an hour and a half's worth of footage, Hill House tells its story in slow-motion. Over ten hours, the series portrays the plight of the Crain family, a family which has suffered some immense and mysterious tragedy while living at Hill House. The story is told in a dynamic mixture of past and present, both of which have been shuffled vigorously but purposefully to create an intricate and cryptic web of story-lines which eventually converge. It displays a real stubbornness to take any kind of linear form, instead choosing to fill in its many gaps gradually over the course of its runtime. Lose concentration for just a few moments and you get lost among the constantly shifting timelines and viewpoints, particularly after the brief subtitles which provide some orientation no longer appear after the first few episodes - the responsibility is then on you to pay attention.
While a lot of horror films portray the events of the haunting, Hill House also tells a second story; the story of what happens after the haunting, and displays, in unapologetic detail, the fallout from a hugely traumatic event. As a result, each family member's anguish and trauma is recounted over its ten episodes, as each wrestle with their own personal demons (figuratively and literally), and find separate ways to comprehend the events of their childhood. Some of these stories are harrowing and deeply sobering, and far more frightening than anything that can be conjured up by the afterlife. This series is a study of trauma, and how childhood events rip their way through families and have repercussions which can stretch decades into the future. In truth, 'the haunting' is merely a backdrop, mainly providing a base from these characters' stories can evolve.
You'd be mistaken, however, to assume that by telling its story over ten hours, Hill House loses its bite. This show remains a horror story, and decorates its various storylines and perspectives with some superbly chilling supernatural elements. Some are hidden so well that you may not notice them; moving statues and shadowy figures appear wordlessly in seemingly every scene, while some of its jump-scares are perfectly executed. It's dark and moody throughout, filled with dull greys and cold blue tones which encase and trap you in a sinister and poisonous environment. The only warmth present in the show is that which is infrequently displayed between its main characters, which only makes these sporadic moments more salient and more meaningful.
Not only is it well told, Hill House is also exceptionally well constructed. The story is organised very sensibly; it begins with an introductory episode where we are given a cruel glimpse at the series' conclusion, a glimpse which will not be made sense of for more than 9 hours. This is followed by the separate accounts of several siblings, during which we begin to understand the lasting effects that the haunting had on each of the young Crain children. Midway way through the season, each of these stories converge in a jaw-dropping episode which demonstrates some spectacularly inventive and ambitious cinematography. Despite the inspired film-making, however, it is the script which is truly astounding, being deep and explorative without spilling over into melodrama. The sheer power of the devastatingly beautiful finale must in part be credited to the deeply moving dialogue which often takes the form of gentle monologues. Hill House is a complex and delicate story which could have easily been told poorly, but Flanagan has certainly done this story justice.
The horror of Hill House is never diluted because it doesn't rely on a fear of the supernatural or a fear of the dark or a fear of the unknown - it only exploits these occasionally throughout its story. Instead, it pulls on the strings of a more relatable and more likely kind of fear - the fear of losing those who are closest to us. It's a desperately sad but moving examination of a disintegrating family, set within the milieu of a haunted house. If you are looking for supernatural scares, then Hill House is the place to go, but beware; what you will also find is something far more terrifying. Ghost and demons are scary, sure, but they aren't the real horror story. The real horror story is what we do to ourselves and what we do to each other.