Believe the hype, this time. Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House is possibly the best horror series I’ve seen on television in a long time. Maybe since The Twilight Zone, way back when. And even Twin Peaks, strangely.
It begins like a typical horror story – Hugh and Olivia Crain and their five children move into a sprawling but dilapidated old house which the couple plans to remodel and flip. Hugh is a builder and Olivia, an architect, and as professional flippers, the family have lived nomadic lives, moving from one project to the next.
But Hill House is different and it isn’t long before things go bump in the night and the family (and the viewer) is spooked.
That’s about all that’s typical about this horror story, which is based loosely on a Gothic horror novel by American author Shirley Jackson (which Stephen King acknowledges as being among the finest haunted house stories written in the late 20th century).
The series sticks to the ethos of the book, but it changes things up quite a bit. For one thing, the characters are completely different and naturally, so are their stories.
This haunted house series doesn’t go into the origins of the house … at all. We also don’t find out anything about the ghosts that inhabit the house.
That’s because The Haunting of Hill House (both the book and the series) isn’t about the ghosts in the house; it is about the spectres that live within the characters that inhabit the house.
And this is what’s really haunting about Hill House.
Rest assured though, there are plenty of moments that make you jump out of your skin – inexplicable banging in the middle of the night, doors that swing shut, pets that die one after another, chills in the middle of the day, messages that are scrawled on the wall … but these moments are masterfully ramped up as the story progresses.
There are many moments, thank goodness, to breathe and recover. Before the next scare.
(Here’s a piece of advice: don’t watch the series alone, or if you do, not at night – unless you aren’t the sort that’s fazed by paranormal activity.)
The story is told in a series of flashbacks and over 10 episodes, we get to know each of the Crains, particularly the five young ones – Shirley, Steve, Theodora and twins, Luke and Nell – really well.
In fact, the first five episodes are dedicated to them, one episode for each child, oscillating between present and past.
Each of their stories is compelling, really. And it has to be because the actors do an absolutely brilliant job – Carla Gugino, Elizabeth Reaser, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Timothy Hutton, Michiel Huisman, Kate Siegel and Victoria Pedretti who play the adults and the young ones, Lulu Wilson, McKenna Grace, Paxton Singleton, Julian Hilliard (who is the oh-so-cute young Luke) and Violet McGraw.
And then there’s showrunner Mike Flanagan’s masterful storytelling that’s so compelling.
A tragedy (can’t say more) eventually drives the Crain family out of the house prematurely and the trauma of what happened in that house rips through their lives and haunts their relationships right to the present.
Each of their lives has been fractured by their past and in their own way, they deal with their unresolved grief and fear, isolation and a deep longing for … something.
As adults, the close-knit siblings end up living pretty separate lives. Shirley is a mortician and she deals with her past by simply ignoring it; Steve is a horror novelist who has made a hefty profit from the family’s experiences in Hill House; Theodora is a psychologist who has supernatural abilities but is unable to sustain relationships; Luke is an addict and Nell … well, I don’t really know what she is professionally but she is the most vulnerable of the lot and the glue that binds them together. She continues to see apparitions from Hill House and her fragility forces the other four to confront the ghosts of their childhood whether they like it or not.
Their father has become a distant figure in their lives and we learn that they blame him for their tragic circumstances.
A second tragedy in the present, however, forces the family to come together and face Hill House once again, which brings the series and their individual stories to a satisfying end that ties all the loose ends together (while leaving some things open for, I am sure, an inevitable sequel).
Be forewarned, the pace of Hill House is slow but as the plot unfolds, this becomes secondary because the story is just so engrossing.
Admittedly, it took me a couple of episodes before I could get into the series but after the explosive third episode, there was just no turning back. I finished the entire series within two days. A week on and I’ve still got the Crains on my mind – now that, surely, is the hallmark of a good haunting.
All 10 episodes of The Haunting of Hill House are available on Netflix.