There is a distinct possibility that many of the people who turn their Netflix accounts towards Mike Flanagan’s reimagining of Shirley Jackson’s famous novel, The Haunting of Hill House, will likely be experiencing the director for the first time. He is an under the radar titan of modern horror. Flanagan’s approach to many of his projects seems to be letting the emotional and past trauma of characters refocus into a stew of familial turmoil that is only mitigated by the very real external horror that they find themselves in the present.
This time last year Flanagan was releasing his adaptation of Gerald’s Game, a story of a woman that is inadvertently trapped in her bed while her past experiences infringe upon the dread of her current prison.
This same model is very similar to the family at the center of Hill House. The story revolves around the Crain Family’s experiences in the middle of renovating the haunted Hill House and then nearly three decades later coming to terms with how that fateful summer dismantled the family unit from the inside out.
Hugh Crain (Henry Thomas) is the loving husband to Liv (Carla Gugino) and the father to five children. Hugh becomes estranged from his children because of the family’s last night in the house and his purposeful exclusion. The oldest of the children, Steven (Michael Huisman) goes on to write a book about their experiences at Hill House that he himself doesn’t even believe. This book becomes a massive success and becomes the wedge that pushes his other siblings away from him. Most ardently against the book is Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser) the second oldest who runs a funeral parlor with her husband Kevin (Anthony Ruivivar). Their middle sister Theo (Kate Siegel) lives in Shirley’s guest house and works with traumatized children. The last two siblings are the youngest and twins, Nell (Victoria Pedretti) and their heroin junkie brother Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen).
The lives of these five children were irrevocably changed in that house. While the show is certainly scary, Flanagan understands that there is something just as inherently scary as the encroaching dread of life in addition to the paranormal. This family has legitimate and very scary wounds that aren’t easily removed.
Flanagan takes the existential wounds that are prevalent in the modern story and crosscuts them with the slow unspooling the mystery this family experienced in the past. By juxtaposing these two strands Flanagan creates an emotional symbiosis for each character. The effect is heightened because each of the first five episodes centers on a separate child and how their path ultimately takes them to a pivotal moment in the Crain’s family story.
In the hands of less compassionate filmmaker this series would devolve into a spiral of set pieces that loosely string together. Flanagan understands that horror without a backbone of story won’t register as much more than a museum of terror.
Flanagan draws the house in vivid detail by letting his camera drift unbroken through the elaborate and decadently adorned halls. This is crucial for the audience’s understanding of where the threats might lurk and how spatial awareness grips viewer’s in the vice of the house. The scenes in The Haunting of Hill House draw out slowly to reveal the true threat at the center.
The camera is an active member of the ensemble. Flanagan begins the sixth episode with a series of extended takes that weave in and out of a funeral parlor and Hill House. Beyond every ominous turn Flanagan unfolds frights of imagistic inventiveness. But, even as the central mystery of the nightmarish Bent Neck Lady is revealed, Flanagan pauses the narrative to deliver one of the most emotionally resonant moments in the series. Somehow, he manages to sustain fright even through an emotionally devastating end to the first half of the show.
But, there are several moments that take your breath away with a wellspring of emotion. It is tricky to bounce from two such disparate tones, but a lot of the weight in carrying these moments through can be put on the actors. The performances on the whole are quite good. Timothy Hutton, as the older version of Hugh Crain, walks a minefield of grief that buoys between an outward and inward expression. On a similar note, Oliver Jackson-Cohen’s turn as Luke is one of the most unflinching looks at addiction I have ever seen. His desperation and fear of relapse digs into the very truth that addiction is a disease that can never be cured. But, Carla Gugino as Liv holds the story between a feeling of madness and protectiveness that is such a tight rope to walk. Then, Victoria Pedretti as Nell grounds the story in an earthbound sense of past regrets and current demons that pulls you in close to the true pain that lingers with this family.
The Haunting of Hill House takes close to two episodes to pull you into its emotional core. But, once there this grip doesn’t let up and bears down on you like a crucible building to unrelenting terror and prolonged emotional relevance. The terror at the center of the story has moments that will likely never leave me. I don’t see how they could.
Flanagan’s next project is another wildly ambitious swing for the fences- a follow-up to The Shining, Doctor Sleep. Not that he needs a calling card, but his work here is further evidence that he possesses something distinctive and elusive to most. The Haunting of Hill House is a bold and exciting foray into madness, family estrangement, and extended personal struggles that feels like the singular vision of Mike Flanagan. He’s here to stay.