The Haunting of Hill House is a new supernatural show from Netflix. Taking its title and some of the character names from Shirley Jackson’s 1959 classic story, this is a revised version of that novel. It’s a ghost story with many of the usual frights associated with the genre but watching this superb series, it feels like so much more. In combining terrific performances from the cast, flawless set design and some sublime camerawork, Mike Flanagan – who created, wrote, directed and produced the series – has made one of the best shows of the decade.
Hugh and Olivia Crain buy and renovate houses, but it appears that they have taken on too much with Hill House. No sooner have they moved in, the family start to experience strange phenomenon ranging from the subtle to the downright terrifying. This series is the story of what happened to the couple and their family, and how the lives of the five children have been shaped by the harrowing summer that they lived through at Hill House.
Eldest sibling Steven is a successful novelist who made his name writing about his family’s traumatic experience at Hill House. Audrey is happily married and now runs a funeral home. Theodora (Theo) is a child psychologist who wears gloves because of the emotional trauma she experiences when touching others. “Still not one for hugs” one of her siblings comments when they meet up. Whilst the three older kids have found some way to overcome their ordeal and make a place in the world as adults, twins Luke and Nell, the youngest siblings, suffered far worse as a result of the haunting. Luke is a heroin addict who still sees ghosts and Nell suffers further trauma in her life, prompting her to return to Hill House, effectively kicking off the events in the modern part of the story. Whilst the story jumps over various timelines, there are two main threads here: what happened when the family lived in Hill House; and the lives of the family in the present, when they are forced to meet up due to a tragic event.
The structure of the story means that six of the main roles are played by two sets of actors, and as is usual with the best shows, the child actors give superb performances – truly convincing the viewer that the nightmare that they are suffering is real. For some reason, the character of Luke struck a chord with me. You can’t fail to feel his terror when, as a six-year-old, he is lowered into the basement in a dumbwaiter only for his torch to give out. In the brief moment of light, we see something hideous crawling out of the shadows, a terrified Luke screaming to be hoisted out of the stygian darkness. Of course, his parents don’t believe him, but at least he is comforted by Nell, who experiences her own nightmare visions when she sees the bent-neck lady. Later in life, we see Luke in his rehab program, and the fact that we’ve seen what he’s witnessed as a child makes his daily struggle seem all the more real. The actors playing Luke are great and the rest of the cast is top-notch too. I’ve enjoyed watching Michael Huisman in Treme and Game of Thrones, and here he puts in a solid performance as Steven Crain, the author who has his family at his throat for selling their story and making himself rich in the process. The fact that he offers them all a share of the profits doesn’t go down well with some, whilst others take the money, using it to further their own careers, and this creates more resentment among the siblings. Carla Gugino is perfect as the haunted Olivia Crain, playing her role with a suitable combination of breeziness or detachment as the scene demands, only for her mood to change like lightning, leaving her family wondering just exactly what is going on with their mum/wife.
Hill House looks suitably creepy, and we imagine that we are in the 1940s or 1950s or maybe even the Victorian era, such is the look of the place. However, given that when we see the children in the present day, their ages ranging from anywhere between late-twenties and early-forties, we know that this cannot be the case, and in a later episode, we find out that the events of the past happened in the summer of 1992.
The series works on multiple levels. Fans of ghost stories will be rewarded by the usual chills, frights and loud things happening in otherwise quiet moments. Then there is the room that remains locked because nobody knows where the key is. There are the creepy caretakers, Mr and Mrs Dudley and unexpected storms that smash through windows and cause power cuts. But there is so much more to enjoy here than the regular supernatural stuff. Some of the camera work is stunning, giving the viewer a sense of really being in the room with the actors. In some ways, it’s like walking in on a troupe of actors in the middle of a play. I watched one scene set in the funeral home and struggled to see any edits – the camera floating in and out of one room and then into the next as the cast interacted. This is a stunning piece of television, and although I’ve seen this technique occasionally in films, it’s rare to see it used so effectively and executed so well on the small screen. In researching this article, I read that two of the scenes were 18 and 24 minutes respectively.
In another scene, caretaker Mr Dudley suggests to Hugh that Olivia might benefit from a few days break away from the house. Hugh politely reminds the caretaker that it’s not really any of his business. This acts as the set-up for a long monologue from Mr Dudley as he spills the sad tale of how his first child was stillborn. Throughout his speech, the camera slowly zooms in on his face. It was so slow that I thought that I was imagining it at first, but look at the irregular stonework to the right of the screen and you can see each imperfection gradually disappear until his face fills the entire screen. Sometimes we’ll see the characters standing somewhere and in the background, there’ll be a ghost. There’s no dramatic music to call the presence of the ghost to the viewer’s attention – you’ll either see it or you won’t. In summary, the production design and the camerawork are absolutely mesmerising.
In addition to a great cast and technical brilliance, there are other things that mark this series out at a cut above the rest. There is no reliance on modern music (final scene excepted) or extended sex scenes. Theo’s character resorts to the f-word with regularity, but most of the profanity is used naturally in moments of stress and fear, the script instead relying on the various interactions of the characters as they comfort each other or turn on each other when past misdemeanours come to the fore. So in these, and many other respects, the show feels different to most others currently airing and is all the better for it.
I loved The Haunting of Hill House and cannot give it anything other than the highest recommendation. To think that I nearly didn’t watch it because I was put off by one review that couldn’t get past the fact that it wasn’t the novel. I think as readers, we all feel like that when one of our favourite books suffers in the transition from page to screen. I haven’t read the novel, so can’t comment in this case, but what I do know is that this is a piece of television that is both moving and enthralling.
If you want a recommendation from somebody who knows a thing or two about horror, Stephen King recently took to Twitter to comment – “I don’t usually care for this kind of revisionism, but this is great. Close to a work of genius, really.”
For me, that says it all.
Rob Campbell is the author of “Monkey Arkwright”, a mystery that will appeal to fans of 80s films such as “Stand By Me” and “The Goonies”, where people stumble across strange things in the woods or uncover dark secrets hidden in the abandoned places around a small town.