When scary meets quality: The Haunting of Hill House is not your ordinary haunted house TV show
Over the years the horror genre has failed to establish itself on the small-screen, and with the exception of American Horror Story, there simply have not been any other quality horror shows. However, more recently, shows such as The Mist, The Terror and Castle Rock have changed that. And now, Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House becomes the latest to join this small list.
Loosely based on Shirley Jackson’s well-lauded 1959 novel of the same name, The Haunting of Hill House chronicles the life of a family, the Crains, spread over two distinct time periods which the show refers to as ‘then’ and ‘now’. The ‘then’ part, which is set in the past, focuses on the story of the Crains moving into and subsequently living in the haunted Hill House. Whereas the ‘now’ part, which is set years into the future, focuses on the family, particularly the five children still struggling to grapple with the events they experienced in their childhood, which have gone on to play a significant part in shaping their lives.
This story structure which combines multiple timelines is the driving force behind The Haunting of Hill House’s narrative, a show in which themes of grief, trauma and the past influencing the future loom large, just as much as the titular house of horrors.
Mike Flanagan, whose resume includes small-budget horror hits such as Hush, Ouija: Origin of Evil and Oculus, does a commendable job as show creator and director of all 10 episodes, and much of his time is spent in balancing out the introspective character study with the scares. He largely succeeds in doing this, because he is able to find a singular tone in both stories that blends them together as one. On a purely visceral level, the show provides some very scary moments and though jump-scares have become a part and parcel of the genre at this point, it’s impressive how effectively Flanagan uses the house – very much a character of its own – to create an uneasy sense of atmosphere. He also uses the location to great effect when it comes ramping up the tension at various points.
The performances are also one of the major strong points of the show. One particularly remarkable thing is perhaps how much the characters from the older timeline resemble their versions from newer one. But beyond this, the performances are also solid across the board. Michiel Huisman is the highlight in an understated performance as the oldest brother Steven, a level-headed sceptic who seems least affected by the events from his childhood. The best thing about his performance is the balance he achieves between vulnerability and being in control, which makes him standout, as compared to his siblings whose characters are often times playing off a specific, single emotion.
Otherwise, Henry Thomas and Timothy Hutton are also very good as the younger and older versions of the father Hugh Crain, and apart from the striking similarity, it’s impressive how both actors are able to play the character with such consistency.
Despite all of this though, there are still some kinks in the armour. The middle-section, for instance, feels bloated and unengaging because the writers often give us too much exposition while leaving some key questions unanswered. The final episode also fails to provide a meaningful sense of catharsis, with the ending largely feeling like an afterthought. The length of the show could have used some trimming, which is surprising because the season is only 10 episodes, which is usually the standard episode count for a drama series.
Anyone looking for a good scare will undoubtedly get their money’s worth with The Haunting of Hill House, which mostly succeeds as a scary, atmospheric and compelling show in its debut season. But keep in mind that the show comes with baggage.
And though the show may feel incomplete and overdone in certain areas and the slow-burning nature in which the story progresses may take some getting used to, the positives still outweigh the negatives significantly. What’s more, The Haunting of Hill House brings something completely new and different to the horror genre with its multiple timeline narrative, which in itself is an interesting and thought-provoking way of looking at what could just as easily have been another haunted house movie or show.
All photos: IMDb
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