I love a great haunted house. To me, there’s something about the deconstruction (and often destruction) of the home – the traditional center of family life – thanks to ghostly or demonic forces. Poltergeist springs to mind as a classic of the genre where the shiny, happy family moves into a possessed home. Equally great, if more rare, are the examples of the haunted family moving into a possessed home, for example Stanley Kubrick’s great The Shining. There, ghosts pick and pry at the cracks within the family structure in an attempt to rip it apart. Great stuff. But, as easy as it can be to create a haunted house-driven entertainment, it’s far more difficult to create a great one.
Enter Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House, a new drama series that sort of blends both types of haunted house entertainments. Very loosely based on Shirley Jackson’s classic novel (and, really, it almost only shares two things: the name and the house), Hill House plays out in two eras. In one, a shiny, happy family moves into a great dilapidated Gothic manor in hopes of flipping it for quick cash. In the other, the same family, literally haunted by their previous experiences, struggles to keep anything together. Initially, I thought of this as “What would the kids from The Amityville Horror look like when they grew up?” But it’s far more successful if you look at Hill House as a horror This Is Us. If you like your horror with extensive character building, then this is absolutely the show for you. Binge it right now.
It’s better than Hereditary. Just FYI.
For that, you have to thank writer / director Mike Flanagan. You won’t recognize the name, but you should. He’s responsible for the alchemy known as Gerald’s Game, last year’s genuinely strong Netflix adaptation of a fairly terrible Stephen King novel. Here, Flanagan crafts Hill House out of traditional Stephen King tropes. A haunted house straight out of The Shining. A traumatized child who grows up to be a writer. A sister with psychic powers. Those are just a few that fly to mind in a property that completely out-King’s Castle Rock. Flanagan seemingly knows Stephen King’s work by heart and understands that one of King’s greatest strengths was balancing the horror with the humane. With creating characters you genuinely cared about. Hill House excels in that balance with several episodes dedicated to each member of the family, revealing glimpses of the past to flesh out our story.
The cast is uniformly excellent. If they were bigger names, then I’d rank them as front runners for Emmy nominations next year. The fact that I’m not speaks more to the Television Academy and the sheer volume of material they have to wade through to nominate actors. My highest compliment is that each performance feels as if it were carefully constructed after weeks of rehearsal on the stage. In fact, episode six, set in a funeral home, plays like a great Tracey Letts play.
Highest honors go to the ladies probably. The criminally underrated Carla Gugino is simply astounding as the family matriarch, and Elizabeth Reaser, Kate Siegel, and Victoria Pedretti are all great as her adult daughters. Of the men, British actor Oliver Jackson-Cohen stands out the most as the drug-addicted son.
But when you look at a haunted house television show, the number one question you should ask is, “Is it scary?” I’m here to tell you that, yes, it’s very, very scary. It’s not 10 episodes of pure terror, of course. There’s a lot of character and relationship building. But that’s what’s what of brilliant about it. Much of the more shocking moments of horror come in bursts between family drama. You’re absorbed by that when you’re smacked in the balls (or the ovaries) by sheer terror. I have literally only screamed out loud during a film or television show maybe 10 times in my entire life. I screamed out loud twice during Hill House. It was so disturbing to my wife, in fact, that she made me finish an episode in the car. In the dark. Highly recommended.
The Haunting of Hill House debuts on Netflix Friday, October 12.