This novel-turned-miniseries is shaking up the horror game and leaving viewers shooketh.
In early October, Netflix released an original miniseries, The Haunting of Hill House. The show’s creator, Mike Flanagan, has many horror/thriller credits to his name, including Oculus, Hush, Before I Wake, Ouija: Origin of Evil, Gerald’s Game. The miniseries is based on the 1959 novel written by Shirley Jackson, and it seems to pay homage to Stephen King’s Rose Red. Rose Red, directed by Steven Spielberg, was a 2002 miniseries and a loose remake of Robert Wise’s 1963 film, The Haunting; The Haunting was, itself, an adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s novel. The Haunting of Hill House centers around the Crain family and the terrifying, traumatic events that occur both during their stay in Hill House and years after their escape.
The series spans a period of 26 years, jumping between the summer of 1992 and present day. Henry Thomas (E.T, Gerald’s Game) plays the 1992 Hugh Crain, and Carla Gugino (Spy Kids, Gerald’s Game) plays his wife, Olivia. The 2018 Hugh is played by Timothy Hutton (The Last Mimsy, The Alphabet Murders). The Crains move their family into Hill House with the intention of remodeling and selling the house. With the house comes two caretakers, Mr. and Mrs. Dudley, played by Robert Longstreet (Sorry to Bother You, The Old Man & the Gun) and Annabeth Gish (Double Jeopardy, Before I Wake). The Dudleys look after the house and grounds, but they insist on leaving each day before dark. Their hesitant attitude towards the house, along with many other aspects of Hill House, raises many questions. Two of the biggest mysteries on the show are the locked, red door (referred to as the Red Room) and what really happened the night of the family’s escape from the house. It becomes clear that Olivia died the night the rest of the family fled, but the circumstances leading up to and surrounding her death are a mystery until the final episode.
During their time living in the house, each of the five Crain children—Steven, Shirley, Theodora, Luke and Nell—encounters something supernatural (and terrifying) that impacts them in some way that clearly transfers to their adult lives. Steven, played by Michiel Huisman (Orphan Black, Game of Thrones), denies that anything paranormal occurred in the house and claims that his mother was simply mentally ill and committed suicide. He writes an exploitative book about Hill House that despite being a potential cash cow for the entire family, drives a wedge between him and his siblings. The oldest sister, Shirley, is played by Elizabeth Reaser (The Twilight Saga, Ouija: Origin of Evil). She’s a stereotypically bossy, holier-than-thou older sibling, and angry and refuses to take a cut of the money Steven offers to each of his siblings. Shirley runs a funeral home business with her husband, Kevin, who is played by Anthony Ruvivar (American Horror Story, Scream: The TV Series). However, the business is struggling due to Shirley’s reluctance to make a profit off of the dead. Theodora, played by Kate Siegel (Hush, Gerald’s Game), is shown to be clairsentient from an early age; she can sense memories, emotions, etc. by touching objects and people, and she has a few overwhelming experiences because of her gift. As an adult, she works as a child psychiatrist and uses her gift to help her determine what kind of trauma the children she works with have experienced. However, she uses sex and alcohol to cope with her issues and wears gloves to protect herself from unwanted contact with others’ emotions. Then there are the twins: Luke, played by Oliver Jackson-Cohen (Emerald City, Dracula) who struggles with drug addiction and stints in and out of rehab and Nell, played by Victoria Pedretti (Eden, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) who struggles with sleep paralysis; she seems to be the most traumatized by her experience in Hill House, as she continues to be haunted by a figure that she saw as a child: the Bent-Neck Lady.
In fact, it is Nell’s issues that bring the fractured family together. Nell is found dead at Hill House after a strange phone call to Hugh, presumed to have committed suicide due to mental illness—just like Olivia. Hugh, however, senses that something is wrong and calls Steven to warn him that Nell is on her way to his house. What neither Hugh nor his children know is that Steven is no longer living at home, but in an apartment due to being separated from his wife. He sees an apparition of Nell in his apartment and knows she is gone. The Crains then come together for Nell’s funeral and to face their deepest fears by uncovering the truth of what Hill House is—and what it can do to those who have inhabited it.
The biggest issue with the series is the “big reveal” at the end. The first part of the problem is that the build-up to the “big reveal” is prolonged in such a way that feels really off. It is stretched very thin and hinges on the melodramatic conflict between the Crains. Their arguments begin to feel repetitive, and there is a constant back-and-forth between the Crain siblings trying to gain answers and gain closure about the night they fled the house while Hugh continues to shield his children from the truth. It’s clear that the aim was to build up suspense that would carry into the last episode, but there wasn’t anticipation so much as frustration–especially when the secret of the Red Room is actually revealed. The reveal doesn’t make a lot of sense, and it’s somewhat of a letdown considering how much time the show spent building up to it.
Additionally, the tone of the last episode/ending is a huge departure from the previous nine episodes. The tone throughout the series is horror with moments of family drama interwoven throughout, but the ending is so saccharine that many viewers left the show feeling slightly confused–and with mild toothaches. Hugh finally explains everything about the house and the night they left, but there are a things that don’t quite add up or are kind of a stretch. Also, the tone and manner in which Hugh presents the information the audience has been waiting for doesn’t feel cathartic; it feels heavy. He gives a grand speech that is supposed to wrap everything up, but much of what he reveals raises new questions that go unanswered.
Despite its issues with the ending, The Haunting of Hill House does many things really well. The casting choices for the child version of the Crains blends really well with the adult actors. The only casting choice that seemed a little off was the decision to use two different actors to play Hugh; Timothy Hutton is not a convincing older version of Henry Thomas. Another thing the show does well is how it moves back and forth between the past in the present. It can be tricky for a film or show to move through time and space without confusing the audience, but the show does a great job of establishing where we are each time it changes years or locations. Additionally, the cinematography is amazing. Several scenes feature continuous shots, which is a testament to the skills of every person involved in the production of the show. There are also hidden ghosts and/or hidden faces in nearly every shot of the show, which is a really cool (and creepy) sort of Easter egg hunt that gives the show rewatch value. The show does not rely on jump-scares to be creepy, which is a blessing in this era of horror films that overuse the jump-scare tactic.
Regardless of the minor issues with the series’ ending, The Haunting of Hill House is poignant, mysterious, and chilling. Audiences are loving this show (it has a 8.9 on IMDb and 91% from audiences on Rotten Tomatoes). First-time viewers are having fun spinning wild theories, and those who are rewatching are finding new pieces of the puzzle they missed in their first viewing. It’s getting people talking about all different aspects of the show and creating what could become a whole new fandom. It is truly on par with Stephen King’s TV and film adaptations; it is one of the best-crafted TV series to date, and it is a beautiful addition to the ever-loved horror genre.
The Haunting of Hill House is currently streaming on Netflix.
Written by Alix Teague
(Alix is a fan of memes, puns, and unironically using words like “yeet.” She also has an MA in literature, so she’s clearly putting it to good use. She likes to refer to herself as the Millennial Bard. Follow Alix on anything at @alixplainlater)