Over the years there have been attempts to adapt Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting at Hill House, but each attempt seemed to fall short of what the book accomplished. So when Netflix announced that they were going to be attempting to turn the novel into a ten-episode TV series, well, to be honest, it didn’t exactly get me excited. Helming the show is Mike Flanagan, who had some success with Netflix before when directing Gerald’s Game and is currently directing Doctor Sleep, a sequel to Stephen King’s The Shining. It wasn’t till a couple weeks ago when a came across a trailer for The Haunting of Hill House that I was convinced that perhaps I should give this show a shot. Once it hit the streaming service and I watched the first episode “Steven Sees a Ghost”, well, I was hooked, and what unfolded over the course of the season resulted in an exceptional television experience.
Part of what makes the show works is that the story unfolds in two separate timelines as it follows the Crain family through the early 90’s and today. In the modern day the story follows the five Crain siblings though each episode and at the start seems to focus on one sibling at a time while flashing back to their time as kids growing up at the Hill House. Steven (Michiel Huisman) is the oldest and has made a career for himself after writing about his families experiences at the Hill House, though the book resulted in plenty of turmoil that the show takes its time getting into. There is Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser), who runs a funeral home and is raising a family of her own along with her sister Theodora (Kate Siegel) who lives in a home on the property. Then there are the twins Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) and Nell (Victoria Pedretti) who seem to be the most troubled from their experiences growing up. To a degree this does have a This is Us feel to it, but there isn’t much cheer to be found here; there isn’t much one can call heartwarming in this family. Instead these are all siblings who are coming to terms with some very dark experiences from their childhood.
Henry Thomas plays the young Hugh Crain, whom we spend a lot of time with in the flashbacks as he is trying to renovate the Hill House with his wife Olivia (Carla Gugino). They’re a loving couple and great parents from what we can see, but we know something goes terribly wrong. Be patient; it takes some time to get some answers to what happens, but the payoff in my eyes was worth it. We get to see how each member of the family is haunted by some entity connected to the house, and how the show manages to maintain tension over the course of the entire season is incredible. But it’s how these fears spill into present day and how they continue to inflict guilt that makes it easy for us to sympathize with these characters and the nightmare they are experiencing.
On the technical side, I believe episode six is one that impressed me in how it took a few cues from Birdman by using long takes and using clever edits to almost look uncut, This is especially remarkable how seamless it is as it cuts from the future to the past. Sure, Flanagan is showing off a bit, but the performances that are also delivered here from both casts is really impressive. While the first episode is still my favorite, there still are some great moments and quality scares in each episode. Now, I’m not one to celebrate jump scares, but there is one later in the season that just might be my favorite jump scare. What makes it work is the drama surrounding the sequence that disarms you so that when the scare occurs, you are in the moment with the characters, and it just left me giddy, because, well, everyone likes to be scared when you watch these things.
There are some things that about characters I don’t want to get into, because there really are some great things that unfold in this show. But one of my favorite things is Timothy Hutton as the modern day Hugh Crain. This is one of those performances that is subtle, but leaves an impression. His interactions with his kids are unique and filled with a range of emotions, so when it finally builds to the final episodes, it will leave you wanting more. Which brings me to my final thought: where does it go from here? There are plenty of stories that remain to be told about the house and many questions left unanswered, but does that warrant another season? I really enjoyed these ten episodes, and yes, there is a part of me that wants more ,but can it deliver and hold up to this excellent first season? Time will tell on that one. But for now, horror fans have a series to celebrate and be excited about, a horror story that offers genuine scares and a great story to support it. This is one we’ll be talking about for a while.