I never saw this show coming and it totally blew me away.
We live in a golden age of content, especially television content. There is just so much that we can’t realistically be expected to watch it all. Even as an avid Netflix consumer, I didn’t know the re-imagined version of “The Haunting of Hill House” was even a thing. My wife, did, however. She read about it in ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY and then it popped up on her Netflix account. We had just finished Amazon’s brilliant “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” it was October, so why not? It was a short, 10-episode series–movie, really–so it wouldn’t take up too much time if it proved to be bad or if I proved indifferent.
All I needed was the first episode.
Specifically, the last minute or so. Well, no, let me backtrack: the stellar cast, the adept direction, and the fantastic writing of the first episode got me to swallow the hook. The last couple of minutes set the hook. “I’m in,” were the words out of my mouth as soon as the credits rolled. Truth be told, I was already in.
The Haunting of Hill House, as re-imagined by director/writer Mike Flanagan, tells the story of the Crain family in two different phases of their lives. In flashbacks, we see Hugh Crain (Henry Thomas; yes, that Henry Thomas) and his wife, Olivia (Carla Gugino) move into Hill House with their five children. In the present day, the children are now adults, Hugh is now played by Timothy Hutton, and Olivia isn’t around. The central mystery of the show is what happened to her and to the family at Hill House.
Taking his cue from any number of modern examples of non-linear storytelling, director Flanagan expertly weaves in and out of both times, revealing just enough here while intentionally not showing you something there. I knew what he was doing, and I didn’t care. I became so enthralled in the story and the way it was presented that I came close to the desire to binge it all. The closest we got was two separate days of two episodes each. Most of the time, however, it was an episode per day. But the beauty of watching the show in this manner was the ability to mull over the story and the characters.
And mull it over I did. Numerous nights and even throughout the days, snippets of the show would float back into my head. My wife and I discussed various aspects of the show, and I even played the age-old game of trying to guess what was going to happen next. Thankfully, I was wrong on nearly everything except one crucial aspect. And, no, I can’t tell you what it was because it is fundamental to the story. (see below)
Billed as a horror show, it lives up to that reputation. Yes, there are jump scares. Of course there are jump scares. But, for me, Hill House was less a horror show than a supernatural suspense, eerie type show. There were some moments in the show that I was glad I was watching in the day time. And most of those are quiet moments you didn’t see coming.
Flanagan–whose work I don’t know–did a marvelous job at directing and pacing. I’m no film geek, but even I realized some of the tricks he used to great effect. One was the just-out-of-range blurring of a background character. He did this often, and it really worked well. Camera movement was pitch perfect. Probably the thing getting the most buzz is episode 6, “Two Storms.” The story content is stellar and pivotal to the series, but the direction is what will earn this episode award nominations. Even as we watched it, we could tell it was shot in multiple long-takes, with the camera moving this way and that, revealing a nothingness behind one character in one second only to reveal something behind the very same character when the camera pulls around again. Excellent work.
An excellent director with an excellent story can only get you so far. If you don’t have excellent actors, you get something sub par. The casing director of Hill House needs an award today. Let’s start with Henry Thomas. Seeing as I didn’t look up or know anything about this show ahead of time, it was during the first episode I realized he was the “E.T.” kid. I haven’t followed his career at all, but man did he deliver in the various flashback scenes. The chemistry Thomas has with Gugino and the five child actors is so good, you’d think they were a real family. Speaking of Gugino, she had the difficult task of conveying Olivia as a loving mother and wife, but as someone also haunted by things not often visible, sometimes even in the same scene. When she was comforting a scared child, she was honest and sincere. When she was facing something else, she was just as scared as you were in that moment.
In any movie starring kids, you might get less-than-good actors who deliver less-than-good performances. The five children–especially Julian Hilliard (young Luke) and McKenna Grace (as young Theodora)–gelled on screen as if they were truly siblings. They really inhabited their characters well. Not to be outdone, the adult actors playing these characters also knocked it out of the park. There was one scene in particular where Theodora–who has a special talent–does the thing she does to use her talent (like how I’m obfuscating?). With modern technology and CGI chicanery, Flanagan could have conjured up anything for a scary moment. Instead, he lets Kate Siegel’s face be centered on the screen. When she “sees” what she sees, Siegel screams a scream so bloodcurdling your mind is the thing conjuring up the horror. So well done.
I questioned why Flanagan didn’t just put Henry Thomas in older make up but rather cast Timothy Hutton as the older Hugh. Visually, the two actors are not too far off, and stylistically, they created mannerisms for Hugh each actor mimicked. But in keeping with the obvious recasting of the kids, the choice for a second actor for Hugh was a good one. I’m not too familiar with Hutton’s work, but as the series propelled itself to the end, his gravitas carried his scenes and I was ultimately satisfied with both actors playing the same part.
Oh, one other thing about the cast: each one of them get what I call a “Robert Shaw in Jaws” moment. You know the scene in Jaws where Shaw, as Quint, tells the story of the U.S.S. Indianapolis and the sharks. Best dang scene in the movie. Well, the adults get their version, but none was better than of Robert Longstreet as caretaker Horace Dudley. When he says what he says in the manner he does it, Flanagan keeps the camera on Longstreet. The actor delivers that story with so much depth and emotion that I immediately called it a “Robert Shaw in Jaws” moment. Incredible that a piece of a show like this by a side character could be so compelling.
I could go on and on, but I’m going to halt here. I’ve seen some great stuff this year, but The Haunting of Hill House is easily in the Top 3, maybe even Top 2. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
P.S., I’m stopping the main review here. If you want to avoid spoilers, stop and watch then return. For those of y’all who want to continue, you’ve been warned.
The one aspect of the show I did see coming was Episode 5, “The Bent Neck Lady.” At that moment, I nearly thought the secret of the house was an alternate dimension.
What I didn’t see coming was the ending.
Holy moley. Who in the world saw it coming? Who in the world would have predicted the ending of a showed billed as a horror show could have such a genuinely emotional ending? I don’t know about y’all, but I was bawling my eyes out when Hugh–first as Hutton then as Thomas–talked to Steve and explained the situation. He told his son why and how the house needed to be saved. And then the instant transition from Hutton to Thomas? Lost it. My wife did, too. Maybe it’s my age, maybe I’m just so emotional about family, but The Haunting of Hill House delivered not only genuine scares, creeps, and thrills, but also a deep, heartfelt emotionally resonant ending. I couldn’t be happier about it.