‘The Haunting of Hill House’ is horror as horror should be

Few horror TV shows are truly terrifying. I remember watching Six Feet Under as a kid and being very scared. By all means, that show was a family drama, but it tackled an aspect of death that was more gruesome than dying. The idea of a coffin caving in with a corpse inside it was something I hadn’t realized could happen, but at some point in the show, I’m sure it did. The series ruined funerals for me forever. They were no longer solemn courtesies to the dead and the left behind, but instead, disasters waiting to happen. For a show where ghosts were a mere afterthought, it scared me to the point of nightmares, and there hasn’t been a show that was able to do that since, until The Haunting of Hill House.

Netflix Original Series The Haunting of Hill House is a slow burning family horror-drama, not unlike Six Feet Under, but with more elements and references than one could count. You could even argue that it tries to be everything all at once, but with the central theme of family binding it, the story remains intact even with all the bells and whistles. It does bare some flagrant similarities with popular classics and lesser-known favorites, but Hill House proves that it’s more than just a sum of other tales through its plot and complicated manner of unraveling, which is not for the impatient or the faint of heart.

ESCAPE FROM HAUNTED MANSION

The Haunting of Hill House is simultaneously about a family that moves into a haunted house, and the same family later in life, still haunted by the memories of their old home. The story moves between the past and the present, from a young couple with five kids happily exploring their new home and slowly becoming aware of what’s in it, to the siblings all grown-up and damaged, still dealing with their shared — but not identical — childhood trauma. In the same way, it swings between supernatural and profoundly human problems, from angry ghosts and imaginary friends to mental illness and loneliness.

The question that is slowly and painstakingly answered is: What really happpened that night at Hill House? The show avoids any conclusions, episode after episode, by taking the viewer on a rollercoaster ride of deaths, supernatural sightings, and bits of clues from the past. It leaves breadcrumbs for the viewer to follow, but because of its nonlinear format, manages to milk the storyline for 10 whole episodes. One character gets a little meta and justifies this with the line, “Time is not linear,” which was unnecessary and bothersome. No horror movie should ever explain itself, and having the luxury of episodes does not mean you get to fill it up with an eloqution.

TRICKS AND TREATS

Still, every minute is a must-watch. You can’t look away. If you have to pee, pause the darn thing. Hill House succeeds at telling the story at a pace that is at once painfully slow and almost a little too fast. Dialogue goes around in circles so much that it almost comes off as a desperate ploy to make things exciting but instead drags it on — email me when you get to the scene where the dad is “questioned” by a police officer in a holding room and tell me if that’s not beating around the bush. Then again, more often then not, it’s blink and you miss the most important clue you’re ever going to get. I guess that’s what happens when you’re treading parallel timelines, both on-screen and off — you can’t wait for things to happen but sometime else they already did.

Horror movie fans who watch to scream their lungs out would appreciate the effort Hill House put into its jump scares. They are few and far between, but trust me when I say the writers’ timing and technique are impeccable. It’s like they really went to great lengths to make sure my eyes were wide open and I was glued to the screen before scaring me. I reveled in those moments and appreciate how the show didn’t overuse the tool, as well as how they got creative when it came to “ghost” placement and movement. 

THE CRAIN FAMILY

By now we know that three important elements that guarantee success for a horror film or TV show are Vera Farmiga, Frances Conroy, and Patrick Wilson. Hill House offers none of them, and instead explores the talents of Michiel Huisman (Game of Thrones), Carla Gugino (Roadies, San Andreas, Gerald’s Game), Timothy Hutton (Leverage), Henry Thomas (E.T. !!!), Oliver Jackson-Cohen (Emerald City, World Without End), Elizabeth Reaser (Ouija, Twilight), Kate Siegel (Ouija, Hush), Victoria Pedretti (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood), McKenna Grace (Gifted, I, Tonya), Lulu Wilson (Ouija, Annabelle: Creation), Paxton Singleton (The Rookie, Alice Fades Away), and Julian Hillard. That’s a mouthful of names because every character had a young and older version, except one.

The story is narrated by Huisman’s character, Steven Crain, one of the siblings who grew up in Hill House. In the adult version of himself, he is a horror novelist writing about ghosts and monsters — but has never seen one himself.

Separated since their flight from Hill House one mysterious, fateful night, Steven and the rest of the siblings, Shirley (runs a funeral home with her husband), Theo (psychiatrist), and twins Nell (suffers from sleep paralysis) and Luke (junkie) are reunited by tragedy. Under the confines of Shirley’s home-slash-funeral-parlor, they are forced to deal with their troubled lives. Eventually, they are forced to return to Hill House and confront their haunted past in order to move on.

The Haunting of Hill House

WHY WATCH?

What makes The Haunting of Hill House the perfect Halloween show? It’s loaded, there’s a lot to unpack, and it can be tedious to watch at times, but that’s what makes it marathon material. There are good scares of all varieties — silent and slow, quick and loud, profound and lingering — that will stay with you until daylight. It has all the essential elements of horror — shock value, gore, creepy music, eerie imagery, supernatural creatures, combined with a profoundly terrifying portrayal of the darkest things that humans could possibly go through — depression, paralysis, insanity, heartbreak and death.

Fair warning: this is not the kind of horror film that you watch if you want to laugh out loud with friends. It’s not ridiculous or remotely funny. The Haunting of Hill House is disturbing television, the best in years, and it will haunt you long after you’ve finished it and washed it down with comedy and beer.

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