I must admit I’m not very much into TV shows, whether they’re horror-related or not. However, I do eventually give in after people recommend me certain TV series (such as Stranger Things, The Exorcist and Channel Zero).
In regards to The Haunting of Hill House, though, nobody had to spam my email (that’s firstname.lastname@example.org) for me to give this show a chance, since it’s directed by Mike Flanagan and features an all-star cast made of most of the actors who’ve been in Flanagan’s movies since the beginning.
Needless to say, I loved The Haunting of Hill House: it features all Flanagan’s trademarks, among which the combination of familiar horror convention and highly emotional themes is the main highlight. Just to be clear, I haven’t read the source material Hill House is based on, but I don’t think it’s necessary to appreciate the TV show: as a matter of fact, as a critic, I never, ever compare novels to their movie adaptation, since they’re two completely different media and what works in one of them, might not work in the other.
I’m trying to keep this review barebones, as you should really check Hill House out for yourself whenever you get the chance. Over the course of 10 episodes, with a runtime that varies from 47 to 72 minutes, we follow a story that starts relatively standard: a family (the Crains) is terrorized by spooky ghosts in an old house, but it goes in a different direction than many of these kinds of films or TV shows.
Most haunted house stories are about discovering the origins of the haunting, what unspeakable tragedy occurred there, and lifting the curse. Here, the ghosts haunting the house are barely explained, and the biggest mysteries are about the Crains themselves. The journey to the end is not about discovering some ancient sin that has to be rectified, but rather how each of the Crains can deal with their losses, both from decades earlier and more recent. As such, Hill House is less a movie about battling ghosts than it is redefining what “ghosts” actually are. Grief, shame, guilt, with a good dose of discussion about mental illness and addicting as well.
Continue reading and check my final grade below
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REASONS WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE
Besides the captivating story, filled with drama-heavy themes (more on that in the spoiler-filled part of the review), characters and performances are what really carry the show: Carla Gugino, Henry Thomas, Victoria Pedretti, Lulu Wilson, Kate Siegel, Mckenna Grace (perhaps the best child actor working today), Elizabeth Reaser, Michael Huisman, Oliver Jackson-Cohen… they all give outstanding and rich performances, which helps the fantastic script to be even more effective.
From a great script and some good actors who always shine under Flanagan’s directing, the natural result is represented by seamless dialogues: in fact, a few of the most uncomfortable and disturbing sequences in the movie come from the spotless dialogues and interaction between the protagonists.
Yet, the presentation is probably the best I’ve seen from Flanagan: there’s one episode in particular, which I’ll be discussing later, that made my jaw drop from how masterful it was directed. In general, the cinematography is spotless – other than a not-so-great first episode – and filled with beautiful and inventive camera angles.
Hill House also succeeds at utilising non-traditional narrative, or better non-linear narrative: the story keeps going back and forth from something that happens in the past to the consequences of that occurrence in the present. This is a really difficult task to manage without sacrificing the integrity of the plot and the pacing of the TV show. However, the filmmakers pulled it off due to, once again, great writing and some fantastic editing choices.
THE HIGHLIGHTS OF THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE [minor spoilers]
Here I want to talk about two of the most impactful moments in this great TV series: the entirety of episode 6 and a jump-scare in episode 8.
Episode 6 takes place in two locations: part of the story’s set in the present, with the Crain family reunited in Shirley’s morgue as they moan the loss of a loved one – see, I’m trying to keep the spoilers to a minimum – and part of it in the ‘visions’ characters have from their past. This episode is both scary (due to the Hereditary-like way to frame certain disturbing images with a certain eerie refinement) and emotional (thanks to the family drama and a few reveals). However, what’s really outstanding is the cinematography: this hour-long episode is made of only two single takes! All the characters are on screen at the same time for the most part, which means they all had to stay in character for a long time, providing a certain theatrical feeling to the story. Yet, the transitions between present and past are seamless, making for a dream-like experience like no other. This episode is like an ode to cinema by Flanagan, and it’s pure delight.
Episode 8, instead, shows horror filmmakers and horror fans how to craft jump-scares. As I mentioned before, Hill House combines horror conventions (and sometimes clichés) with a deeper meaning and a more unconventional storyline. However, the TV shows doesn’t shy away from jump-scares, which are utilised sparsely and effectively throughout the episodes. In this one, two women are driving towards Hill House, when something terrifying happens. That’s how you make an effective scare: there’s no creepy music to anticipate it, the characters are interacting (unlike in many other horror flicks, where jump-scares are expected due to the unnatural silence) and they’re framed from an angle which makes you comfortably thinking nothing bad can happen. Also, during this sequence, no loud noise is introduced as a cheap gimmick, because what you see is terrifying enough to not require any trick.
This episode is also a nice introduction to the final part of The Haunting of Hill House that I’ll now discuss in a spoiler-filled paragraph.
THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE – ENDING EXPLAINED
The scattered timeline in The Haunting of Hill House can be disorienting, but the story itself is fairly simple. At its core, it’s about a monster. It just happens, in this case, that the monster is a building. Hill House is described by Olivia Crain (Carla Gugino, always fantastic under Flanagan’s direction) as a living creature (“the walls are bones, pipes are veins” and so on), and this leads to the assumption that the mysterious Red Room within Hill House must be the heart. However, as the first season comes to an end, the Crain family discovers that the Red Room is actually the stomach of Hill House, and ever since the family had been living there, it had been digesting them one by one.
When the family gets to Hill House to save Luke from what seems to be an attempt at suicide, they discover that Hill House have tricked them into entering the Red Room by changing on the inside, giving it a unique appearance and location to each member of the family (for Luke, it was a treehouse; for Olivia, it was a reading room, and so on). The house tricks people into staying inside of it and, though most of the family managed to just barely avoid being devoured completely, Olivia, Nell (played by Victoria Pedretti), and Hugh (played by Timothy Hutton in the modern setting) weren’t so lucky.
Simply put, Hill House is a haunted place riddled with ghosts – which the Crain family experiences from the very beginning, having Flanagan inserted them everywhere – but these aren’t ghosts in the traditional way: they’re grief, depression, mental illness, cowardice, terror, addiction, fear of not being able to achieve something worthwhile in life, and so on. As most of the family members make it out of the house at the very end, it seems like we got our happy ending.
However, this is not entirely the case (in my opinion), because closure never comes for the family members who lost their loved ones and still carry on sad memories about them. In conclusion, the ending of The Haunting of Hill House is a happy ending only for the house itself, which maintains its grip on the Crain family and always will.
I personally believe this ending is great… except from the fact that it’s also a bit too corny. And this is really my only big complaint about the whole series: the tenth episode concludes with a 10-minute-long monologue which explains to the audience how they should feel. Due to the music choices, this moment is very emotional but, all the same, also cheesy and probably stretched too an unnecessary length.
Nevertheless, The Haunting of Hill House is one of the best horror shows of the last decade and you should definitely check it out if you haven’t already.
The Haunting of Hill House 9/10