I’ll admit I was skeptical when I first heard that Netflix had teamed with Mike Flanagan to create a series based in the world of Shirley Jackson’s classic novel, The Haunting of Hill House.
My doubt had nothing to do with Netflix’s involvement. Though they’ve had a few missteps along the way, by and large their original films and series have been quite good.
Nor did it have anything at all to do with Mike Flanagan. I have been a fan for some time, now, and he has rarely let me down with films like Oculus, Hush, and Gerald’s Game among his credits–all three of which he wrote, directed, and edited, I might add.
No, my doubt grew, as it does for so many of us, from the fact that Shirley Jackson’s classic novel and the 1963 screen adaptation starring Julie Harris have been personal favorites of mine for decades, now.
Neither the film nor the novel have failed to chill me to the bone each and every time I immerse myself in their world so the idea of expanding or enlarging that world in some way made me a little nervous. Luckily for me, and myriad other fans around the world, Flanagan has proven yet again that he knows exactly what he’s doing.
Jumping backward and forward in time, Flanagan’s The Haunting of Hill House tells the story of the Crain family who buy an expansive manor with the intent on flipping it in order to be able to finally build their own “forever home”. Little do they know that the house is not only haunted, but that the malevolence inside the house will spill out into their lives long after they’ve escaped.
Those time jumps could have been disastrous in less skilled hands, but Flanagan somehow makes it all work by repeating moments in the story from different character viewpoints to demonstrate their meaning and underline their importance.
The writing is tight, and the ten-episode length gives the director time to develop the characters in a way that makes them seem oh-so-real.
Flanagan, in fact, walks confidently in the world that Jackson created, expanding ideas while simultaneously mirroring the things that made the original a classic.Many of the character names are drawn directly from Jackson’s novel, for example, including one, Shirley, named for the author herself.
Ardent fans will no doubt notice this right away, and it could have been jarring if Flanagan hadn’t drawn parallels between those classic characters and those he crafted for his story.
In the new version Nell/Eleanor, played beautifully both by child actress Violet McGraw and as adult by Victoria Pedretti, suffers deep emotional scars and night terrors from the events that took place in her childhood home in much the same way as the original character.
Likewise, Theodora/Theo, played by Mckenna Grace and Kate Siegel, is both highly gifted psychically and a lesbian, the latter of which could only be hinted at in coding in the original novel and film adaptations. I’ll admit it was a breath of fresh air to finally see Theo able to evolve fully in that way.
At its heart, The Haunting of Hill House is an unflinching story about family, never attempting to gloss over the pitfalls and landmines that those relationships carry with them. Family is messy and filled with raw emotion, both good and bad, and when serious trauma is added to that mixture the results can and will become volatile.
Fortunately, the director and his gifted casting department pulled together an ensemble of actors and actresses, many of whom have worked with Flanagan previously, who were capable and willing to mine those roles for all of that intense emotion without becoming caricatures in the process.
Henry Thomas (Gerald’sGame) and Timothy Hutton (The Dark Half) play the family’s patriarch, Hugh, in the past and present in such a way that one could easily see Thomas becoming Hutton as the series progressed.
Carla Gugino (Gerald’s Game) is a revelation as Olivia Crain walking a razor-thin line between the ethereal and the real. She completely draws the viewer in, coaxing us to believe her every action, choice, and word as if they are her own even when her reality becomes skewed by Hill House.
Elizabeth Reaser (Ouija: Origin of Evil), Michael Huisman (Game of Thrones), and Oliver Jackson-Cohen (The Raven) fill out the cast as the rest of the adult Crain children and along with Pedretti (Sole) and Siegel (Hush), each bringing their own unique talents to the family dynamic, beautifully.
And then there is Hill House itself.
It is an absolute necessity for the house to loom large and become a character all its own. It must live and breathe for its power to be realized and Flanagan’s team did not disappoint in the least, once again drawing finely detailed elements–lion’s head doorknobs, stained glass windows, and the grand staircase–from the source material to infuse the house with power and create its menacing shadow which covers the family even after they’ve fled its land.
Those fine details are present in every part of the production from the color palettes utilized to the dynamic camera work to the brilliant cinematography which made excellent use of shadow and light.
The Haunting of Hill House is a carefully choreographed, emotionally driven, and often terrifying film from start to finish, and though there are imperfections and a bit of stumbling particularly in the last episode, it is still completely worth the dance.
All ten episodes of The Haunting of Hill House are available on Netflix, now. Grab a blanket and a friend and start your binge today!
Waylon Jordan is a lifelong fan of genre fiction and film especially those with a supernatural element. He firmly believes that horror reflects collective fears of society and can be used as a tool for social change.