Director Mike Flanagan has been quietly putting together a pretty impressive career in horror films with Oculus, Hush, and Gerald’s Game. In hindsight, however, they all feel like his warmup act to The Haunting of Hill House. Beside the obvious thematic and cast similarities, they all feel like incremental steps to a crowning career achievement. Sort of how you look back on Duel as a sign of what is yet to come from Spielberg. That may seem a high compliment, and it should—The Haunting of Hill house is genuinely that good. Between this and season five of BoJack Horseman, Netflix has two serious frontrunners for the Emmys this year.
A very rough adaptation of the novel by Shirley Jackson (as in, some of the character names are the same), this is the story of the Crain family who spent a summer in an old haunted mansion. Something tragic happened there one night that resulted in matriarch Olivia Crane’s death, and now decades later her family are still suffering the repercussions. I have a friend who called it This is Us with ghosts, and there’s some truth to that. The story jumps back and forth in time revealing more of the past as the storyline progresses in the present. However, what really stands out here is the tightness of the screenplay (I say one since this really is a mini-series type of event and less of a traditional episodic television show). Get Out got a lot of credit recently for in the horror genre, but the most impressive aspect of that film was its script. There simply wasn’t a wasted line or interaction. Everything paid off eventually. The same is generally true here spread out over ten hours.
I would be remiss not to point out the overall excellence of the cast—especially the children. Usually the best you can hope for is passable child actors. Not here. Lulu Wilson, who plays young Shirley in the series and was excellent in the recent Annabelle: Creation, is a standout, but they’re all excellent. I can’t stress enough how all the young cast’s performances elevate this production. Yes, Henry Thomas, Annabeth Gish, and other adults are excellent as well, but we expect that of prestige series.
The following will contain spoilers. Go watch the show. It’s worth your time. One example of that tightness is the ongoing storyline concerning Steven’s marriage. At first, this seems like a trite dramatic plot device, but the show smartly wraps it back around to being foremost about the repercussions of Hill House. The same is true of Theo’s flirtation with Shirley’s husband, and honestly just about every plot point. One that kind of stood out and felt more forced was Shirley’s affair. It comes up too late in the show and feels kind of forced in there. Certainly, there’s some justification, but it never feels as organic to the story as the other plot lines.
There’s been some debate online about the episode “Two Storms” and its five ultra-long shots that make up the majority of the episode. Some have criticized it for being gimmicky, and often I might agree. However, in the context of the show it adds to the breathlessness of the episode. There’s simply no break in the action as really for the first time the plot lines start to come to a head as everyone is gathered in one place. It felt seamless to me and while technically impressive, it’s far more effective emotionally for what it conveys. I doubt many audiences will even notice the lack of cuts, and that’s for the best. You never want the crowds to see you pulling the strings in a haunted house ride.