Review – The Haunting of Hill House
Ok, one more post-spooky-season horror review, I’ve just sat and binged another of Netflix’s later efforts, and it’s worthy of discussion. This series tells the tale of a family of house flippers looking to land their biggest payday, one final renovation project before they settle in to an easy life, but as the narrative of their future tells us, we know they never got that far, and everything has fallen apart.
Mike Flanagan directed two of my favourite horror films, Oculus and Hush, a low budget piece called Absentia which I rather liked, and Ouija: origin of Evil. Ah well, can’t all be winners, although it’s the gem of its series. It’s one hell of a shift to move from films to TV series, but this Netflix series proves that Flanagan’s skills are transferable, and it’s worth watching Oculus first for two reasons, the first being that it’s an excellent film, the second being that it’ll acclimatise you to the shifting perceptions and twin narratives of past and future, and train your eye for subtle changes in scene composition that are less frenetically crammed into the series of ten episodes than they are into Oculus.
You may have already seen a few posts go by that list the hidden ghosts that lurk in the background of Hill House, and while that’s not a bad little easter egg hunt, you’ll also notice a few other details along the way if you’re keen-eyed, statues that shift position, faces dotted throughout the design, cunning use of camera angle and focus within the same scene from different perspectives, and premonitions that reveal one of the series’ biggest twists early on.
Worth noting that the series is “loosely” based upon the book, in fact the narrative is wholly different with only a few details left in as nods to the original, and I admit I did not think that this was written by anyone other than Stephen King, instead King cites Shirley Jackson as one of his own inspirations, and it seems as though that lineage has tied itself in a knot. The children of the Family Crain fit every niche of the classic Stephen King misfit kids gang, the nerd, the tough kid, the shy kid, the psychic kid (seriously man, what is your thing with psychic kids), and the sensible kid. You could have transposed the Stranger Things kids straight into the narrative and there would be no change in the dynamic.
I’m can’t say I’m certain about the slow-burn horror format when it’s stretched over ten hours and a potential second season. While the protracted creep-out with growing tension and a well woven mystery is superbly well composed, Hill House starts to coast after episode six – which is cut together into a handful of long running scenes and starts the work of blending together the time-shifting themes of the show – and you’re watching for the sake of the mystery and not the fear.
No bad thing, it still makes this worth a watch, but be prepared to enjoy some quality horror that ultimately wears off. It’s more of a mystery thriller with strong supernatural elements woven in, many of which predictable, plenty of which are not. Flanagan has also stated that the ghost hunt is still far from over, so if you’re interested in a spooky Where’s Wally then dig in.
And in fact Hill House reaps the benefits of being a TV series, time enough to lay themes and build quality characters, and to lay themes and foreshadowing that some horror films can’t do effectively. It might lose some its shock value and dissipate in tension, but by the time it’s lost its teeth it has already bought enough commitment from you to want to see it through. It also manages to play a little with that line between “is it madness or is it ghosts?” right up to the very end.
So, spooky season ends, not with a bang, but with a whisper. Another decent quality Netflix original, enough to justify £7.something a month, and yes, enough to delay watching Critical Role until tomorrow.