Much like A Star Is Born, The Haunting of Hill House is a story that’s been told several times, with each new iteration putting its own unique spin on the original story. That story, originally told by Shirley Jackson in her 1959 novel of the same name, has since become a textbook of sorts for Hollywood, which has become two feature films that simply went by the title The Haunting. The first version came to theaters in 1963, while the second came 36 years later, as a disappointing big-budget would-be summer blockbuster starring Liam Neeson, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Owen Wilson, and was directed by Speed helmer Jan de Bont. Both films took a direct approach to their adaptations, using the conceit of the search for the supernatural and the titular house’s overwhelming willingness to provide it as the foundation for plenty of jump scares and observations of things that go bump in the night.
What Netflix’s new series, created and directed by Mike Flanagan (Gerald’s Game, Doctor Sleep), opts to do, then, is markedly different: It turns the story of a haunted house into that of a haunted family, one that is viewed through the lens of its many characters during two distinct, terrifying moments in time. The first, a young family’s time spent at Hill House delivers a variety of genuine scares that impress as much for their ability to make your hair stand on end as for how easily they convince you to keep watching. That’s a boon to the series as a whole, as even though The Haunting of Hill House has some good intentions with regard its before-and-after familial narrative, and especially the mystery that emerges as a result, the series itself suffers from the dreaded streaming drift about halfway through.
But the series clearly benefits from having Flanagan at the helm. As is made obvious by his filmography, he not only knows his way around the horror genre, having delivered films like Oculus, Hush, Ouija: Origin of Evil, and the aforementioned Gerald’s Game (also for Netflix), but he also appears to be a devotee of Stephen King. While that doesn’t seem to have anything to do with his adaptation of Jackson’s novel on the surface, it does feel more significant once the series gets moving and delves deeper into the dual time periods exploring the Crain family’s experiences with Hill House. That formula worked wonders for King’s novel, IT, and certainly translated well to the big screen with last year’s IT adaptation, which will be followed up with IT: Chapter Two featuring new actors playing older versions of the characters in the first half of the story.
The Haunting of Hill House ostensibly does the same thing, but at the same time, showing the Crain clan’s nightmarish stay at Hill House while also moving forward in time and examining all the ways the aftermath has shaped them into the people they are today. There’s even a bit of ingenious casting in which Henry Thomas (who also appeared in Flanagan’s Gerald’s Game along with Carla Gugino) plays the young version of family patriarch, Hugh Crain, and Timothy Hutton (Jack Ryan) plays the now older Hugh. Part of the fun of watching Hill House — aside from the effective scares it manages to cook up — is seeing the characters at two distinct points in the their lives and, to a lesser degree, marveling at just how much the younger actors resemble their older counterparts.
But you can’t build a compelling television series around some terrific casting choices and a series of jump scares alone; a series like this needs a narrative foundation on which to build its haunted house, and, surprisingly, Hill House finds one in, of all things, a family drama that extends for decades.
It’s here that Flanagan makes best use of his cast and the narrative’s efforts to double up on the timelines. This approach creates a central mystery that has fractured the Crain family: What happened the night Hugh gathered the children in the station wagon and hauled it out and away from Hill House? And why, despite the pleas from his children, did he leave his wife Olivia (Gugino) behind? Those questions add fuel to what is otherwise a frequently unsettling, well-crafted horror series that balances the emotional tension of a damaged family with that of the supernatural kind.
Though Hutton and Thomas excel in their roles as Hugh, the story is most often told from the perspective of eldest son Steven (Michiel Huisman, Game of Thrones), who is not only a skeptic, but has been the only member of the family to cash in on the notoriety of his childhood home and the events that seemingly captivated a nation (or at least a bunch of tabloid writers). Steven’s role as skeptic and chronicler of the Crain family’s misfortunes makes him something of an outsider with the rest of siblings, though twins Nell (Victoria Pedretti) and Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) are still regularly in touch with him, perhaps because they most evidently bear the scars of trauma, while sister Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser) runs a funeral home (natch) and the other, Theodora (Kate Siegel) lives a life of casual excess.
Despite strong performances and interesting characters all around, it can be frustrating to see the series put on the brakes after a propulsive first episode not only explains the family’s history but also successfully establishes the stakes that are at play. Like too many Netflix series, Hill House falls victim to a sagging middle section and could have benefitted from a smaller episode count. Nevertheless, the end result still adds up to a spooky series that hits the streaming service at just the right time. With its genuine jump scares and frightening atmosphere — Flanagan’s deft touch is especially unnerving in the first few episodes — plus solid production values that will actually put your home theater system (if you’re not watching on a laptop) to good use, The Haunting of Hill House should send a chill up viewers’ spines through Halloween and beyond.
The Haunting of Hill House is streaming on Netflix.