More fam­ily drama in this house than ghosts and chills

The worst fear in The Haunt­ing of Hill House is not walk­ing alone, but with your rel­a­tives

Waterloo Region Record - - Arts & Life - JA­SON ZINOMAN

Shirley Jackson was a writer who un­der­stood that good scares come to those who wait, but she also knew how to get to the point.

Her clas­sic 1959 novella “The Haunt­ing of Hill House” be­gins with the great­est open­ing para­graph in the his­tory of hor­ror, de­scrib­ing the doomed man­sion from the ti­tle, cu­ri­ously, as in­sane, be­fore end­ing with this omi­nous phrase: “what­ever walked there, walked alone.”

The new Net­flix se­ries “The Haunt­ing of Hill House” — a loose adap­ta­tion that am­bi­tiously mar­ries the ter­rors of a ghost story with an in­tri­cate, multi­gen­er­a­tional fam­ily drama — opens with a read­ing of this pas­sage, which sug­gests fealty to source ma­te­rial. But if you lis­ten closely, you might no­tice that the per­spec­tive has rad­i­cally shifted, away from the book’s om­ni­scient nar­ra­tor and to­ward the man speak­ing.

That man is Steven Crain (Michiel Huis­man), who wrote a best­selling book based on his fam­ily’s ex­pe­ri­ence in a haunted house. He called it “The Haunt­ing of Hill House.”

In just its first few sec­onds, this se­ries pays homage to Shirley Jackson while eras­ing her at the same time, an apt anal­ogy for this en­tire en­ter­prise that should de­light and frus­trate hor­ror fans in equal mea­sure. Jackson makes a re­turn of sorts in the next episode, in the form of a girl in the back­ground read­ing Jackson’s short story “The Lottery.” A world in which Jackson wrote “The Lottery” but not “The Haunt­ing of Hill House” makes no sense, but when it comes to tales of the su­per­nat­u­ral, a rigid ad­her­ence to logic is dis­tinctly over­rated.

Ev­ery adap­ta­tion of a great hor­ror story im­plic­itly at­tempts to an­swer the same ques­tion: What part of this source ma­te­rial is the scari­est?

Robert Wise’s mas­terly 1963 movie “The Haunt­ing” rested on the idea that no ghost is as ter­ri­fy­ing as the an­tic­i­pa­tion of its ar­rival. The hor­ror is in the sug­ges­tion, the teas­ing of the mon­ster that never shows its face. Stephen King, who once tried his hand at adapt­ing Jackson’s book

for a TV se­ries called “Rose Red,” called it “one of the world’s few ra­dio hor­ror movies.”

As much as he revered the book and the movie, King was skep­ti­cal of their ex­treme dis­cre­tion — he called it play­ing for the tie rather than the win — and as hor­ror be­came blunter and spe­cial ef­fects and makeup more so­phis­ti­cated, it be­came harder to keep mon­sters in the closet.

Jan De Bont’s 1999 re­make, also ti­tled “The Haunt­ing,” in­dulged in com­put­er­gen­er­ated ef­fects, which partly ac­counts for its crit­i­cally re­viled rep­u­ta­tion. But the movie makes a credible ar­gu­ment for the scari­est el­e­ment of Jackson’s story: Hill House it­self. De Bont painstak­ingly lingers on its creepy stat­ues, iron gates and pre­car­i­ous spi­ral stair­case, and the or­nate and won­der­fully ec­cen­tric de­sign up­stages the ac­tors in al­most ev­ery scene.

Mike Flana­gan, who cre­ated the Net­flix show and di­rected ev­ery episode, went in a com­pletely dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion. While his se­ries is by no means full of gore, he shows plenty of the su­per­nat­u­ral, in­tro­duc­ing some very spooky ghosts, in­clud­ing a bent-necked woman and an ex­tremely tall floater in a bowler hat. And more riskily, he strays far­ther from Hill House than previous adap­ta­tions do, which sac­ri­fices some of the claus­tro­pho­bia that a good haunted house story can gen­er­ate.

Hill House is con­stantly an­thro­po­mor­phized in the book, but in­stead of us­ing de­sign to show it to us, Flana­gan has a char­ac­ter de­liver a long mono­logue about how the house is like a body. It’s strik­ing that the best episode of the se­ries takes place out­side of Hill House and in a fu­neral par­lour, and it un­folds al­most en­tirely through a few vir­tu­osic track­ing shots.

Flana­gan pre­vi­ously di­rected the Stephen King adap­ta­tion “Ger­ald’s Game,” one of Net­flix’s best hor­ror movies and one so rooted in one place that it had the feel of a play. But he has made a ver­sion of “Hill House” in which the ter­rors of the haunted man­sion are less prom­i­nent than those of the peo­ple and re­la­tion­ships in it. Like other di­rec­tors con­tribut­ing to the cur­rent re­nais­sance of ma­ture hor­ror, he is drawn to the psy­chol­ogy of trau­ma­tized char­ac­ters, to how ap­pari­tions can seem like the man­i­fes­ta­tion of a frag­ile men­tal state.

In­stead of telling the story from the book about a group of strangers who are in­vited to the house by a doc­tor to study the su­per­nat­u­ral, the se­ries dis­penses with this med­i­cal con­ceit and fo­cuses on the dys­func­tional re­la­tion­ships in a fam­ily who once stayed in Hill House. That fam­ily, a cou­ple (Carla Gug­ino, Henry Thomas) with five chil­dren, moved into the house in or­der to ren­o­vate and flip it. In­stead of mak­ing a profit, they paid dearly, and what hap­pened in the house haunts each child through adult­hood.

Its frac­tured plot, dart­ing back and forth from child­hood to adult­hood, un­der­lines how hor­rific events lodge them­selves in your psy­che. Early on, we see the fa­ther fran­tic, gath­er­ing his kids and flee­ing to a ho­tel. What­ever hap­pened that night hangs over all 10 episodes, and be­fore re­veal­ing it, Flana­gan shows how the past haunts the present.

The worst fear in this “Hill House” is not walk­ing alone, but with your rel­a­tives. Steven Crain writes a tell-all book that makes him fa­mous, but it also di­vides the fam­ily be­cause his sis­ter Shirley (El­iz­a­beth Reaser) thinks he is ex­ploit­ing fam­ily tragedy. Theodora (Kate Siegel) works as a child psy­chol­o­gist, which also brings up gothic mem­o­ries, and Luke (Oliver Jackson-Co­hen) strug­gles with ad­dic­tion. The most rat­tled child might be Nell (Vic­to­ria Pe­dretti), whose frag­ile state echoes that of Eleanor Vance from the orig­i­nal book and leads her back to Hill House and a re­union of the whole fam­ily. (Ti­mothy Hut­ton plays the older ver­sion of the Crain pa­tri­arch.)

For hor­ror — which has a tra­di­tion of thinly drawn vic­tims and wildly evoca­tive mon­sters, and of iso­lat­ing peo­ple in space or in cab­ins in the woods in­stead of mov­ing them around in dense nar­ra­tives — this is a ton of plot, not to men­tion the many long the­atri­cal speeches. And Flana­gan has wo­ven it to­gether clev­erly, with winks at fans of the orig­i­nal story and sur­pris­ing bits of con­nec­tive tis­sue across gen­er­a­tions. It’s an in­tri­cate, emo­tion­ally grip­ping and sprawl­ing story, but its scale does come at the ex­pense of scares.

The ma­jor turn­ing points hinge on fa­mil­ial lies, odd co­in­ci­dence and de­ci­sions that are the stuff of midlife cri­sis nov­els set in Con­necti­cut, not gothic tales of the un­canny. If it weren’t for the pe­ri­odic bug crawl­ing out of a corpse’s mouth or a float­ing ghost peer­ing un­der­neath a child’s bed, you could con­fuse “The Haunt­ing of Hill House” for a kitchen-sink drama. For those wor­ried that hor­ror has be­come so sober and ma­ture that it is los­ing some of its fun, there is some ev­i­dence to be found in this solemnly af­fect­ing se­ries.

The big­gest chal­lenge for hor­ror in the age of stream­ing might be pac­ing. Get­ting this right is as im­por­tant in scary scenes as it is in jokes. This se­ries is de­lib­er­ate and slow, but it con­forms to tra­di­tional episodic tele­vi­sion struc­ture. Episodes start and end with shocks, and while they are of­ten quite ef­fec­tive, the scares don’t es­ca­late. Flana­gan has made an in­tel­li­gent, en­gag­ing su­per­nat­u­ral story in which the ten­sion doesn’t mount so much as stop and start, and oc­ca­sion­ally sput­ter.


Shirley Jackson’s clas­sic tale “The Haunt­ing of Hill House” comes to Net­flix in an adap­ta­tion that mar­ries the ter­rors of a ghost story with an in­tri­cate, multi­gen­er­a­tional fam­ily drama.

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