THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE
Worth spending your nights in this prime piece of horror real estate?
On the face of it, opening out Shirley Jackson’s immaculate haunted house novel into a 10-part series is a dubious idea. An economical work, it has the perfect amount of incident for a feature film – as Robert Wise’s 1963 classic The Haunting proved.
Oculus writer/director Mike Flanagan’s solution is ingenious: keeping the titular house, giving names to new characters, and threading elements of the book throughout. A pair of women cowering in terror as something bangs on a door; touchstones like a teacup decorated with stars; textual fragments scattered here and there. Hill House may have been radically remodelled, but Jackson’s spirit still walks its halls.
A series with grief, secrets and familial resentments at its core, it’s bubbling with repressed emotion, which periodically finds expression in moving extended monologues. It’s also a tale of two time periods (and twin casts), which flicks between 1992 and now to show the traumatising past and damaged present of one-time residents the Crains (mother, father, five kids). The editing strategy is clever, employing visual and verbal rhymes as, say, one character turns a door handle in the past and another walks through in the present. And the sound design is a triumph, with low ambient rumbles setting your nerves jangling. In Hill House, silence is never just silence.
When it comes to the scares, the series deviates wildly from both the novel and the film, in which the most explicit supernatural occurrence is a door bulging out of shape; this Hill House is positively crowded with eerie spectral figures that’ll make your neck hairs prickle. But, with some clever misdirection, many are more than simple spooks. The devastating conclusion of episode five, which reveals the true nature of a key spirit, is liable to leave you winded. And the sixth episode is breathtaking: a technical tour de force powered by outstanding performances from the ensemble cast, it achieves almost magical effects as it dramatises the locus of pain, regret and resentment that is a family funeral using long takes and concealed cuts to seamlessly mesh past and present.
The concluding instalment, in which the family finally return to the derelict mansion whose power has warped their lives, over-eggs its surreal slippages into a dream realm just a little. But Hill House remains a triumph. Combining emotional depth and jump scares within an intricately folded narrative, it respects Jackson’s work but doesn’t remain constrained by it. Ian Berriman
Always put the lid on the blender when making smoothies.