Fright Move

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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.

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