Film review | The Haunting Of Hill House

Just in time for Halloween, this loose adaptation of the acclaimed Shirley Jackson novel hits the right notes of creepiness and pathos

The fatal crumble of memory
The fatal crumble of memory

Tolstoy’s adage about all happy families being alike, and their opposites essentially being the only worthwhile founts of interesting drama certainly finds concrete support in the ten-episode Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House, loosely adapted from the 1959 Shirley Jackson novel of the same name and appearing on the popular streaming site just in time for Halloween period viewing.

The novel has previously been adapted to varying degrees of success; the first out of the gate being the superlative and stylish The Haunting (1964) by Robert Wise, while the 1999 film of the same name, a star-studded vehicle featuring the likes of Liam Neeson and Catherine Zeta-Jones and directed by Jan de Bont, was a star-studded attempt at blockbuster horror which will chiefly be remembered for some terrible CGI in its final act, more than anything else.

But in having an ample ten-hour scope to tell the story of the beleaguered Crain family, Flanagan – who made a name for himself in the horror genre with the features Oculus (2013) and Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016) among others – is able to scoop out the most important thematic and atmospheric elements of the book but proceed to make the story his own.

It is a knotted and fraught tale, however, as the Crain family are put through a wringer after Hugh (Henry Thomas, then Timothy Hutton) and Olivia Crain (Carla Gugino) temporarily move to the crumbling stately home of Hill House, with their five kids Steven (Paxton Singleton, Michiel Huisman), Shirley (Lulu Wilson, Elizabeth Reaser), Theodora (Mckenna Grace, Kate Siegel) and the twins Luke (Julian Hilliard, Oliver Jackson-Cohen) and Nell (Violet McGraw, Victoria Pedretti) in tow. It is 1992, and their aim is to renovate the house to then be able to sell it at a profit, which would then enable them to work on their own dream home, “The Forever House,” as Olivia dubs it. However, Hill House has other ideas.

As the story shifts from the early nineties to the present day, we are made witness to the Crain siblings trying to get on with their lives in the wake of a tragedy that befell them at Hill House back in the day. With Hugh estranged from their lives, it is the sudden reappearance of the house in their lives – or rather, its ghostly magnetic pull – that forces them to finally confront the past.

Those looking for conventional jump scares or conventional haunting house spookiness will almost certainly not be too impressed with Flanagan’s slow-burning chiller. But those looking for finely crafted family drama and virtuoso storytelling punctuated by creepy chills will find a lot to enjoy here.

While one’s mileage on this may vary, the use of two interlocking timelines make for great serialised storytelling, as it creates the opportunity for multiple cliffhangers to be occurring at any given time. A skillful and disciplined set of scriptwriters was put into action here – Flanagan helms a few of the crucial episodes himself, with the rest being handled by Liz Phang, Scott Kosar, Meredith Averill, Jeff Howard, Charise Castro Smith and Rebecca Klingel. It makes for a tightly wound exercise in mystery and revelation, while never allowing the mechanics to overwhelm character.

The seventh episode is a particular formal peak for the series, with a largely uninterrupted tracking shot creating a claustrophobic mood around our suddenly gathered together ensemble, forcing them to finally confront what they’ve kept repressed for so long.

The verdict

A liberal remix of the source material, Mike Flanagan’s take on Shirley Jackson’s novel is a masterfully executed slow burn that favours psychological unraveling over cheap scares. Expertly unraveling the novel and changing up its paranormal investigator setup for a more expansive family drama, the show achieves an apposite dramatic effect to the source material without straining for literal fidelity. Affecting and well-paced, it all makes for a great chiller, and is a great reminder of just how powerful a metaphorical force the figure of the ghost can have, if approached with as judicious a hand as Flanagan and his team have applied.

The Haunting of Hill House is currently streaming on Netflix