Sunday, October 28, 2018


As a warning to those who haven't watched any or all of the series yet, this review contains spoilers.
To turn most novels into ten-part TV shows, liberties must be taken. Extraordinary liberties have been taken to turn Shirley Jackson's 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House into Mike Flanagan's Netflix series, but the results for the most part worked on their own terms, though one of the greatest strengths of Flanagan's adaptation proved ultimately a weakness. People who binged their way through it quicker than I did have already noted its structural resemblance to This Is Us, a critically-acclaimed multigenerational non-linear family drama. Hill House travels back and forth in time from the present to 1992, reimagining the paranormal investigators of Jackson's novel as a family unit, and the house itself as a fixer-upper that the parents (Carla Gugino and Henry Thomas, with Timothy Hutton taking over for the present-day scenes) hope to renovate for a huge profit. We see each of the five damaged children as a troubled adult, and we see how the ordeal of Hill House contributed to their individual and collective dysfunctions. Steven Crain (Michiel Huisman) turned his experience into a dubious best-seller, earning the ire of most of his siblings. Despite making himself a specialist in haunted-house tales, he doesn't really believe in the supernatural. Blaming the family tragedy on hereditary madness, he had a vasectomy to keep from having insane kids, compromising his marriage in the process by keeping that detail secret from his wife. Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser) is an obsessive-compulsive mortician who especially resents Steven's book and sees any family who took the royalties he offered as a traitor. Theo (Kate Siegel), the show's obligatory lesbian, is a child psychologist whose tactile sensitivity to the paranormal leaves her abrasively reluctant to maintain emotional connections with people. The fraternal twins Nelly (Victoria Pedretti) and Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) are the youngest and most traumatized by the Hill House experience, Luke becoming a heroin addict, while further tragedies in her life drive Nelly to kill herself at the old house. Her death reunites the family and opens old wounds as the legacy of Hill House threatens to draw them all back so the house can finish what it started long ago.

Hill House enhances the non-linear formula by adding a layer of premonition that ties present and past even closer together. In the most horrific instance, Nelly has been haunted since her time at Hill House by visions of  "the bent-neck lady." When she hangs herself, more driven by the house to do so than willing her own demise, she realizes in her final moments of life that she was the bent-neck lady. At Hill House, the mother, Olivia, is terrified by premonitions of the terrible fates awaiting her youngest children, though it takes her a little bit to recognize the actors we know as grown-up Luke and Nelly as her babies. The moment when Nelly, done up mortuary style for her wake in the present, tears the stitches from her mouth and cries out, "Mommy!' is probably the next most horrific moment. Overall, the show is more horrific than scary, though there are plenty of jumpy moments for scare fans. The family drama underscores the long-term horror of Hill House, and the effort given to flesh out the Crain family pays off thanks to terrific ensemble acting. At the end, however, the series becomes too much about family for its own good.

In Flanagan's imagining, Hill House seems less evil than monstrously overprotective. It wants to keep the people it acquires and seduces the most overprotective member of the family, the mother, with a promise to protect her children, the twins especially, by "waking" them from the "nightmare" that will be their adult lives. To wake them, Olivia tries to kill the twins by feeding them tea laced with rat poison, and ends up actually murdering the caretakers' daughter who just happened to tag along. Conveniently, the caretakers were homeschoolers who had hidden their girl from the outside world. Traumatized by the tragedy but consoled by the appearance of their little girl as a ghost, they agree to cover up Olivia's murder of the girl as long as her husband backs off from his plan to burn the house down. The show ultimately goes too far in portraying the house as an actual comfort, albeit one most people should reject. Olivia and then Nelly seem not to be extensions of the house but autonomous spirits that can feud with earlier generations of spirits or fight off its attempts to claim the rest of the family. Finally, present-day Hugh makes a deal with Olivia and/or the house, sacrificing himself while the rest of the children go free. In an unconvincing epilogue, this final ordeal appears to have cured the surviving Crains of their hang-ups. Steven reconciles with his wife, Shirley with her husband, whom she'd accused of an affair with Theo; Theo commits to a steady girlfriend and Luke is clean for two years and counting at the very end. This seems like a betrayal of the tragic complexity of the lives shown us earlier, unless you really believe, as Flanagan seems to, that all of it was Hill House's fault. Family ends up being not just the real subject of Hill House but its feel-good rallying point, yet any horror project that seeks to make audiences feel good at the end, for the sake of "family" or any reason, is suspect. I'm not saying I wanted Hill House to wipe out the Crain family, but I'd like to think that any viewer will find its conclusion too neat in a way that undermines a project that until then was working fine as both a spook show and a psychological horror. I'll still recommend it, since at it's best it's nearly great, but unless "family" gives you the unconditional "feels" you may share my disappointment at something so good failing to stick the landing.

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