Review: The Haunting of Hill House
By Claire Pak
Netflix released The Haunting of Hill House earlier this October. Very, very loosely based on the novel of the same name, the series focuses on the Crain family and the trauma that clings to them 26 years after their residence at Hill House, which is, as you might have guessed, haunted. Its release has heralded critical acclaim from a variety of sources, with Paul Tassi at Forbes saying that the series “may actually be Netflix’s Best Original Show Ever” and Stephen King (yes, that guy), a fan of the original novel, calling it “close to a work of genius.” High praise, perhaps, but well-earned. The Haunting of Hill House is ambitious and heartbreaking in equal measure, and manages to craft some incredibly unsettling imagery. But where the series truly excels is in its characters, each infuriating and heroic and tragic in their own ways. It is the characters that the story revolves around: we want to solve the mysteries Hill House presents, but we also want the family to come out of it intact.
The series is structured so that each member of the Crain family (and there are seven!) are given an individual episode for themselves, with some of their storylines overlapping. This may sound confusing, but the editing juggles the several perspectives of one event — as well as several different time periods — with a surprising amount of dexterity. Though the series jumps from one time and place to another, it is never unclear when or where a certain scene is taking place thanks to some creative transitions and match-cuts. This time-jumping helps viewers piece together the history of the house and the family from various perspectives and experiences, even if no one character has all the answers. It also helps flesh out each of the characters through all their mistakes and their moments of tragedy and joy. Each Crain could easily be the protagonist of their own films, but together they form a dysfunctional family that still loves each other, even if they sometimes bicker and fight and hurt each other.
Another stylistic quirk that should be mentioned is the series’ penchant for long monologues that have an almost literary or theatrical bent to them, especially in the latter episodes. Some viewers might perceive some of these monologues as exposition dumps (personally, the scene where the father Hugh explains to his son a few facts about ghosts was particularly distracting), but they are less about communicating information and more about creating a mood and shedding insight on the internal struggles of characters. They operate almost as ghost stories shared in a group in the dead of night, where everyone starts slowly getting creeped out, half-expecting a ghost or a serial killer to pop up and kill everyone at any moment. It also helps that those monologues have little quotable gems here and there that feel heavily influenced by a sort of gothic literary style -- there are definitely a few direct quotes from the novel in there, although I’ve never read the novel so I can’t tell you how the prose has translated into a different context. Again, since it’s a very literary style, some lines sound a bit stilted or unnatural, though the stage-y writing grew on me by the end of the series.
Of course, it wouldn’t be much of a horror series if it wasn’t scary. Fortunately, it’s pretty good at the creep factor. Episodes rely a bit too much on jump scares, but the series is very competent at crafting genuinely unsettling imagery. The show especially takes a liking to having creepy things lurk in the background of shots just out of focus. No one onscreen notices them there, but you do. Sweet dreams. There are also some very cool long takes following people down long twisting hallways, used both when someone is tentatively investigating something moving and when that same someone is running from something very bad and scary. Not only are they impressive on a technical level (multiple 20-minute one-take shots in one episode!!), they are excellent devices in ratcheting up the tension.
The main reason why these scenes work, though, comes back to the characters. Yes, it’s a horror series, but more than that it operates pretty successfully as a series of character studies. Good people and children are thrust into situations far beyond their control and will need to deal with the fallout of their decisions for the rest of their lives. The emotional weight of the series lies in how confronting the haunted house means trying to reconnect with people whose relationships have been broken after traumatic events. As well done as some of the technical aspects of the series are, it wouldn’t be nearly as effective if we didn’t care about the characters and seeing them beat the demons from their pasts.
The series isn’t perfect. While I personally like the design of Hill House, it’s not the most inspired haunted house look in the world. The pacing, due to its circular and time-jumping nature, can be a little slow and drawn-out, and as said before some of the stylistic and genre-based decisions won’t sit right with some people. In particular, the endings for a few of the characters leave something to be desired. At least, some more time could have been spent in fleshing out the epilogues. But when it works, it works incredibly well, merging horror with explorations into character and tragedy, all enhanced by some impressive technical showmanship on a TV budget.