This is a story about a family, and the house that broke them.
Hugh and Olivia Crain flip houses. They renovate old homes and sell them off, building a nest egg that will help them build their forever home for their five children Shirley, Steve, Theodora and twins Nelly and Luke. From the very first night in Hill House though they believe there is something very different about this home. Haunting visions, haunted hidden cellars, and messages on walls are just some of the disturbing events that begin to plague the family. They culminate on one horrific night when Hugh evacuates the children from the house. Without Olivia.
Torn apart by tragedy beset on them by the very house they lived in the Crain children have eventually drifted apart, until years later when another tragedy brings them back together. Steven is a published author, launching his career writing a book about his family's experiences at Hill House. It remains a contentious issue for some of the others. Shirley runs a funeral home and much to her husband Kevin's chagrin, is too generous with their services, operating the home nearly at a loss. Theodora lives in their guesthouse and is a child psychologist. There are the young twins. Nell has been suffering her own personal tragedy and is on a rapid descent into despair, and Luke has been in and out rehab stints.
Flanagan's new show The Haunting of Hill House is equal parts chillfest and family drama. It would be proper to say that the first half of the season leans more towards the drama of the Crain family dynamic and everyone's own individual struggles since the events of their final night in Hill House. Have no fear, there are scary moments a plenty in those episodes but this reviewer is left with the impression is that the back half is where the real scares will come. Flanagan begins to ramp up the scares at the midway point. The first real jump scare did not come for this reviewer until the fifth episode but there is no shortage of moments that made me giggle with melevolent glee in the first half.
As is his trademark, Mike Flanagan likes to take his time and is in no rush to scare you. Rather, he builds on the Crain's dysfunctional dynamic during the first half of the season while splicing in some genuine terror and chills. Moving effortlessly between the two timelines, in the current one we see how the Crain children have grown apart, and how delicate this family structure is. Compare that to the earlier childhood timeline where we see a loving and suppotive family, children learning life's lessons led by strangely dismissive parents Hugh (Henry Thomas) and Olivia (Carla Gugino). Perhaps they are too quick to dismiss their childrens' experiences to simply the sounds of an old house and tricks of the mind.
If ever you have found yourself saying during a horror film, yeah, but why do I care about these characters? What will make me care about these characters? Flanagan gives you an example of how you do that. The long run format gives you time to understand each character, what motivates them, and find out if you empathize with them or be apathetic. By sharing the emotional stage between moments of terror and moments of family dysfunction we are engaging with the Crain family on more than one emotional plane.
I cannot speak to how faithfully Flanagan and his writing team have been at adapting Shirley Jackson's original novel to screen. However, this episodic structure is definitely how novels should be adapted. This is the format, the long form, that all literature should be adapted in general. With the success of his previous Netflix films Hush and Gerald's Game someone at the company had the bright idea to let Flanagan take what he does with an average 90 minutes and do it over and over again for ten hours. I hope that fans of the novel will see more of the good bits from from the source material in these ten hours than they would a feature film running time. While I agree with you that this is easy to dismiss that as a default statement (I hear you with your Thanks-Captain-Obvious) we can all agree that more is better. Specifically more of Mike Flanagan's terror and thrills is always a great thing.
Flanagan's style has largely been the slow burn, the gradual build of tension and terror to nerve frying levels. He is a master of mood and atmosphere and he brims full of confidence in The Haunting of Hill House as he quietly brings those chills and thrills in each episode.
I will end the formal review here because I really want to take a moment to write about episode six, which is where I unfortunately only as far as Netflix would allow me to go. It is a clear standout episode because here is where all that technical prowess and preparation pay off. Before you realize it you are already deep into an episode arranged largely of five single takes. The story switches between Shirley's funeral home and Hill House, two locations, between the Crains now and then, so that is also two generations of the family, in five single takes. Once the bulk of the story is done it reverts to quick cuts but those first fifty-five minutes are masterful!
Not only does this episode rise above the first five on that technical level but it is also where Flanagan and his writers up the ante emotionally as the family is together again under another tragic circumstance. Then, with one swing of the camera down a hallway we are back at Hill House and Flanagan continues to bring chills and scares a plenty. Episode six is emotionally devasting and nerve shredding each and every moment.
The Haunting of Hill House Launches Friday, October 12 on Netflix
(This review is based on the first six episodes of a ten episode season)