By Scott McDonnell
Author Shirley Jackson once said, “I have always loved to use fear, to take it and comprehend it and make it work”. In doing so, Jackson identified that, more than anything, humans fear their own personal demons.
This is, in part, the reason Netflix’s loose adaptation of Jackson’s novel works so well. Following a group of siblings who grew up in the most haunted house in America, the miniseries shows how the spectres that haunted them as kids have returned to haunt them in their adult lives. The ghosts that follow the siblings are placeholders for very real demons: drug addiction, mental illness, depression and the loss of a loved ones manifest themselves as haunting presences that tear down each family member in brutal and confronting ways.
Director Mike Flanagan might be the best modern horror director working today, in the past few years jumping from delivering surprisingly good studio pictures like Oujia: Origin of Evil (2016), to acclaimed indie horror Gerald’s Game (2017). With The Haunting of Hill House, Flanagan has possibly created his magnum opus: both the best adaptation of Jackson’s novel and the best entry in Flanagan’s filmography.
Hill House is seeping with atmosphere; creativity replaces lazy jump scares to ensure that fear lingers, while shots are constructed so that every frame feels like a masterstroke. The camera lingers longer and the series itself moves at a slower pace than most horror films these days, but every detail and decision is so precise that you never feel uninvested. Episode six is composed entirely of three or four long takes, in which the camera freely whizzes around, floating like a spirit watching the family fall apart. It’s a technical marvel which shows that Flanagan is one of the most creative and original filmmakers working today.
The story makes a smart decision to focus on tense family drama instead of opting for pure exploitative horror. Audiences are drawn to care for the characters, thanks to both the mesmerisingly powerful performances from the cast and the sharp writing which makes every character feel like a real living, breathing person. The decision to structure episodes around individual siblings works in spades: each of the initial episodes plays out like a great short film, but as the series passes its halfway mark, the narratives converge, and Hill House becomes greater than the sum of its parts. The narrative is emotional and realistic: so much so that it’s easy to forget you’re watching something rooted in supernatural horror – that is until it reminds you at your most unassuming moment.
The Haunting of Hill House is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before: engaging, eye-popping, beautifully written, directed and acted. Calling it a masterpiece wouldn’t be unearned. Over the collective span of ten hours, Flanagan crafts a dense, hypnotic narrative that grips you hard, and doesn’t let go until you’ve binged it all: very likely in a single, breathless sitting.