The Haunting of Hill House asserts, rightly, that painful memories can become ghosts which never cease to haunt us until we find the fortitude to face them, head-on, in all their ghastly truth, a terrifying yet necessary proposition. But in the case of this series, the ghosts are quite literal. Loosely based on the novel by Shirley Jackson, Hill House succeeds both as an unnerving ghost story, and as a heartfelt family drama about dysfunction and reckoning.
As survivors of a devastating decades-old trauma, the portrayal of the current lives of the grown Crain siblings, as well as their father, is powerful and, moreover, recognizable; they could very well be the survivors of a suicide, abuse, a nasty divorce, or the loss of a small child. The eldest sibling, Steve (Michiel Huisman), a successful and famous author, lives in deep denial over said trauma. Eldest sister Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser), owner of a funeral home, is the hyper-responsible one, vigilant about keeping her life on track and quick to judge her less-adjusted siblings. Middle sister Theodora (Kate Siegel), a child psychologist, is snide, icey and emotionally remote, and never goes anywhere without wearing gloves (for good reason). Youngest sister Nell (Victoria Pedretti) is arguably the heart of the family, its emotional core and yet also its most vulnerable member. And Nell’s twin brother Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) is the most wayward of these souls, struggling with drug addiction for much of his adult life. As for the widowed father Hugh (Timothy Hutton), he is just broken, a shell of his former self and basically banished by his own children.
The trauma that both ties the Crains together and tears them apart, however, is not any of the the usual culprits that disrupt a family’s life. Rather, it is the house that terrorized them and drove them out, Amityville style, one summer twenty-five years prior, resulting in, we are told, the suicide of loving wife and mother Olivia (Carla Gugino). Hugh (Henry Thomas in flashbacks, bearing a spooky resemblance to a younger Hutton with blue contacts) moved his family in to the massive Hill House estate with the intention of renovating and then reselling it. Hill House had other plans for the Crain clan.
As haunted houses go, Hill House is about the nastiest, meanest building this side of the Overlook Hotel. The sounds it makes, the apparitions it presents, and the tricks of perception it employs would drive the sanest person mad. The house executes its variety of attacks with a cruel playfulness. In the context of the myriad ways it frightened the young Crain kids, Luke’s descent into addiction makes perfect sense; if there was a way to shut your brain off, so you could stop remembering those horrors, you might be tempted as well. The problem is, as the grown Crains slowly come to realize, after all this time Hill House is not done with them, not by a long shot.
This, however, does nothing to minimize the real-world horror of drug dependency. Hill House does an admirable job of depicting Luke’s troubles in vivid, heartbreaking detail. Ditto for the other insecurities plaguing the Crain kids, from Nell’s skittishness to Steve’s plastered-on smiles and rationality, from decaying marriages to night terrors. This is a family in dire need of the world’s biggest group intervention. All the actors work their asses off to create a cohesive and emotionally compelling portrait of a family coming apart at the seams.
Jump scares aside, it is hard for a ghost story to get under viewers’ skin in this day and age. So many paranormal thrillers have been made, some great, many of them not so much, that finding the right way to foster fear and dread has increasingly become a fine art. Thankfully we are in a bit of a golden age of horror right now, with James Wan’s The Conjuring and its ilk having established a new standard for ghostly aesthetics. What those films, and Hill House, are smart to realize is that the family unit, with its thicket of insecurities, stressors and vulnerabilities, is the perfect playground for a malevolent spirit to wreak spiritual and psychological havoc. Further, it’s not enough anymore to just put scary creatures in front of our eyes (The Nun proved as much). Craftsmanship and careful shot composition really maximize the fright factor in Hill House, to the extent that viewers get conditioned to pay attention to all the details on screen and to try, often in vain, to brace themselves for the next scare. This is best exemplified in episode 6, “Two Storms,” a barn-burning example of how film technique and ingenuity can create almost unbearable tension. Believe me, you are not prepared for some of the ways in which this show will scare you. Hill House, both the show and the evil mansion itself, has some excruciatingly clever tricks lurking in its crevices.
I had tried to get this review in before Halloween, but the truth is that The Haunting of Hill House is vital, appointment viewing for anyone hungry for sharp, dread-inducing storytelling at any time of the year. However, like the estate’s groundskeepers, you may want to make a point of visiting and leaving Hill House before nightfall.