4:30 pm EDT, October 26, 2018

Netflix’s ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ is so much more than its horror

I wouldn’t blame you if the idea of watching The Haunting of Hill House turns your stomach, but just know this show is as clever as it is terrifying.

When I was younger, I couldn’t watch anything remotely scary. I’m still scarred by James and the Giant Peach, and even in college I thought Labyrinth was spooky. When I saw The Shining for the first time (also in college), I stared at the wall more than I stared at the television screen.

In the past couple of years, I’ve been slowly watching more and more horror. I still get frightened (jump scares are my least favorite thing in the whole world), but I’ve also noticed that horror films and television shows feature some of the best storytelling on the planet. Horror is one of the few genres that elicits truly strong, unforgettable reactions in its audience members. Romance is right up there with it.

But I’m not here to debate the merit of a good scary movie. I’m still a newbie and there are hundreds of films I’m not ready to watch just yet (I’m looking at you, Paranormal Activity).

Even though it’s not always easy, I’m willing to let my adrenaline spike if it means I can experience a story that captures my attention and doesn’t let go for even one second. And that’s exactly what Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House did.

Don’t get me wrong — this show is terrifying. I’m not speaking to you, hardened horror aficionados, who probably just blink in dull enjoyment every time a scarred and decaying ghost appears out of thin air accompanied by annoyingly effective sound effects that make the rest of us know what it feels like to have our heart give out. I’m speaking to us normal people who sometimes jump at the unexpected sight of our own shadows.

Hill House’s horror stays with you, for better or for worse. This show’s imagery is haunting (pun intended). Sometimes you can feel it coming, though it’ll do you little good, and other times it catches you so off guard, you have to take a moment to cry into the fur of your best friend’s dog. Yes, I am speaking from experience.

I loved The Haunting from 1999, which was based off the same book as this Netflix series. That movie is not scary, which is precisely why I loved it as a kid. It was just about the only horror movie I could actually watch. I wore it like a badge of honor. And then a few days ago I learned it was widely panned by critics and really isn’t true to its source material at all. Typical.

I was interested in checking out The Haunting of Hill House because I wanted to see how different it was from the movie. I wanted to know if I could handle the horror. I wanted to know if it was as good as everyone has been making it out to be.

Suffice it to say everyone was right.

Hill House is good because it is so much more than its horror. If you’re worried about watching this show but feel an overwhelming need to see it anyway, just like I did, then my suggestion is to watch it during the day, go at your own pace, turn on subtitles and keep the volume low, and see if you can borrow someone’s dog for the week. I promise you it’s well worth your time (and the occasional adrenaline spike).

I won’t spoil the twists and turns of the show — that would defeat the ultimate purpose of this article — but I’ll do my best to prove to you that The Haunting of Hill House is an incredibly written, beautifully acted, and surprisingly heartwarming series.

First, let’s get technical. The cinematography on this show is so incredible, they can even make daytime scenes feel threatening. A huge part of that is the breathtaking set. Hill House is a monster of a mansion in more ways than one, and the cast, crew, and creators took advantage of every detail to make it come alive.

But the nighttime shots are where the series truly shines. This is when the show embraces its elements of horror and doesn’t pull any punches. The tension built by the music, the actors, and the framing of every shot becomes so palpable you’ll forget you’re safe on a couch in the comfort of your own home.

And all of that is thanks to the tiny details in each frame — details you can’t possibly catch with just one viewing. Between flashes of lightning, a statue might tilt its head in another direction, and though you might not catch it, you’ll know something feels different. Something feels off.

And that’s not even mentioning the dozens of ghosts hidden in the background of any given shot. Vulture has compiled a list of 29 of the ghosts they’ve found, with the promise that there’s probably even more we haven’t spotted yet. This has the potential of making a second viewing a hundred times more frightening than the first.

But what really stood out to me, and what truly inspired this article, was episode 6, “Two Storms.” In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Creator Mike Flanagan explains what it took to see that episode go from just an idea to an actual reality.

The sixth episode is made up of five long takes. Where a normal scene would cut back and forth between characters, usually in over-the-shoulder angles that allow you to feel as though you’re in that person’s shoes, “Two Storms” only cuts away when you jump between the past to the present.

Each scene is a single, relentless take. Typically, you don’t notice the camera cutting away because we are so used to this style of cinematography. However, you do notice the way episode 6 stays buried, unblinking, in the middle of the action. And while it can take you out of the moment (I had to stop and marvel at the genius of it), it also builds the tension to an unbearable point. Suddenly you’re feeling as anxious as the people you’re watching on screen.

I’ve always admired continuous shots, but never had I seen anything akin to this. Most long takes, like the ones found in Atomic Blonde or Daredevil, are full of action, which is an obstacle that should not be underestimated.

But The Haunting of Hill House took the long take to a whole new level. There might not be a fight scene, but there certainly is action. And a lot of dialogue. It took months of preparation, and the incredible result proves every single second was worth it.

I could talk for hours, for days, about episode 6, but there is so much more to discuss about Hill House. Like the house itself, this series would be nothing without its foundation. The story, the very base of the show, is intricate in the way it weaves the tale of the Crain family and their tragedies.

There are, essentially, three different timelines at play: the distant past, the recent past, and the present. In the distant past, we see the five siblings as kids, spending a summer in Hill House as their parents work on the mansion in order to flip it. In the recent past, we see the siblings as adults and get a peek at how they’ve coped (or not coped) since their final night at Hill House. And in the present, we see the true impact Hill House has had on each of them, as well as the final revelations of what was actually happening while they were living there.

As you can imagine, these three timelines have the potential of creating a messy, confusing, complicated final picture. Not everything happens in order, and sometimes you only find out what was really going on in episode 1 while you’re watching episode 10. It has all the warning signs of a complete shitshow, but somehow the series seamlessly connects the dots, without ever once making you lose your place, either in the past or the present.

I’ve seen other shows attempt to do something similar (I’m talking about you, Once Upon a Time) with far less success. It’s clear to me that this was a giant puzzle the writers made sure was a complete picture before they ever deconstructed it and put it back together before our eyes. It’s not something just any show can do, and the fact that Hill House did it with such apparent ease is a testament to the talent of everyone who worked on it.

This series perhaps leans into its elements of mystery even more than it leans into its horror, and the only way that can work is if it poses its questions in the beginning and keeps you interested long enough to want to see them answered in the end. The scares feel like the seasoning that captures the attention of your taste buds, but the real meat of the show is found within the inexplicable events we’re trying to understand.

And while every piece of this series is necessary to make it work, one of the most obvious areas of praise has to be those who stand in front of the camera. Even the side characters are memorable and important, but something must be said about the 13 actors who play our seven main characters, Olivia, Hugh, Steven, Shirley, Theodora, Nell, and Luke.

First, the kids. Each one of them has a distinct personality. Steve (Paxton Singleton) is the eldest, the one who’s always eager to help his father and keep his siblings safe. Then there’s Shirley (Lulu Wilson), who has a big heart when she takes a moment to let her walls down. Third is Theo (Mckenna Grace), who is quiet and cantankerous even at a young age. Then the twins, Nell (Violet McGraw) and Luke (Julian Hillard), who have a deeper connection to each other than any of the other siblings.

Each young actor plays their role to literal perfection, but even amid the high caliber of talent, there are two standouts. First is young Theo, who never feels like she belongs to the same family as the rest of them. The kids all have their fair share of issues, but they are, for the most part and before the trouble truly begins, happy-go-lucky children.

Theo is not. She feels what the other children don’t, and she finds herself in a much grayer world than that of her siblings. She’s not macabre or broken in anyway, not until later, but she leads a reserved life. She’s anti-social, a loner, and instead of making this a problem, her parents support her individual needs, just as they do with the rest of the kids.

The other standout is little Luke, who is just about the cutest kid I’ve ever seen in my life. As one of the youngest, you’d think he wouldn’t quite cut it like the others, but he often stole the show, even from the adults. And it’s not just because he’s adorable. Just like Nell, he carries much of the weight of this series on his shoulders. Luke is young, naive, easily scared, and an unreliable narrator. And because of this, he sees more than his other siblings, aside from Nell. He is, in many ways and ironically enough, one of the few lenses through which the audience can look and see a glimpse of what is actually going on in Hill House.

It cannot be overstated, for any of the young actors, but especially for those playing young Nell and young Luke, that episode 6’s continuous shots must’ve been difficult. Hard enough for seasoned actors, these kids took on sizable roles within this episode to make sure they were not left behind. They had to do nearly as much as the older actors and easily held their own. I’m still in awe of every single one of them.

But the true genius of the casting is in how both the younger and older versions of these characters relate to each other. It isn’t so much their mannerisms that makes the transition so incredible, but the ease in which you see the evolution they have undergone as they grew up.

Steve (Michiel Huisman) still tries to take care of his siblings, but in many ways he’s stuck being that little boy who only pretends he has all the answers. Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser) needs her space more than ever, and is reluctant to reach out to her brothers and sisters. Theo (Kate Siegel) is just as anti-social, but her vulnerability to the world’s realities is perhaps even more raw. Nell (Victoria Pedretti) is still the doe-eyed youngest girl, the one who never stopped believing in ghosts. And Luke, poor Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), feels lonelier than ever.

Hill House finds a way to balance this ensemble cast of characters with such apparent ease, though I’m sure it was an undertaking to make us care so much about this family. The first few episodes highlight each sibling in turn, giving us a snapshot of who they were and who they have become. Each has found a different way to cope — Steve has his writing, Shirley has her funeral home, Theo has sex and alcohol, Nell has her undying belief, and Luke has drugs. None are healthy in their purest form, but each one brings a certain kind of comfort you don’t want to deny this family who has been through so much.

The biggest victory of all is that each of the siblings, as well as their parents (Carla Gugino and Henry Thomas/Timothy Hutton), are, at their core, so human. They have their vices and their virtues, laid out plainly for us all to see. They have each other, whether they want to or not. They’ve all done terrible things at one point in time, and yet you still care for each of them. You take the bad with the good, much like they do. You become part of the family.

And therein lies the heart of the show. Yes, The Haunting of Hill House is terrifying. Yes, it’s about ghosts. It’s gory and traumatizing and heartbreaking. But it’s also heartwarming. More than one review has called this series “This Is Us but creepy,” and I can’t say I disagree.

What makes Hill House more than its horror is the fact that the show is about love. Sometimes that love is beautiful and pure. Sometimes it’s toxic and dangerous. Sometimes we reject it, and sometimes we mainline it. But at the end of the day, it’s there in one form or another, and we must choose what to do with it.

The Haunting of Hill House gave us love in all its forms, for better and for worse. And while I can’t deny that the series’ creators, cast, and crew were extremely calculated in the way they tried to scare us, I have to admit they were extremely calculated in the way they tried to teach us, too. The Crain family, as cursed as they may be, are still a family, just as weird and messed up as any of ours. And although I would never trade positions with them for even a split second, I’m glad I got to know them, nonetheless.

There’s no shame in not being able to handle a show like The Haunting of Hill House. It’s not for everyone. But if you’re on the fence about giving it a try, I implore you to take the leap. It is more than worth your time.

What did you think of Netflix’s ‘The Haunting of Hill House’?

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