What are ghosts but a figment of lost or suppressed memories bursting from the carpet you’ve brushed them under, forcing you to deal with them rather than look away. Mike Flanagan injects a subversive theme like this into a traditional ghost story setting to turn Shirley Jackson’s classic The Haunting of Hill House into a binge-ey, occasionally scary high brow soap opera with a generous dose of atmospheric thrills.
At a time when mainstream horror is harking back to the ‘things that go bump in the night’ shock value, The Haunting of Hill House fits snugly in as a genre staple. We’re introduced to the Crain family of five siblings – now adults (Michael Huisman, Elizabeth Reaser, Oliver Cohen, Kate Seigel, Victoria Pedretti) – having flashes of memories from their childhood when they lived in a spooky mansion called Hill House. Through the flashes we learn that the kids experienced a veritable buffet of all the stereotypical horror elements like strange noises, eerie visuals and a disturbed mother.
What exactly happened is a mystery but the events that transpired during that time caused irreparable damage to them, a burden that they each carry as grown ups.
The showrunners do a good job of keeping an undercurrent of the cryptic, revealing just enough information in each episode to keep you glued to the show. Flanagan makes it as a point of honor to take classic horror movie talismans like creaky doors, children being spooked during bedtime, a house with a dark secret etc, and milk the genre elements for suspense with unbridled passion.
It gives this otherwise deadly serious show a bouncy aspect – we’re invited to follow the clues to unlock the secret chest in Flanagan’s slyly assembled psychological game. Those who’ve seen Flanagan’s Oculus will know exactly what this means – much like that movie the narrative in this show is anchored by the overlapping of the past and the present, like a deck of swirling cards mixing into each other, the consequences of the past having a direct impact on the present.
The horror is quite artfully designed – Flanagan eschews cheap jump scares in favour of moody chills. If the Conjuring formula relies on extremely loud sounds with a shock value visual that lasts half a second, this one delivers the horror elements in long drawn buildups that have a subtly creepy payoff. This is important because sequences like these are the ones that ultimately stay with you, as opposed to a loud gong hammered in your ear.
Flanagan has demonstrated his ability to craft eerie, otherworldly imagery in Netflix’s ‘Gerald’s Game’ and his flair for turning a potentially contrived situation into entertaining horror with Blumhouse’s ‘Hush’, and he brings both qualities together in Haunting.
Perhaps what is so spooky about this show is how quietly the ghosts seem to appear. The sheer restraint Flanagan brings to the horror palette elevates this from the schlocky previous book adaptation that starred Liam Neeson. Rendering a meaningful layer to the horror rather than an ‘evil entity’ out to kill everyone for no reason kind of posits the other clichéd stuff as natural components here, making this a haunting watch instead of a hollow popcorn filled carnival ride.
The downside of ‘arty’ content like this is those looking for some amusement would find this hard to enjoy – this is, ultimately, an extremely dour show that only gets more and more grim as it goes on. But one needs to understand that in the real world anyone haunted by ghosts is only experiencing what he is as his body’s reaction to deep melancholy. The show that way works as a psychological portrait of trauma and grief, vividly realised in the worn, frantic performances of the leads as they tumble through the story’s many revelations.
What makes this special is that it makes you both terrified and empathetic towards the people in the story. There’s something relatable about every character here, so to see them navigating through the maze of inner demons and outer threats make for a taxing but a rewarding watch.
Carla Gugino (who was also in Gerald’s Game) renders a standout performance as the mother of the family with a proclivity towards sketchy behavior resulting from psychological trauma – it’s a character that evokes memories of the mother in Kim Jee Woon’s The Tale of Two Sisters and Katee Sackhoff in Oculus.
Even if he’s wading into familiar territory Flanagan deserves praise for delivering a sort of a low-voltage chiller that lingers in the back of your head, that goes for your heart and the mind. It may be endlessly bleak but its sense of emotional resolution in the face of fractured familial bonds is worth a stream. With Flanagan making a sequel to The Shining next, it’s nice to have guy who poses a donnish serious competition to James Wan in the contemporary horror department.
The Haunting of Hill House is now streaming on Netflix.
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