Netflix’s ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ Is a Family Drama, With Scares


Instead of telling the story from the book about a group of strangers who are invited to the house by a doctor to study the supernatural, the series dispenses with this medical conceit and focuses on the dysfunctional relationships in a family who once stayed in Hill House. That family, a couple (Carla Gugino, Henry Thomas) with five children, moved into the house in order to renovate and flip it. Instead of making a profit, they paid dearly, and what happened in the house haunts each child through adulthood.

Its fractured plot, darting back and forth from childhood to adulthood, underlines how horrific events lodge themselves in your psyche. Early on, we see the father frantic, gathering his kids and fleeing to a hotel. Whatever happened that night hangs over all 10 episodes, and before revealing it, Flanagan shows how the past haunts the present.

The worst fear in this “Hill House” is not walking alone, but with your relatives. Steven Crain writes a tell-all book that makes him famous, but it also divides the family because his sister Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser) thinks he is exploiting family tragedy. Theodora (Kate Siegel) works as a child psychologist, which also brings up gothic memories, and Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) struggles with addiction. The most rattled child might be Nell (Victoria Pedretti), whose fragile state echoes that of Eleanor Vance from the original book and leads her back to Hill House and a reunion of the whole family. (Timothy Hutton plays the older version of the Crain patriarch.)

For horror — which has a tradition of thinly drawn victims and wildly evocative monsters, and of isolating people in space or in cabins in the woods instead of moving them around in dense narratives — this is a ton of plot, not to mention the many long theatrical speeches. And Flanagan has woven it together cleverly, with winks at fans of the original story and surprising bits of connective tissue across generations. It’s an intricate, emotionally gripping and sprawling story, but its scale does seem to come at the expense of scares.

The major turning points in the series hinge on familial lies, odd coincidence and decisions that are the stuff of midlife crisis novels set in the suburbs of Connecticut, not gothic tales of the uncanny. If it weren’t for the periodic bug crawling out of a corpse’s mouth or a floating ghost peering underneath a child’s bed, you could confuse “The Haunting of Hill House” for a kitchen-sink drama. For those worried that horror has become so sober and mature that it is losing some of its fun, there is some evidence to found in this solemnly affecting series.

The biggest challenge for horror in the age of streaming might be pacing. Getting this right is as important in scary scenes as it is in jokes. This series is deliberate and slow, but it conforms to traditional episodic television structure. Episodes start and end with shocks, and while they are often quite effective, the scares don’t escalate. Flanagan has made an intelligent, engaging supernatural story in which the tension doesn’t mount so much as stop and start, and occasionally sputter.

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