If you have yet to watch The Haunting of Hill House, Netflix’s massive horror hit, then you may be expecting a show that is just designed to make you hide behind the sofa, a ghost train streamed into your living room. This show is so much more than that. It’s certainly scary enough to make the foreseeable nights sleepless, but it’s also one of the best dramas of the year.
It begins, as so many good ghost stories do, with a nice family moving in to an old, spooky house. Hugh and Olivia Crain (Henry Thomas and Carla Gugino), and their five children, have arrived at Hill House, hoping to quickly renovate it and turn a profit. This plan goes…awry. From the first night they hear strange knocks and encounter terrifying apparitions. On one fateful night, something so awful happens that the family flees, minus Olivia, who didn’t make it out.
The show cuts between those early days in Hill House and the children’s adult lives, in which they’re still processing their childhoods and still being haunted, literally, by past ghosts. Steven (Michiel Huisman) has written a best-selling, not entirely honest, book about his experience; Shirley (Elizabeth Reiser) now runs a mortuary; Theo (Kate Siegel) is a child psychologist who resists intimate relationships; Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) has become a drug addict in his attempts to escape; Luke’s twin Nell (Victoria Pedretti) has tried to live the most normal life of them all, aiming to just settle down with a man she loves, but she more than any of the others is still in the grips of her childhood home.
It’s the depth of those characters that makes this show the best horror of the year. The more we get to know these flesh and blood people and the issues that pull them together as a family while also ripping them apart, the more the show grips. Its scares aren’t cheap, but as the title suggest, haunting. You get so fixated on what’s happening with the story that the sudden arrival of the ghosts comes as a horrible surprise. It’s not a show with any of the horror cliché characters. It’s a great dramatic story that also happens to feature some spirits.
Director Mike Flanagan, who has made some solid horror movies like ‘Oculus’ and ‘Ouija: Origin of Evil’, pushes himself into a new realm with this show, coming up with numerous creative ways to suck the viewer in to his dark world. Episode six, Two Storms, is a contender for best single episode of any show this year. Told in very long takes, with only a few evident cuts, it brings the entire surviving Crain family back together for a funeral and whips up tension and fear in a way so intimate and breathless the actors may as well be performing immediately in front of you.
Another exceptionally smart, and very 2018, thing it does is to sneak ghosts into the background of a lot of shots. You may not notice them the first time, but on rewatching you’ll spot horrible faces and looming figures lurking in the dark corners of Hill House. You’re nothing these days without some easter eggs to get the internet chattering.
The Haunting of Hill House is so much better than it needed to be. Easy frights and some eerie sets would have been enough to grab viewers around Halloween, but everyone involved wrote, directed and performed something richer. The plot is packed with tricks, but the show is all treat.