Review: The Haunting of Hill House

scene from The Haunting of Hill House

The Haunting of Hill House will be discussed and analyzed for years to come. It’s that kind of work of art. Watching it is like peeling an onion – you think you’ve found the meat, but there’s always one more layer. You dig deeper and deeper in tighter and tighter circles until the whole opens up, explodes, and you’re surrounded by layers again.

The Haunting of Hill House is a horror story of 10 episodes. It uses all the genre trademarks like floating figures, terrifying heads popping into your face accompanied by screaming music, ghosts, strange tricks with depth and vision, and dead people who sit up and talk.

Carla Gugino in The Haunting of Hill House
Can YOUR mom make it hail rocks?

It’s more than a horror story, however. Most of it wasn’t genre trickery. Most of it was a detailed exploration of one family and the house that haunted them. It delved into the trauma and grief living in Hill House caused. Based on a novel by Shirley Jackson, and adapted into this long form by director Mike Flanagan, The Haunting of Hill House is the story of the Crain family. Flanagan added some characters to Jackson’s original work, so that there are now 7 main characters, all in the Crain family.

Henry Thomas and Carla Gugino in The Haunting of Hill House.
Really, it’s just a bad dream. There’s nothing scary going on here.

The father, Hugh Crain, is played by Timothy Hutton as an older man, and Henry Thomas as a younger man. The mother Olivia, played by Carla Gugino, is the only character who doesn’t need two actors. She dies early in the story and remains the same age in every episode thereafter. The children include Steve (Michiel Huisman/Paxton Singleton), Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser/Lulu Wilson), Theo (Kate Siegel/Mckenna Grace) and twins Nell (Victoria Pedretti/Violet McGraw) and Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen/Julian Hilliard).

Other prominent members of the cast were Shirley’s husband, Kevin (Anthony Ruivivar), and Steve’s wife Leigh (Samantha Sloyan). The custodians of Hill House were Mrs. Dudley (Annabeth Gish) and Mr. Dudley (Robert Longstreet).

Theo had a recurring girlfriend played by Levy Tran. Luke had an important friend from rehab played by Anna Enger. Nell married Arthur (Jordane Christie).

Kate Siegel in The Haunting of Hill House
Theo became a therapist helping children with their demons

Each of the 7 key characters were explored in depth, as the story slipped back in forth in time from childhood in Hill House to adults trying to cope with the ghosts of their pasts.

Elizabeth Reaser in The Haunting of Hill House
Shirley became a mortician. Yikes.

The acting was superb, even from the children. Certain scenes were revisited from different characters points of view as the mysteries unfolded.

In the beginning the the story, the writing was pedestrian. As the story rolled along, several of the characters delivered extremely well-written monologues. In the final few episodes the writing was beautiful. Poetic, flowing, meaningful and powerful – quotable, too. The further into the story we got, the more beautiful the language became. That struck me as remarkable and deliberate.

The language is one of the things that I think will be deconstructed by critics and college professors for years to come. It was metaphorical: symbolic and full of hidden meaning.

Timothy Hutton in The Haunting of Hill House.
One of the remarkable long takes in episode 6.

The other remarkable thing was the way the camera sometimes followed the action around without breaking. Episode 6 consisted of several long takes. One was 17 minutes long – one camera, one take, no breaks. The camera swung around as if it were on the stage with the actors during a stage play. The actors moved around each other like a dance, and the camera danced with them. The performances during these long takes were some of the most powerful of the series. The scene was a funeral of one of the family members. They were together again for the first time in ages. Emotions were high. There was too much grief, anger, shame, guilt, secrets, lies, and alcohol.

Michiel Huisman and Timothy Hutton in The Haunting of Hill House
Even when the children were adults, Hugh tried to protect them from the horrors of Hill House.

The final scenes were played out back at Hill House, in the place that had destroyed so many lives and driven so many people mad. The ending scenes both clarified and confused.

I’m not a fan of horror. I seldom watch it. Good reviews convinced me that this particular horror series was worth a try. I agree. It is full of flashes of genius, brilliant writing, fascinating character studies, and insights into family trauma.

Have you seen The Haunting of Hill House? What did you think of it?

4 thoughts on “Review: The Haunting of Hill House”

  1. I watched the first episode the other night and TW pretty much hated it so not sure when I’ll be able to keep watching, but I will. I’m a huge fan of Shirley Jackson, the author of the book this is based on, so I’m really interested in seeing how the series works with the book. (I also wonder how much of the writing you’re raving about comes even partially from the book itself – Shirley Jackson was an amazing wordsmith.) I also feel like I want to re-read The Haunting of Hill House, it’s been YEARS and YEARS… maybe if I get it on audio, TW will listen with me and decide she wants to watch the series? hahaha.

    1. The first few lines you heard in episode 1 were straight out of Jackson’s book. But I don’t think much of what came later could be quite so directly quoted because Mike Flanagan, the director, created characters that weren’t in the book.

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