I don’t normally do reviews of movies or TV series (this would actually be my first) but I binge-watched this series over the weekend and find that I have a lot to say about it so we are making it a first!
The Haunting of Hill House is based on the book of the same name by Shirley Hall which was published in 1959. I have not read the book but just from comparing the synopsis of both works alone, the two stories are very different. From what I gather, the Netflix TV series essentially takes Hill Houses from the book and introduces new characters with their own stories. While several of the characters share names between the TV series and the book, their stories are different.
The TV series focuses on the Crains, a family of seven in two time periods: in 1992 when they first come in contact with the house and in 2018, where all surviving members of the family are still dealing with what happened 26 years before.
The parents, Hugh and Olivia, and their children – Steve, Shirley, Theodora, Luke, and Eleanor (also called Nell or Nellie) – make a living buying older homes, flipping them, and then reselling. Hill House is their latest and most ambitious project yet. Not long after moving in, several of the kids begin seeing things. Nellie sees what she calls the Bent-Neck Lady. Luke sees a tall man with a can that floats around at night and a girl named Abigail that he says lives in the woods near the house.
26 years later, Nellie begins frantically trying to get in touch with her family because she says she is worried about Luke, who has been in and out of rehab for the better part of a decade. This kicks off a string of events that leads the kids (now adults) to re-live what happened in Hill House.
First, I was incredibly impressed with the way that this story was told. Each episode focused on a different member of the family. It showed the same events from every possible angle both in the present and the past. Most of the events in the past were fairly linear with a little bit more being revealed with each episode but the events in the “now” timeline were frequently gone over multiple times to show exactly how the various characters reacted and what they are going through.
I have no expertise in filmmaking, I will say that up front. But I also loved a lot of the techniques that were used in this series. In Theodora’s episode for example, almost all the transitions between timelines were made with small actions that the character made. So Adult Theo would take a bite of an apple and that would instantly transition us to Kid Theo taking a bite of an apple. Or Kid Theo opens a door and that transitions us to Adult Theo opening a door.
In one of the later episodes, large chunks of the show would be taken in one continuous shot as well which for me really added to me getting absorbed in what was going on. There would 5-7 characters in the room at any given time, sometimes reminiscing and sometimes arguing quite vehemently, all of it told without ever cutting to another frame, the camera just continuously moving between angles and characters. I have to give props to the actors for being able to carry out entire long scenes with such precision and choreography.
And finally, the story.
The story was pretty freakin’ phenomenal. I will warn that it dealt heavily with mental illness, suicide, and substance abuse but there was a huge focus on family. All of these siblings are arguing with each other almost constantly, partly because that is what siblings do and partly because their relationships are strained by Hill House, and all of them harbor anger at their father for what they went through when the were kids.
The mystery is what exactly happened on the night that their father ran them to the car and left Hill House in the middle of the night is strongly kept at the forefront of the entire story and there are so many twists and turns up until that point that it kept me on the edge of my seat for the whole show.
The only thing that I disappointed me some was that not all the threads of the plot were tied up at the end of the story. Almost every single reveal that does come is astounding (Bent-Neck Lady reveal, I’m looking at you!). But others just weren’t really given any attention. One episode, Shirley’s, calls attention to the fact that the kids all hear dogs barking at night even though the caretaker, Mr. Dudley, insists that there are no dogs on the property. But there is never any conclusion as to where the barking is coming from. There is a clock-maker/repairer scene multiple times throughout the story whose presence gets called attention to. But then there is never a reveal about him either.
I don’t think this would bother me except that so many other parts of the story are tied up so neatly and revealed in remarkable ways that the ones that don’t tie in well kind of stick out to me.
As for the scari-ness factor, I think this series struck a perfect balance. I love to watch scary movies but am a huge chicken. I am the one with the blanket pulled up to my chin, ready to hide from the TV at any moment. That said, 10 hours of this story watched back to back was not too much for me. There are plenty of scares but most of the jump scares are telegraphed before they happen so I had time to mentally prepare (except one in particular that, no joke, made me scream out loud). There are also some fantastically intense scenes with no scare factor but that really amped up the tension of the entire show.
If you are a horror fan, this is a must watch. If you are not so much a fan as you, like me, just like having the bejeebus scared out of you every now and then, this is also a must watch. This show is being called one of the best that Netflix has put out, and I can see why. The story is phenomenal, the acting and cast is amazing, and the storytelling is everything that I want to see on screen.