When Shirley Jackson wrote The Haunting of Hill House in 1959, she all but set the mould for modern ghost stories. But after two movie adaptations – one a creepy classic by Robert Wise, the other a cartoony CGI-fest by Jan de Bont – and numerous big-screen copycats, the broad strokes of her prestige chiller are now creakily familiar.
It’s a smart move, then, for writer/director Mike Flanagan (Oculus) to forge an almost entirely new narrative for his 10-episode Netflix adaptation. And while the first six episodes (which were available for review) occasionally feel like they’re attempting to find the right balance between scares and emotion, they’re also at times gripping and gorgeously moody, showcasing both a reverence for the source material and a dedication to trying new things.
Surprisingly, the biggest and most successful change is the ditching of the central investigation plot of Jackson’s novel in favour of a family-driven narrative. Here, the series’ split timeline focusses on the Crane family, who move into Hill House, aka the “most haunted house in America”, in the early ’90s.
Kids Steven, Shirley, Theo, Luke and Nell all experience terrifying phenomena and, after a horrifying, unseen incident involving their mother (Carla Gugino), they’re whisked away by their father (a never-better Henry Thomas), who refuses to talk about what really happened on that final night at the mansion. “I want the gates and the doors locked at all times,” he says. “It sits there and rots.”
So far, so creepy, and the series neatly transitions back and forth between the now grown-up siblings and their younger counterparts, Stephen King-style, with flashbacks revealing the full extent of the horror at Hill House.
These first six episodes take their time in lining up the play pieces, prioritising character over frights, and the show often feels like Six Feet Under meets The Haunting as scenes of gritty domesticity are intercut with creepy mansion occurrences.
Because in this new Haunting, as with Jackson’s original, ghosts are more than just bumps in the night. “A ghost can be a lot of things,” explains Steven (Michiel Huisman) in episode one. “A memory, a daydream, a secret. Grief, anger, guilt.”
Flanagan’s series smartly toys with all of those – it’s predominantly about the ghosts that haunt families, and its gothic imagery is permeated with recurrent themes like mental illness, abuse and secrets, all of which offer the series a rich, adult atmosphere.
It’s a more restrained and meditative kind of horror than that of American Horror Story, and it mostly works, particularly because the cast is uniformly strong. As with the novel, the female characters are the most engaging.
Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser) is an iron-willed funeral director whose steely exterior belies a vulnerable spirit, while Theo (Kate Siegel) is a sardonic therapist with potential psychic abilities.
Sadly, less interesting is Nell (Victoria Pedretti), who crashes from one melodramatic meltdown to the next, while Steven is a preternatural investigator whose bullheaded ambition makes him the least likeable Crane. And although Oliver Jackson-Cohen is painfully raw as Luke, his junkie plot feels cookie-cutter bleak.
When they all finally come together in episode six, though, the family interplay proves electric, particularly when Dad (now played by Timothy Hutton) is thrown into the mix.
If you’re wondering what all of this means for those all-important spooks, don’t worry. There are plenty, from a man in a bowler hat (who hovers in a similarly unnerving way to Buffy’s Gentlemen) to a ‘Bent-Neck Lady’ who torments Nell.
In a show that successfully fosters a forbidding and gothic mood, they make unsettling blink-and-you’ll-miss cameos in pitch-black rooms, and are smartly handled, never becoming schlocky or laughable.
But Flanagan knows that in our post-Conjuring and Sixth Sense era, ghosts are only scary when they represent something else, and the show hits its stride with a bravura sequence in episode five that directly reinterprets a well-known event in Hill House lore, delivering it with the kind of devastating emotion that finally pays off the introduction of a family.
Meanwhile, episode six – which is set almost entirely in a funeral home – is told almost exclusively through five long, unbroken single takes that frontline the show’s strongest elements, namely the family tension and its wry spot-the-ghost visual gags.
At this point, the series seems to have hit its groove, and there are still plenty of mysteries left for the final four episodes to unravel. Flanagan’s family-first approach lends the show considerable emotional heft but, be warned: there are long stretches devoid of paranormal activity that drift into melodrama territory.
Still, it’s a fun, psychologically complex narrative that Flanagan is weaving, and there are neat throwbacks to Jackson’s novel, such as a spiral staircase, a locked red door, an abundance of bed-bound ‘visits’, and housekeeper Mrs Dudley, who directly quotes the book’s famous line, “They lived all alone in the night, in the dark.”
This is a new version of The Haunting for a new time, when the term ‘ghosting’ means something else entirely, and, although it’s not always completely successful in its balancing of horror and heart, it’s definitely an intelligent and intriguing cocktail that constantly invites the audience to question what it’s seeing. Hopefully, this slow-burn series will catch light in a way that Jackson would be proud of.
The Haunting of Hill House is streaming now exclusively on Netflix.
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