TV: The Haunting of Hill House

Based on the deeply impressive Midnight Mass, I went into Mike Flanagan’s earlier limited series The Haunting of Hill House (2018) with high expectations, bolstered by lingering media buzz proclaiming it a masterpiece of horror. The hype wasn’t lying—but only up to a point. Unfortunately, that point came in a weak final episode, which undercut an otherwise masterfully chilling build-up.

A time-jumping mosaic, The Haunting of Hill House—loosely based on a Shirley Jackson novel—chronicles the terrifying formative experiences of the Crain family, and their traumatizing after-effects. One track involves the young family’s life in the early nineties, when parents Hugh (Henry Thomas) and Olivia (Carla Gugino) bring their five children to a remote mansion, Hill House, to renovate and flip it. Their plans go disastrously awry, because Hill House is epically haunted, subjecting the family to slowly mounting supernatural terrors. These horrific experiences, which culminate in tragedy, continue to impact the children—author Steven (Michel Huisman), mortician Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser), psychologist Theo (Kate Siegel), and tight-knit fraternal twins Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) and Nellie (Victoria Pedretti)—into the present day, when they’re brought back together along with an older Hugh (Timothy Hutton) to cope with yet another tragedy. They may have escaped from Hill House and moved on, but Hill House isn’t done with them, triggering an eerie, fraught family reunion that leads to a head-on collision with their dark past.

At ten robust episodes, The Haunting of Hill House is a stately but immersive creepfest, and it is indeed a horror masterpiece for much of its run—full of subtle menace, nerve-wracking suspense, and shocking jump-scares that literally sent full-body shivers through me. (Episode 5, “The Bent-Neck Lady,” is especially intense and unnerving.) The fact that it manages to do so in such unconventional fashion—a nonlinear mosaic that jumps back and forth through time—is stunning. The family’s experiences are so disorienting that the supernatural events they lived through remain mysterious decades after they happened, and the scripts and direction are cleverly crafted to fill in the picture in judicious, cumulative stages. The result is a surprisingly coherent journey. Meanwhile, accompanying the life-and-death horrors are intense bouts of family drama, brought brilliantly to life by an exceptional cast.

The final episode, unfortunately, underwhelming dispels the mystique, as Flanagan’s narrative strategy—tying to the supernatural surface to the personal suxtext—is finally revealed. It’s easy to see what he was going for, and the thematic connections he draws are well enough executed, but it resolves too neatly; the falling away of irrational frights in the final hour bring everything to an underwhelming end point. I wouldn’t say the destination ruins the journey, or anything; indeed, there’s relieving emotional closure in that last hour. But in the context of such an otherwise gripping thriller, the exit notes land like a pulled punch. Still, a very accomplished series, quite addictively watched.

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