For many, the benchmark of any good horror story is the number of times you are genuinely spooked, or the number of times you jump slightly in your chair. By that measurement alone, The Haunting of Hill House is a success. But Netflix’s new horror series – of course released in time for Halloween-themed binge sessions – offers more than just the fear factor, and is a significantly more meaningful watch because of it.
It does take some time to get there: 240 minutes to be exact. That time is spent introducing us to the Crain family, past and present. In the 80’s, Hugh (Henry Thomas and Timothy Hutton) and Olivia Crain (Carla Gugino) and their five children are living in an old mansion, fixing it up to flip for a profit. The Hill House, as it’s known to the Massachusetts townsfolk, has other plans, going through great pains to methodically rip the family to pieces. A tragedy befalls them, most of them escape, and each try – over the course of two decades – to reconcile their time in that cursed house with reality.
The Crain children, as adults, cope in myriad ways: Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser) exerts condescending control of everyone and everything; Steven (Michiel Huisman) becomes a best-selling author of paranormal stories that include his own, despite his skepticism; Theo (Kate Seigel) becomes a child psychologist who subsists on nameless club encounters with women; the twins are easily the worst for the wear, with Nellie (Victoria Pedretti) literally paralyzed by fear of a specific ghost, and Luke’s (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) rampant heroin addiction leaving him in tatters. The trauma of that house looms large, no matter how hard they try to ignore it. It takes another unspeakable tragedy for them to process the terrors from their past and its impact – real and imagined – on their present.
The Haunting of Hill House slots comfortably in the horror genre. There are plenty of ghosts and ghouls and frightful sights that will make sleeping a bit more fitful. Haunted houses are as clichéd as you can get in this genre, but the recurring manifestations of evil in Hill House are truly disturbing. Just by the name, the Bent-Neck Lady invites cynical ridicule, but her appearances in both the past and present storylines are fraught with grotesque tension. Even the more opaque, absurd supernatural presences that haunt the Crain family carry genuinely creepy thrills with them.
Good as these ghoulish houseguests are, the true horror at the center of Hill House is the ironclad grip that unresolved trauma and grief can have on its victims. Even though the Crains escaped the house and never looked back, the suffering it brought them never truly left. Creator Mike Flanagan carefully unbundles the knots of the Crain siblings’s failed coping mechanisms over the first five episodes, with initially middling results.
Quite frankly, their collective blend of trauma-born neuroses and awful personalities makes connecting with the Crains (as adults) difficult. Starting with Steven, the brother milking the family’s tragedy for a hefty book advance, sets a rough course that doesn’t smooth out until the fourth episode with Luke. His episode, a powerful vignette on the ups and downs of addiction, is the first to fully tap into the connective, emotional tissue between past and present pain, and it’s harrowing in ways that even the Bent-Neck Lady can’t conjure up. With that sense of purpose, the show is off and running.
The back half of the series delivers a great blend of gothic horror and peak-TV drama that dives deep into the myriad ways we process trauma. The most revelatory insight stems from Nellie, the other Crain twin, who is quite literally trapped in a cycle of grief. It may ultimately be the house’s doing, but the humans aren’t let off the hook, granting them responsibility in seeking and offering support. Hill House’s finale, juggling the emotional and fantastical in its rush to the conclusion, doesn’t quite have the elegance of other episodes, but the closing moments are an unexpected gut punch at least feels earned.
Whether or not the thematic elements work the whole time, Hill House is a well-made series with a top-notch cast at the helm. There isn’t a weak link amongst the performers, although the beginning limits of the material don’t fully utilize their skillsets. Carla Gugino expertly captures the increased splintering beneath Olivia’s serene facade. Oscar winner Timothy Hutton and E.T. alum Henry Thomas are casting director excellence; the resemblance between them, in haggard optimism and physical appearance, is so uncanny I thought that Hutton had been technologically de-aged. Oliver Jackson-Cohen plays Luke with the same kind of frantic, guilt-ridden energy Timothée Chalamet has in Beautiful Boy, but with an additional layer of desperation to get clean. Michiel Huisman and Elisabeth Reaser are great talents, but their prickly characters don’t give them much to work with until deep into the season.
The Haunting of Hill House is another genre-focused success for Netflix, digging beyond the tropes to find the compelling terror underneath. Like several streaming series, Hill House does take a bit too long to set the stakes and get us invested in its characters, but those 240 minutes are worth the wait, for a show that will not only scare you with ghosts, but make feel other feelings, like sadness, regret and even hope. That is scarier than a bent-neck lady any day.