Netflix's adaptation of the classic Shirley Jackson horror novel boasts a brilliant cast and some intriguing scares, but disappointingly reduces the book to a spooky soap opera.
To ask “why was this made” when it comes to a remake or reboot is to be rhetorical – the answer is always, of course, “money.” The actual question should be “why was it made this way,” and can be applied both to shot for shot remakes, like Gus Van Sant’s cover version of Psycho, and remakes that resemble the original in name only, like the upcoming Jacob’s Ladder. The latter is particularly frustrating, because all it would take is a few minor tweaks to turn it into an original property, but someone in the process of making it thought that name recognition was worth marketing the movie in a way that misleads audiences.
Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House falls somewhere in between. A series based on inarguably the greatest horror novel of the 20th century (and if you do think it’s arguable I suggest you take it up with Stephen King, who should know about these things), it hits some familiar notes from Shirley Jackson’s legendary ghost story, but is mostly a straightforward drama about post-traumatic stress disorder and family secrets. Its connections to the book are forced and hollow, and hardly seem worth the effort when it would have worked fine as a wholly unique story.
It does, at least, open with the famous “whatever walked there, walked alone” passage. It’s recited by Steven Crain (Michiel Huisman, Game of Thrones), a skeptical paranormal investigator who lived in the haunted Hill House as a child and wrote a best-selling book about it (betcha can’t guess what it’s called). Though Steven stubbornly insists that nothing supernatural happened there, he fled from the house with his father, Hugh (played at various times by both Timothy Hutton and E.T.’s Henry Thomas, though they’re only a decade apart in age and don’t really look alike) and four siblings, leaving behind his mother, Olivia (Carla Gugino), to die under mysterious circumstances.
The event was treated as an Amityville-like tabloid sensation, and the Crain siblings grow up struggling with the fallout of that. As adults, Steven and his sisters, Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser, Twilight) and Theo (Kate Siegel, Hush), are bound by their mutual acrimony and refusal to give a shit about the youngest siblings, heroin addict Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) and emotionally fragile Nell (Victoria Pedretti), named, like Theo, for characters in the novel. It takes a very long time during the six episodes available for screening to get to the bottom of why the Crain siblings, particularly the three oldest, seethe with dislike for each other, and when it’s finally revealed, it’s a bit anticlimactic and doesn’t make a lot of sense.
It takes a very long time to get to anything in The Haunting of Hill House, mostly because there’s a surplus of characters, and at least five of them get episodes dedicated almost entirely to establishing who they are, and the events leading up to their inevitable return to Hill House (it doesn’t happen by the sixth episode, but it’s apparent that it’s coming). In addition to the main characters appearing as both present day and younger versions of themselves, and factoring in various spouses, lovers, creepy caretakers, and other secondary players, you’re looking at almost twenty people introduced just in the first episode alone (with still more to come in later episodes). This is for a series inspired by a novel that had, on the outside, four major characters, and is predominantly about the seductive powers an old, ghost-filled mansion has on just one of them.
The show veers wildly back and forth between the present, the near past, the less near past, and the twenty-five years past, with perhaps a third of the action taking place in Hill House. While it’s not treading any new ground with the ubiquitous rattling doorknobs and creepy kid ghosts, the scenes that take place in the house are more interesting and, honestly, more fun than the dreary present scenes. There, recovering from the trauma of living in a house full of malevolent spirits takes a back seat to money problems, unfaithful spouses, bratty kids, and troubled marriages. A few more jump scares would break up the monotony of the Crain siblings getting into one bitter argument after another.
It’s fine if series creator Mike Flanagan (Gerald’s Game) wanted to make a family drama tangentially related to a haunted house, but he could have easily changed the names of the characters, called his show The Ghosts of Smith Manor, and no one would have been the wiser. Instead, references to the novel, like Nell drinking from a “cup of stars” and the chilling “whose hand was I holding?” scene, are dropped here and there like Easter eggs, in a way that mostly just shows that someone working on the script had a passing familiarity with the plot.
Nevertheless, too many characters, multiple timelines, and several different settings across the country lose what makes The Haunting of Hill House such an effective book. It’s an intimate story about a troubled woman who finds a strange sort of twisted peace in a house that both terrifies and entices her. Turning it into a sprawling soap opera about the monstrous power of secrets and lies is a giant misstep.
It also does away with one of the most frightening aspects of the novel, which is the “not rightness” of Hill House, where rooms are laid out in a way that doesn’t make sense, corners don’t meet where they’re supposed to, doors hang just askew enough that they don’t stay closed, and it leaves one feeling unsettled in a way they can’t articulate. What’s scarier than not being able to explain why you’re so scared? Instead, Hill House just looks like a standard spooky old mansion, with a mysterious locked “Red Room” and endless hallways.
When the show does try to be scary, it works fairly well, and it boasts strong performances from the cast, particularly by the actors playing the Crain siblings as children, including Lulu Wilson (Ouija: Origin of Evil) and McKenna Grace (Designated Survivor) as young Shirley and Theo. It makes you wish more time was spent on them than their less charming adult counterparts.
There are a few scenes that really work, such as an eerie, oddly touching dream sequence that results in gruesome tragedy at the end of episode 5 – which, not coincidentally, is the first time anything really happens. If that sense of decaying beauty and palpable grief was maintained throughout the entire show, it would have been a creepy winner, American Horror Story without the camp. Instead, in the next episode we just return to more arguing between the Crain siblings about book royalties, which seem to take precedence over every other minor and major tragedy in their lives. That episode too ends on a mournful, gripping note, however. There’s hope that in the remaining four episodes it will become a series to keep you up at night, rather than make you wish you were just reading the book again instead.
The Haunting of Hill House sends shivers down your spine Friday, October 12th on Netflix.