Three Episode Thoughts: “The Haunting of Hill House”

I love a good horror story. Let me repeat that with some emphasis… I love a GOOD horror story. I enjoy the adrenaline rush of feeling sense of scare while in the safety of a theater, or in this case, my living room. Not everyone responds to the same stimuli that can cause that sense of scare. A lot of people love the trope that is called the “jump scare,” and while that can be used to create some pretty intense moments in a movie or TV show, many big studios have fallen to that gimmick and basically bled it to death. That’s why I found the new Netflix series, The Haunting of Hill House, to be both a refreshing and quite chilling breath of fresh air.
The Crain family has taken residence in an old Victorian/Gothic manor. It appears that they take old houses, fix them up, and then flip them for an enormous profit. This has been part of a long-term plan for them to build their own dream home, and Hill House is the last home to improve and flip before they can make their dreams come true. The Crain family consists of the father Hugh Crain (Henry Thomas), his wife Olivia (Carla Gugino), their oldest child Steven (Paxton Singleton), followed by Shirley (Lulu Wilson), daughter Theo (Mckenna Grace who we will soon see again as a young Carol Danvers in Marvel’s upcoming Captain Marvel), and then their fraternal twin children Nell (Violet McGraw) and Luke (Julian Hilliard). However, shortly after moving into that house they discover some rather unique and unsettling mysteries. For starters, the family learns that some of their own have unusual “gifts.” Olivia apparently has experienced color visions, yet the true nature of her gift has yet to be expounded on.

The youngest daughter, Nell, is visited by an apparition while she tries to sleep, that she refers to as “the bent-neck lady.” No matter where sleeps, the bent-neck lady is there to watch her. But the one child who has the greatest sensitivities is Theo. By simply holding or touching an object she can get a sense of the object, or even a person. She comes off as something between a psychic medium and an empath, and that’s an ability that stays with her into adulthood. Then, in a surprising and somewhat terrifying (for the family) move, Hugh gathers his children in the middle of the night and takes them away from the house, deliberately leaving his wife behind. Years later we see how this has fractured the family and shaped their lives. Steven (Michiel Huisman) is now a writer and has authored a series of very successful ghost stories (despite his claim to have never actually seen a ghost), Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser) has become a mortician, due to an experience she had regarding a dead loved one, Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) has fallen into substance abuse, most likely due to a terrifying and traumatic experience he had in a hidden basement undexr the house (the scene was quite scary for me), Theo (Kate Siegel) obtained her PhD and has become a therapist for troubled children, and Nell (Victoria Pedretti) is the sibling that no one wants to deal with because she appears to be extremely troubled from what she has endured in the house. What happens to Nell is revealed early on in the series, but for the sake of spoilers I’ll let you, dear reader, learn that for yourself. Lastly there is the father. Hugh (Timothy Hutton) bears the emotional scars of what happened in the house, including the mysterious truth about the tragic ending of his wife. He leads a solitary life now and doesn’t get on with any of his children. However something has happened that will reunite them as they are forced to contend with what happened all those years ago in the Hill House.

The production values in this are top-notch. The exterior of the house is Bisham Manor in LaGrange, Georgia, but given some chilling CGI work that makes it the perfect setting for this tale. As for the interiors, this looks and feels as if the story was being told in a real mansion. The long hallways and old doors lend to the authenticity of the series and help to provide a somewhat unsettling environment. It’s not your typical over-the-top style that so many other horror stories have relied upon. The house is remarkably beautiful, both inside and out, and yet it looks old and musty. There are shadows everywhere that make the imagination run away and cause you to think that something unpleasant is about to step into the light.

However, as awesome as the production values are, what really helps to sell this series is the cast. With a series that is told in two different timelines (past and present), it was necessary to have two different sets of actors for each time period, and this series did more than a bang-up job at getting the right people for the job. Henry Thomas has always been an amazing actor. Going as far back as young Elliott in E.T., through Psycho IV and more recently in Ouija: Origin of Evil his acting chops have never wavered. We get to see two sides of the loving father, both as supporter and comforter to his entire family, but also as the terrified guardian who will do anything he can to spare his children.

Unfortunately we don’t get much look at Timothy Hutton except for a few scenes here and there. His part in the series will undoubtedly come to fruition as the family reunites and faces their demons.
The Crain children are all amazing, both with the child and adult actors. Among the standouts are Lulu Wilson (young Shirley) who has some truly unsettling moments of terror and grief that were able to push some unpleasant buttons, and Julian Hilliard (young Luke) shows what a child with PTSD experiences after his moment of unbridled terror (that scene really did freak me out). He gave a blank facial expression of pure shock that was able to speak volumes. Then there is Mckenna Grace (young Theo). The maturity that this young actress works with is astonishing. She has a sophistication that gives the sense of carrying an old soul, which is very much needed for the role of young Theo. As for the adults, for actors to draw upon haunting experiences that in all likelihood never really happened, and then bring them to the forefront as emotional scars is beyond remarkable. There is something almost Lovecraftian in their performances. The best H.P. Lovecraft stories deal with the telling of someone’s horrible nightmare, but not the nightmare itself. It operates in the arena that I like to call “theater of the mind.” The ability to convey to the camera, and with all of the subtlety and nuance necessary to make such psychological and emotional scars real, shows a level of acting that is nothing short of genius. Basically there isn’t one weak link shown during the first three episodes of this series. Where this all goes could change the overall tone and believability of the show, but for now, after having watched only three episodes of The Haunting of Hill House, I can’t wait to see where this story goes, where it takes all of these characters, and what is indeed the mystery behind the Red Door.
For its first three episodes, The Haunting of Hill House receives 5 out of 5 ghosts!

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