I’ve referred to this several times before, but a watershed moment in my childhood and appreciating the forms of media that I blog about now was discovering Stephen King’s marvelous nonfiction book Danse Macabre back in 1981. I was 13 years old then, and already an avid devotee of all things weird, fantastic and sinister. By interpreting his own reactions and the inspiration he found within the many selected books, radio programs, motion pictures, and television programs (it handles an awful lot, even for a 400-page paperback) King literally laid a groundwork for me to follow; a course of study that eventually led me to further interpretations of why humans are drawn to such sometimes inhuman things in the works of Nietzsche and Jung. No bullshit. I recommend the book (which recently got an update, need to pick up a new hardback version to replace my tired, old paperback one of these days) yet again, to all students of the bizarre.
Anyways, one of the most quoted and referred-to works in the book was Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House, which would eventually inspire King’s own Bad Places, such as the Marston House in Salem’s Lot, the Overlook Hotel in The Shining and especially the subject of his 2002 television mini-series Rose Red. While I have never read the novel (I know, I know, it’s not unlike my strange antagonism about Neil Gaiman noted here), I was an immediate fan of Robert Wise’s 1963 film The Haunting, which is, in my opinion, is up there with Hitchcock’s Psycho and Polanski’s Repulsion for supplying that first turn of the screw (to borrow a fitting phrase) that issued in the era of modern cinematic horror. And yeah, The Haunting was remade in 1999, but the less said about it the better, right?
Now for the other major part of the equation: Mike Flanagan. From Absentia, a desperate tale of a woman coming to terms with the circumstances surrounding her husband’s mysterious disappearance, Oculus (which structurally has many similarities with his take on The Haunting of Hill House), about a family and their doomed relationship with a malefic mirror that twists their lives to horrific ends, Hush, with a secluded deaf writer stuck in a white-knuckled cat-and-mouse with an intruder, to the wonderfully retro Ouija: Origin of Evil, which features a false medium and her family dealing with a very real supernatural presence, Flanagan has simply been knocking them out of the park, one by one. He is certainly overdue a mention here, but I aim to rectify the situation now if I can. Most recently, with his adaptation of the aforementioned King’s novel Gerald’s Game, he has cemented himself as one of the mainstays of current horror films. And I bet ninety-to-nothing he’s got a similarly worn-out copy of Danse Macabre in his back pocket.
To the subject, finally. Needless to say, I was really excited when I first heard Flanagan was taking on Hill House, especially after Gerald’s Game. I didn’t expect it to take on Robert Wise’s 1963 version, which I would equate with Eric Clapton’s opinion of the guitar work of B.B. King: “He can do more with one string that anyone else can with an entire guitar”. Similarly, it was Wise’s use of restraint that made his Haunting all the more horrific. What I did expect was what has made Flanagan’s work stand out all along: well-drawn characters with believable motivations and arcs, and solid plotting with plenty of tension in all the right parts. And some freaky faces. He really digs those freaky faces.
All of this is present in The Haunting of Hill House, and a lot more. Instead of introducing an investigative group of outsiders to the titular house, we have the Crain family, who were the builders and first owners in the novel and previous film adaptations. In Flanagan’s version, Hugh Crain is a regular Fix-It Felix, initially seeking to “flip” or renovate Hill House for a profit. Alongside him is his lovely wife Olivia, and their children, Steven, Shirley, Theodora, Luke, and Eleanor. Note that three of the children (Theo, Luke, and Nell) have names from the novel, and one of its author (Shirley). As for Steven — maybe Stephen is a more appropriate spelling? You see where I’m going here, right folks?
As for the cast, there really are three of them: The younger Crain family, the present-day Crain family, and the remnants of the Hill family that still haunt the place. Among them are many Flanagan regulars, like the lovely Carla Gugino, Henry Thomas, Lulu Wilson, Elizabeth Reaser, Kate Siegel (also known as Mrs. Flanagan), Samantha Sloyan, James Lafferty, and Catherine Parker. Performances are solid across the board, with Gugino and Victoria Pedretti (as the adult Nell) being the stand-outs from my viewing. I was also taken by the child actor performances, the insanely adorable Violet McGraw and Julian Hilliard as the younger versions of the twins Nell and Luke, especially. They seemed to effortlessly portray the way children are able to take horrific events and integrate them into the more imaginative landscape of their interior lives, albeit in Hill House those events lay the foundation for darker developments.
The series (I really want to call it a film — it’s more like a 10-hour film to me, given its solidity) glides from past to present, deeply into the psyches of each member of the Crain family and widely at their reluctantly tethered relationships with each other. Instead of valued and cherished moments, their encounters are painful and mechanical, due to their poisoning from the influence of Hill House. Each character carries their own considerable encumbrance, only learning too late how to lighten the loads by bearing them together. Of course, I will not spoiler here, but the layers of secrets and deceptions put upon the Crains by the House’s evil influence slowly creep at them from the beyond, ultimately driving them back to the genesis of their doom.
Stylistically, Flanagan manages to bridge the gap between what I would term current and classic horror motives. While the overall story itself is a gradual, gothic tale which takes time to fully detail the characters involved with increasing tension, he punctuates the proceedings with several jump-scares (and those freaky faces) to drive each paralyzing moment home. Imagine it as a spider’s web woven between a series of rusted iron nails, and I think you’ll get the idea. Or nails driven into the lid of a bottomless casket? I’m saying too much, I think.
Stephen King, a well-known fan of Jackson’s original novel, recently tweeted to say that “I don’t usually care for this kind of revisionism, but this is great. Close to a work of genius, really.” I’m inclined to agree. It’s a rare moment when a work of such significance can be reworked in such a way that brings forth a new, but true interpretation of the aspects of the original story. But Flanagan has, and this is just a moment. The Haunting of Hill House is a marvelous example of a committed filmmaker taking on the limited series format to craft a classic tale for a modern age. Let’s hope it sets an example for years to come.