If you’re a regular patron of Netflix‘s catalog, you’re likely not as new to the name Mike Flanagan as you may think. Flanagan has come out of the gate in the last ten years with relentless pace, giving to the world one genre gem after another. His mainstream debut Absentia caught fair amount of acclaim from horror devotees, but it was his 2013 release Oculus he garnered real attention. 2016 saw the release of three feature length releases (Hush, Ouija 2, Before I Wake) by way of distribution squabbles and delays. Then in 2017, his Netflix debut Gerald’s Game was a long anticipated release of one of the more divisive Stephen King stories.
With every entry thus far, Mike Flanagan has established an auteur sensibility within horror. It isn’t that he only has a snipers like precision looking through the lens, or crafts truly meaningful dialogue with ease. He’s also edited the majority of his features, which is a rarity among his peers at this level. Every last detail of Flanagan’s work carries weight to it. It’s his dedication to not just characters, but to the monsters and ghouls as well, both literal and figurative. The recognition that ghosts, monsters, and demons can take form outside of the movies, showing themselves in our everyday lives. They can take the form of grief, addiction, depression, loneliness, and guilt; and it’s with his latest, immense opus that explores all of these themes to a degree many can never unpack over their entire career.
The setting of the table is familiar at first. Flanagan’s loose adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s heralded novel scraps the book’s straightforward ghost investigation, however keeps in tact the Gothic inspired atmosphere and mood. In this iteration we meet the Crain family, who have taken over the infamous Hill House some point in the early 1990’s with aspirations of flipping the house and using the money earned towards building their dream home. Husband and father Hugh Crain (Henry Thomas) is a warm, caring figure in the family’s life, the kind of dad who won’t ever shy away from making a pass at trying fix anything and everything. Olivia Crain (Carla Guigino) is a tender, free spirited mother and wife, the driving force of the large family.
The oldest of the five children, Steven Crain (Paxton Singleton) is trying his best to understand his role as the big brother. The next in line is Shirley (Lulu Wilson), who seems to carry the typical chip on her shoulder as with many that find themselves a middle child. Theo (Mckenna Grace) seems to carry the most awareness Hill House’s hostility and history. She also wears gloves at all times, which coincides with a special ability she tries to keep at bay we’ll learn later on. The youngest of the children are a set of fraternal twins Luke (Julian Hilliard) and Nell (Violet McGraw). The twins of course have the strongest connection, basically inter dependent as well as capable of literally feeling what one another feels to a certain extent.
The story is told in two time periods and non-chronologically. We get the set up of when the family lived together for a short time in Hill House in the past, and we see the kids grown up in modern day. From the first introduction of their adult selves, it’s clear that damage has been done to this family dynamic, and there’s varying stress and issues with them all. Steven (Michael Huisman) has kick-started a career as a horror writer, using his experiences from his past to inspire him. Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser) owns and operates a funeral home, which will be the primary location for arguably the best episode in the series. Theo (Kate Siegel) has flourished to obtaining her Ph.D in Psychology, and feels like somewhat of a loner, failing to form much deep connection, perhaps out of fear.
It’s in this modern era we learn some vague, horrifying details about the final days of their stay in Hill House. The most troublesome of the children grown up are twins Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) and Nell (Victoria Pedretti). Nell is crippled with depression, and recent events have her more paralyzed by it than ever, being haunted by a figure from her time in Hill House the family knows as the “Bent Neck Lady”. Luke we find to have been battling with a heroin addiction, living in a rehabilitation center. Early in the series when one of the siblings suffers a dreadful fate, we explore each individual’s story and experiences, and begin to piece together the parallels with their modern days demons versus their past experiences.
What’s truly astounding with the format Flanagan has utilized, over ten hours of story telling spread across ten episodes, is his ability to balance and honor each and every thread introduced. Not only balancing the character arcs, but being able to sustain the emotion and tension throughout. The early handful of episodes dive into each of the children’s unique ghoulish encounters both when they were kids in Hill House, and modern day as well.
Dreams play a large part in the thread as well. Hugh says to Young Nell putting her to sleep one night, “sometimes they spill over”. Haunting of Hill House reminds us that true horror is inherent in our everyday trials. That “ghosts” can be represented by the secrets we’ve kept to ourselves, the darkness we’ve packed away deep within. In one of many brilliant confrontations, it takes a moment of absolutely undeniable supernatural interjection, for Adult Shirley to acknowledge what she has for so long refused to. Above all else, Haunting of Hill House is about the danger we put those we love in if we never admit our faults and work through our transgressions.
Staying true to typical auteur tactics, nearly everybody apart of the main cast has performed in one of Flanagan’s previous pieces. Aside from his obvious talents for atmosphere, and camerawork; Flanagan’s has a knack for directing actors as well, displayed especially here by the tremendous performances from the child actors, which is no easy feat. Credit is due also to Flanagan’s regular collaborator behind the lens, DP Michael Fimognari for helping give the show it’s bold cinematic flavor front to back.
In recent years we’ve seen a bit of a horror renaissance on the independent front. Films like The Witch, The Blackcoat’s Daughter, It Follows come to mind when we look at the smaller budget films that have introduced up and coming voices in the genre to keep on the radar. When it comes to the mainstream though, I can’t think of anybody else leading the charge than Mike Flanagan; and his astounding Netflix series cements this for me. A master of the craft, capable of capturing the emotional spectrum of the horror genre with gravitas and conviction. The Haunting of Hill House is a powerhouse of a series. It made me think of how many times I should have said the things that I’ll never get another chance to. It also made me very weary of moving about the house in the dark; the evergreen endorsement for a piece of horror.