Truly effective horror shows are very difficult to pull off, which is why they are so rare. Netflix pioneered the concept of good horror television with Stranger Things, and have gone all out with their new project The Haunting of Hill House. Horror to this degree has not been done effectively in television due to the difficulty of keeping the audience in constant suspense for an entire ten hours of film. Nevertheless, Mike Flanagan seems to have cracked the formula, with one of the most bone-chilling and truly terrifying pieces of horror in the last decade.
Flanagan introduces the Crains, a fragmented family who are all still haunted (literally and figuratively) from their past–specifically when they lived inside Hill House, a giant and spacious mansion that is tailor made for horror. The show often flashes back to the Crains’ childhood in order to give more context to the events happening in present-day. Storyline-wise, Hill House contains virtually everything you could possibly want in any television show: insanely suspenseful sequences, emotionally investing characters, and insane non-linear storytelling.
As the show goes on, each episode appears to take place at the same span of time but from different characters’ perspectives. The greatest aspect of this show’s structure–which is saying a lot–is that it is like putting together a puzzle. When each episode passes, more pieces are added to the puzzle, and a bigger picture is gradually created that is equally horrifying and emotional.
The best horror films/shows are those that don’t just involve demon possession. No offense to The Conjuring, but when a film’s only theme is simply attempting to scare the audience, it seldom succeeds due to the weak emotional stakes. Of course, there are exceptions to this generalization, but fortunately Hill House doesn’t have to deal with problem at all, because it has more emotional stakes than the best of TV’s dramas. This season is essentially a better version of This is Us. Episode Five, “The Bent-Neck Lady,” is a wonderous example of how the show combines nail-biting horror with tear-inducing melodrama. The last twenty minutes of this episode contain some of the most beautiful scenes in recent years of television, despite the horror undertones. And then the final thirty seconds…. Well, you’ll have to watch it for yourself.
The horror is all the more terrifying due to the emotional stakes it brings to the table. Every single creature or entity that is introduced in the first half of the season is explained later in a way that isn’t simply saying, “it’s a demon.” The explanations also make the entities that much more disturbing, instead of quenching all the horror that was built up throughout the show with a shallow write-off.
Flanagan writes and directs Hill House with ease and has finally made the horror masterwork that audiences have been yearning for from him. His previous films, while very good, nearly achieve mastery but just barely fall short. Here, Flanagan finally rises to all of the potential he showed with films like Hush and Oculus. One episode that was especially masterfully crafted was Episode Six: “Two Storms”. This episode was filmed in roughly five shots, with the cast and crew continually working without cuts for twenty minutes at a time. This is quite an achievement, especially since Flanagan still manages to make it suspenseful and gut-wrenchingly emotional.
One particular quirk that cannot be ignored when discussing The Haunting of Hill House is the inclusion of random presences appearing and disappearing in the background of shots. This can be as simple as a person standing in the doorway in one shot and then disappearing the next, to entire statues moving positions to face ominously towards the camera. Most of this is very difficult for the casual viewer to spot–someone had to point out to me that there was a stark white face in the background of the scene in which young Theo goes into the cellar–but once you do, it will cause you to peer into every dark corner as if something is staring back at you.
If this show does not win every single Emmy for acting, then there is no justice in the world. Particularly transcendent are Victoria Pedretti as Nell, Oliver Jackson-Cohen as Luke, and Kate Siegel as Theodora. Pedretti has an especially tough job, delivering some of the most emotionally devastating scenes in recent TV history during Episode 5. Jackson-Cohen nails the gait of a drug addict who cannot seem to escape a levitating figure from his childhood. Siegel delivers an understated performance as the sister who hides a secret from society that gives her an advantage (or disadvantage, depending on how you look at it) in her area of work. The Haunting of Hill House is easily the best horror I have seen in recent years, and it will most definitely get under your skin in some way by the time the ten episodes are up. When finished, I immediately wanted to watch it again despite its horrifying nature; the twists and turns along the way changed my perspective of the show and it would be interesting to see the ways it foreshadowed what was to come. Skip over Chilling Adventures of Sabrina; the best show around right now is easily The Haunting of Hill House.
by joel alexander–entertainment editor