Monday, January 9, 2023

Home (Un)sweet Home

Film: The Haunting of Hill House
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on various players.

Most horror movies, or at least a significant majority of horror movies, are short. Thers’s something about the genre that fits with keeping things short and sweet. You give the audience a little bit of information about the potential victims, providing enough for empathy to keep the audience emotionally involved, and then you ramp up the scares. It’s hard to maintain that. Building something that deeper takes a lot of work, and we don’t always have the patience for it, both as creators and as consumers of media. The Haunting of Hill House is an exception to this, and it’s one hell of an exception.

That fact is truly exceptional. I look at a series like American Horror Story as an example of this. I tried with that show; I really tried to watch it and like it for what it was and it always ended up disappointing me. The problem with AHS is that it always tried to do too much. There would be a main story, but then something else would be shoehorned in almost as a way to bulk the story up so it could justify the length. Because of that, it always disappointed me and I didn’t make it past the fourth season.

The Haunting of Hill House avoids that problem, and that’s what makes it work as well as it does. This is a reworking of The Haunting, or more properly a reworking of Shirley Jackson’s novel of the same name. In this version of the story, in 1992, the Crain family—Hugh (Henry Thomas) and Olivia (Carla Gugino) and their children Steven (Paxton Singleton), Shirley (Lulu Wilson), Theodora (Mckenna Grace), and twins Nellie and Luke (Violet McGraw and Julian Hilliard) purchase Hill House with the intent of renovating and flipping it. But Hill House was born bad and it takes its toll on the Crains.

Much of this takes place years later as the Crains deal with what happened to them in that house all of those years ago. It’s not a spoiler to say that only six of the Crains have adjuncts in the modern day of the story. Hugh (Timothy Hutton) is estranged from his five children, in large part because of what happened with Olivia in the house and his refusal to talk to them about it. Steven (Michiel Huisman) is a successful author, having made paranormal debunking his business, starting with Hill House. Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser) and her husband (Anthony Ruivivar) run a funeral home. Theo (Kate Siegel), who has always been psychically sensitive, is a therapist specializing in working with children. Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) is in and out of rehab. Nellie (Victoria Pedretti) is haunted in her own way, especially after the tragic and sudden death of her husband Arthur (Jordane Christie).

Ultimately, that’s all that The Haunting of Hill House is. It’s an exploration of what this family went through in 1992 with the terrible events of a house that is essentially alive and malignant and how it continues to affect them, starting with Nellie returning to the house for what appears to be a suicide (not a spoiler, folks—it happens in the first episode out of 10). What happens from there is a look both at the past and the present of the people, with every member of the family more or less getting their own episode of the show to go through their experiences and how they have dealt with that terrible reality.

There’s a lot that goes right with The Haunting of Hill House. One is that the characters are given enough space to become real people for us. None of them (except perhaps Nellie) are perfect and each of them has some terrible tragic flaw that makes them real and believable, and also frustrating as characters as they would be in real life. The story also takes time to build slowly. Things that are terrible and disturbing in early episodes become explained later on as all of the threads slowly knit together into a cohesive story.

I appreciate the fact that not everything is explained. We’re led to believe that Hill House has a long and tragic history of people being driven mad or driven to terrible crimes within its walls, and while we get a little of that, the focus is very much on the Crain family rather than that history. Theirs is the only history we are really going to be concerned with, which is a large part of why this works. We aren’t going to get distracted by side stories. Everything that happens here all feeds into the main narrative, like tributaries eventually finding their way to the Mississippi. It stays on task and is all the better for it.

It’s also respectful of the source material. In the original book, the house was built by Hugh Crain, and in the haunting of the story, we get characters like Eleanor, Theodora, and Luke, and of course it was written by Shirley Jackson. And yet, there’s a lot new here, so that even someone familiar with the various incarnations of the story will find a lot here that is new and intriguing.

It's also a story that truly aims for real horror and not cheap thrills or gore. There are a couple of good jump scares (one in the 8th episode is an all-time classic), but most of the scares are looking for something a lot deeper. While the whole of the series is excellent, the horror really peaks at the end of the fifth episode, exploring Nellie’s story, a moment that causes the entire series to pivot in terms of its depth.

The Haunting of Hill House is highly recommended. It was great on a first watch and is nearly as good on a rewatch.

Why to watch The Haunting of Hill House: This is exactly how to do long-form horror.
Why not to watch: Too much family drama?


  1. I really liked this. I'm still mad at myself though...I knew there was a jump scare in episode 8 and I was trying to prepare myself for it and it STILL got me.

    1. To be fair, it got me on the rewatch, too. I even knew almost exactly when it was coming and it still got me.

  2. Thanks! Been meaning to check this out.

    1. This is the template for this kind of long-form horror. I have no real notes for it and no clear way to improve it.