New Netflix original series perfects thriller television
The Santa Clara
October 25, 2018
With Michael Myers once again slashing—or more accurately, lumbering—his way into theaters this October, you’d be forgiven for finding horror films a bit worn-out. Luckily, this year, the scariest movie isn’t in theaters—it’s on the smaller screen.
Netflix’s “The Haunting of Hill House,” an eerie ghost story about a family and its frightful history with the titular house, eschews the tired creeps and repetitive jump scares that have made recent horror cinema feel more lifeless than its countless victims.
Over the course of 10 episodes, the series charts the paranormal experiences of the Crain family, who lived in the haunted house 26 years ago and whose grown children still suffer from the stay. Focusing on a different family member in each episode (and backed by rare, superb child actors like Mckenna Grace and reliable stalwarts like Carla Gugino), the show juggles its two timelines, cutting back and forth between the children in 1992 and their adult selves in 2018.
At first, this confusing cross-cutting distracts from the show’s genuine scares as it forces viewers to take time figuring out which child actors correspond to their adult counterparts.
But after the first episode (or a quick trip to IMDB), we achieve enough familiarity with the characters that this problem disappears, allowing us to freely enjoy the horror of the house.
The house itself—the best haunted mansion since Allerdale Hall in Guillermo del Toro’s “Crimson Peak”— oozes classic creepiness. A thick layer of bluish-gray fog seems to permanently blanket the grounds, and on the inside, dense shrouds of cobwebs cover the furniture, practically screaming “Don’t live here.”
Unlike most commercial horror—where filmmakers leverage early shocks to inspire fear in their audiences—“The Haunting of Hill House” relies on a subtle, growing sense of dread to build its own brand of suspense. Characters describe the apparitions they’ve encountered in ghastly detail before the intimidating spirits even appear, allowing viewers to sit in apprehension with the discomforting images in their heads.
Thankfully, director Mike Flanagan (“Gerald’s Game” and “Hush”) honors the spooky setups by filming the ghosts scarier than their initial descriptions would suggest, putting to rest the notion that nothing outscares the horror of the unseen. Even when only glimpsed for a second, these ghosts are terrifying.
Flanagan’s camera confidently glides around the house like another spirit, showing us exactly what we want to see. In one scene featuring a fearsome-looking doorknob, the camera lingers on the handle just long enough to make us squirm.
When we eventually see the apparitions, Flanagan frames them unconventionally, forcing us to marinate in the uncanny of his uncomfortable images and unnatural editing—a frightening style lost in the overproduction of recent horror outings like last year’s shockingly clean “It.”
As a result, we become particularly aware of the lens and the feeling that only a thin slice of glass separates us from the terror onscreen. As with the horror classics from the 70s—such as “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” or “Don’t Look Now”—the camera adds an extra level of realism by removing the conventional cinematic distance between the characters and the audience.
At one particularly tensious moment, the family’s patriarch, (Henry Thomas, the star of the suburban dream “E.T.” now trapped in a suburban nightmare), warns one of his sons to “keep your eyes closed no matter what.”
While this might be sensible advice for the boy, the audience need not heed it. “The Haunting of Hill House” grips viewers in a way most of today’s horror cannot match.
Rather than make you wade through boring exposition and monotonous “shocks” to get to the truly scary bits, the show builds such an intense sense of dread that you’ll find yourself jumping in alarm at even mundane actions, like a character walking between rooms.
With everything becoming a potential source for fright, you won’t be able to look away.
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