The Haunting of Hill House caused a sensation when it premiered on Netflix in October 2018, just in time for Halloween. It takes its title from the classic Shirley Jackson novel of the same name, which was adapted into one of the all-time classic haunted house films, The Haunting. However, despite some thematic similarities with both the source novel and film, the TV mini-series is a wholly “original” tale from director, producer, writer and editor Mike Flanagan, who is also responsible for the truly abysmal recent sequel to The Shining… Doctor Sleep.
The show is a hot mess, and for its 10-hour running time plays more like a soap opera than a scary extended movie. It features an incredibly heavy-handed family drama, but without any of the shocks or WTF moments that made Hereditary such a fascinating film. Also, there the cast for the film brought their A game… well, maybe Gabriel Byrne overacted a bit. But the cast here is mostly TV actors or actors who Flanagan had worked with in his earlier horror films. Carla Gugino and Timothy Hutton, now veterans of the silver screen, are the matriarch and patriarch of the Crain family, respectively, and give undeniably the best performances in the show. The rest of the performances are awful, with other cast members overacting the hell out of their roles.
Flanagan decides to give half of the show’s running time to just its backstory, while cutting back and forth with the present day’s “crises” within the Crain family, such as drug addiction, suicide, hauntings etc. That’s fine, but these cuts never move the story along. Instead, you constantly end up back where you started, at the beginning of an episode. It could have fleshed out the characters, but there is no complexity, just archetypes. The great majority of the show is just an information-dump, which is the problem with a lot of television. It’s the condensed form of film, where you have to show it and not state it constantly, that makes cinema always the superior art form, along with atmosphere.
The show would’ve probably been better as a solid two-hour film with just the bare minimum information you need for the story. The film’s characters are endlessly talking, and what comes out of this family isn’t remotely engaging. It takes the viewer completely out of any atmosphere the show is trying to create with occasional ghosts, this spooky big house, and all the family members’ problems. It also has lame throwbacks to the original film, such as the spiral staircase, and even Russ Tamblyn appearing as a therapist for an episode. While not quite as awful as Flanagan’s callbacks to The Shining in Doctor Sleep, they are still fairly pointless if you aren’t adapting the book and just taking some character names, Theodora’s lesbianism and the ghostly atmosphere to make up a completely new story.
In closing, The Haunting of Hill House didn’t totally work for me. It gets sappier and sappier as it goes along, but you may like it. The highlight, as everybody points out, is the technical marvel of Episode 6, which moves seamlessly between a funeral home and Hill House as if it was one long take. The reality is that it’s about five takes during the hour of television—still impressive nonetheless, and by using a more cinematic language it creates more atmosphere for the viewer. But then again, Shirley Jackson fanboy Stephen King had this to say about the show: “I don’t usually care for this kind of revisionism, but this is great. Close to a work of genius, really. I think Shirley Jackson would approve, but who knows for sure?”
The disc is fairly barebones, but includes director’s commentary tracks for four episodes and also an “extended director’s cut” for three of the episodes. The aforementioned Episode 6 is the one episode without a “director’s cut” to have a commentary track. It’s pretty funny, however, that Flanagan has “director’s cuts” when he is also the credited editor.