Netflix The Haunting of Hill House (*****): We water that seed

Haunting-Hill-House

The Haunting of Hill House – 2018

Director Mike Flanagan
Teleplay Flanagan, Liz Phang, Scott Kosar, Merideth Averill, Jeff Howard, Charise Castro Smith, Rebecca Klingel based on the book by Shirley Jackson
Starring Michiel Huisman, Carla Gugino, Henry Thomas, Elizabeth Reaser, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Kate Siegel, Victoria Pedretti, Lulu Wilson, Mckenna Grace, Paxton Singleton, Julian Hilliard, Violet McGraw, Timothy Hutton, Robert Longstreet, Catherine Parker

Mike Flanigan has worked beyond expectations for the last half of this decade. Oculus had shown Flanagan had the nerve to resist studio heads insistence on modifying his vision for the genre of the moment. Even if it wasn’t a great film, it certainly is a very good one. He took the Ouija films to another level after making two well-regarded films, Hush and Before I Wake. I put off watching those films. I will put them off no longer. The latter of the two was released on Netflix.

This started a relationship that bloomed with his poignant take on Stephen King’s Gerald’s Game. The film is a triumph on a small-scale. His direction led Carla Gugino to a new center. She, along with others who have been good but never great, began a working relationship that comes to fruition here. Gugino, Henry Thomas, Elizabeth Reaser, Lulu Wilson, Catherine Parker and Annabeth Gish joined Flanagan’s wife Kate Siegal now in what can only be described as an Odyssey of horror. If Stranger Things is the best thing ever produced for the burgeoning media giant, this is at least as good.

The story starts with a split between the present and the past. In the past, the Crain family has moved into the giant and aged mansion, called Hill House. Hugh (Thomas) and Olivia (Gugino) are there to fix it up so they can flip the house for a profit. Their children are young and innocent. Some of them think it is haunted. Eventually they leave with Olivia staring from a window above. She’s never seen alive again.

In the present day, the youngest child makes calls from a motel room, desperate to contact the rest of her siblings. For a variety of reasons, they don’t respond to her. Then she dies.

The next few episodes we learn about the siblings, one by one.

Steven (Huisman) is a successful writer who does not believe in the supernatural. His dreams of buying his way to a better life in LA comes true, then his life begins to fall apart. If he sees things, he doesn’t believe until he has no choice.

Shirley (Reaser) is the owner of a funeral home. Her experiences have given her a reason to want to help families in their time of need. She is married with her own son and daughter.

Theo (Siegal) is a therapist who is empathetic but refuses to touch people. She has an anger due to her siblings’ refusal to admit what they see. This manifests itself in destructive behavior, but her strength never wavers.

Luke (Jackson-Cohen) is the oldest of two fraternal twins. He has a struggle with addiction, but his bond with his sister remains.

Nell (Pedretti) is the open heart of the family. Her every thought is for her siblings. She battles sleeping problems which eventually leads her to her incredibly caring husband.

Hugh (Hutton) has lived a haunted existence since the passing of Olivia. He sees her all of the time and converses with her routinely. They think he’s got a form of dementia.

Olivia shares characteristics with some of her children. These characteristics leave an indelible mark on them. The debate between whether the family is diseased or if it is the house that has followed them seeps through the members like rot.

If the names are similar to the novel, the story has been turned on its ear. It’s still the psychological journey that Jackson exercised originally, but this time we see it in a drawn out form in a family dynamic.

Mr. (Longstreet) and Mrs. Dudley (Gish) are still there and they still refuse to be near the house at night. They add a weary, stoic stability that defies the concept of creepy housekeepers. This is just one of many clichés that Flanagan eschews as he navigates a story that is at once claustrophobic, sprawling and epic.

There are several concentric circles strewn throughout the story. The scary moments are so sparingly drawn that they have a devastating effect on the viewer. As with the best series, things we see in one episode can be visited again from another vantage point another episode. Then even more surprisingly in others.

There is a slow burn to the series. There is no hurry for anything to be explained. As things progress, we begin to see things absent music or effects. These things are not the center of the action on-screen. They are wrong. No one notices them, because they have terrors of their own with which to deal.

Missed opportunities due to preoccupation is a major point to the series. The message resonates on how much we go through life ignoring plain messages that those who we love are trying to give us. Walking back through my weekend, I remember how many attempts at conversation I aborted with my own thoughts. That is the real source of the rot.

There are so many great performances, it’s tough to isolate just a few. Pedretti is incredible and her emotions become a source of overwhelming extremes. With her, we have the best and worst experiences.

Gugino is a close second, and for good reason. She always rises to the challenge of countering her looks with a tortured internal battle. She’s one of the more consistently good performers in the last quarter century.

Siegel and Reaser have a tremendous bond that is fraught with resilient tension. Both are pushed by guilt and fear (like the sisters they are) into an inevitable crash. The same chemistry can be viewed in combination of the siblings, really. The children version of the actors are stirring and their stories are heartbreaking when they contrast with their adult counterparts.

Hutton and Thomas are remarkably consistent for playing the same person. They have the same eyes hiding fear and emitting a love that doesn’t understand the depth of what haunts the kids.

As things conclude, all of the weakest parts compile into the mess of the whole family unit. We want them to succeed, because life feels like a failure.

“…And now, she is fixed and pretty. But underneath, she is a horror…”

In showing us both sides completely and so devastatingly unvarnished, Mike Flanagan has given us a haunted house story that defines our lives. It’s time outside of a room we’ve tried to get in all of our lives. All along we’ve locked ourselves alone in that same room. Love has to break through at some point, doesn’t it? It’s the seed that needs to be watered, and the water itself.

(***** out of *****)

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