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The Haunting of Hill House review: by far the most complex and complete horror series of its time

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 12/10/2018 Corrine Corrodus

a view of a city at night: The Haunting of Hill House - _DSF4498 © Netflix The Haunting of Hill House - _DSF4498 Editor's note: The opinions in this article are the author's, as published by our content partner, and do not represent the views of MSN or Microsoft.

Choosing to create an adaptation of a literary classic is always a brave move – especially when it’s one that is frequently lauded as one of the greats of the American canon. Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel, The Haunting of Hill House has been adapted into film twice before to varying degrees of success: once to critical acclaim by Robert Wise in 1963, and once to universal panning, in the form of the Catherine Zeta Jones-led 1999 remake. But never before, has anyone dared to stride this far from Jackson’s source material in their interpretation – and who could have predicted that such a loose reimagining would be such a success?

Michael Flanagan, a seasoned creator of horror – the critically acclaimed Gerald’s Game, Hush and Oculus to name a few – has both written and directed the show for Netflix. And he takes a brave and original choice in focusing on the Crain family, the underlying supernatural force of Jackson’s novel and here he not only runs, but sprints with it. He transforms the former contextual characters for Jackson’s terror into the stars of the show.

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In his vision, the focus of the series is shifted from the events of Hill House to the lasting impact of its impressions on the lives of five brothers and sisters who saw their mother take her life at the house when they were children. And its this act of moving the focal point of the story from the confines of the haunted house to the modern, outside world that make this series terrifying, raw and revolutionary. The old haunted house tale is given a psychological revamp for the modern viewer – no longer do we simply see the scares in action, we see how the effects of that traumatic event reverberates across a lifetime.

This psychological focus does not mean that the traditional horror one might expect is lost, in fact the series is brilliant because it evokes the slow-build terror associated with classic ghost films. The horrific circumstances of the family’s time at Hill House and its terrifying nature is encapsulated by Flanagan’s varying use of close-ups and panning shots – which create the suspense, fear and jump scares that horror fans will devour, while the blend of richly dark and cinematic shots will satisfy avid film buffs.

Watch: The Haunting of Hill House | Official Trailer [HD] | Netflix (Cosmopolitan)

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In order to achieve a deep-dive into the traumatic aftermath of these events the narrative alternates between timelines, specifically the present day and two decades ago, when the family spent one summer living at Hill House. What’s most interesting about the family at the centre of this story is that when you look past the ghost encounters and general strangeness of their lives, the Crains are hardly far removed from many recognisable broken, family structures; there are sibling rivalries sparked by jealousy and money, heartbreaks and marriage breakdowns and plenty of shared familial grief. But while they are hardly perfect, there are also moments of hilarity, unity and even celebration which make the family feel earnest and are perhaps why by the series finale, you find that you’ve laughed, cried and become enamoured with the family.

It’s not just the family premise that makes this series so brilliant, but the characters as individuals themselves. Flanagan spends entire episodes giving the audience deft yet scathing vignettes of his characters’ lives – and as always, it’s a winner. It takes skill to create numerous characters who are each full of depth and genuinely interesting, but as this series proves – it is the secret ingredient to creating a moorish show that will keep audiences hooked, which is the goal for many of Netflix’s binge-worthy offerings.

The cast work wonders in bringing these figures to life, both the older seasoned actors and the children who play their younger selves. Michael Husiman (best known as Daario in Game of Thrones) and Paxton Singleton portray the older and younger versions of the eldest of the Crain children, Steven, a money-driven sceptic who ironically makes a living as an author of horror novels and becomes a character you are drawn to both love and hate due to his steadfastness against his family of supernatural-believers. Elizabeth Reaser (Twilight) and Lulu Wilson are in the same boat of Marmite likeability as they portray Shirley, who is at odds with her brother over his hypocritical book and has found a career as a perfection-driven funeral director.

The younger siblings include Theodora who is played by McKenna Grace and Kate Siegel, who particularly shines as the closest character to Jackson’s vision – the hard-hearted, too-cool-for-school and now (unlike in Jackson’s novel where it was merely hinted) openly gay adult Theo.

While Nell, who also retains some of the ditsy edge first thrust upon the character by Jackson, is portrayed so expressively by Victoria Pedretti and Violet McGraw that you could easily believe the character is going through real pain. Her twin brother Luke, brought to life by Julian Hillard and Oliver Jackson-Cohen, is an adventurous young boy who is driven to heroin as a method of dealing with his literal and figurative demons as an adult.

Leading the family are Carla Gugino as Mrs Crain and Timothy Hutton as Mr Crain. Gugino steals every scene she appears in as the obsessive, crazed family matriarch, while Hutton plays her grief-stricken husband and estranged father to their grown-up children. The Crains are a concoction of broken individuals being eaten alive by fear yet alienated from the only people in the world who could understand. As they are ravaged by ghosts, jump-scares and shocks aplenty, luckily the bond between the once-broken family begins to repair, even if the circumstances may not be ideal.

It is instantly clear which shows The Haunting of Hill House will be compared to – American Horror Story is an obvious frontrunner. But where Ryan Murphy’s series relies on starry casts, camp comedy and ridiculous plot twists, this show can count on its realism and rawness to bring horror to the screen. As a long term horror fan watching this series I never expected it to feel this revolutionary: this is by far the most complex and complete horror series of its time. It has set the bar high, and proved that the series format is easily workable for slow-build terror if approached properly.

For fellow horror fans, this will be a welcome treat, one of the best television series they’ve ever seen, and for those who scare more easily it’ll be a surprising family drama that they might find is best enjoyed with the lights on.

Gallery: Horror movies you won’t believe are based on true stories (Espresso)


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