Ghosts seldom scare me, because I’m never 100 percent clear on what sort of threat they present to the protagonists of a horror film or TV show. They’re not like zombies, vampires, werewolves or serial killers, all of which will do predictably horrible things to their victims.
Can ghosts … kill you? Injure you? That usually doesn’t make sense, given their non-corporeal nature. Can they … scare you to death? How would that work? Would they cause a heart attack? Or drive you mad? That’s fine, I suppose, but here they’ve taken a back seat to the demons of horror films since 1973’s “The Exorcist” spawned a sub-genre with far more frightening supernatural baddies. Are ghosts supposed to inspire existential dread, by reminding the viewers of their own mortality? For me, that backfires — their existence would strongly suggest the existence of an afterlife, which would be paradoxically reassuring.
It’s therefore a testament to the quality of Netflix’ “The Haunting of Hill House” (2018) that it’s frequently so scary, even to me. We find out in the first episode that its ghosts indeed do more than frighten the story’s protagonists, but it’s the show’s writing, directing and acting that make it so memorable. It’s an a superb viewing experience, and I’d rate it a 10 out of 10.
The cast roundly shines — but especially Carla Gugino and Timothy Hutton (even if his performance was a little understated). Catherine Parker is deliciously evil in a supporting role as the house’s most outwardly vicious spirit. The best performance, for me, however, was the young Victoria Pedretti as the traumatized Nell — she was goddam amazing, and deserves an Emmy nomination.
Mike Flanagan’s directing was perfect — his use of long angles and colors to make lavish interiors disorienting reminded me of Stanley Kubrick’s similar sensory trickery in “The Shining” (1980). Michael Fimognari’s cinematography was beautiful. Even the makeup effects were damned good. (Nothing beats Greg Nicotero’s work in “The Walking Dead” universe, but the work here is sometimes horrifying.)
I’m not the only one who loved this show either. It is broadly praised in online horror fan circles (though I’d recommend avoiding most of those for spoilers). I haven’t read Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel that is its source material, but a bibliophile who I trust assured me that the show is even better.
Sure, there were some things that didn’t work for me. “The Haunting of Hill House” actually does take a while to get where it’s going; it favors in-depth, flashback-heavy character development over advancing its plot, in much the same manner as “Lost” (2004 – 2010) once did. And some viewers might feel the same frustration here as they would for that show.
Its story and supernatural adversaries are also distinctly Gothic. (Your mileage may vary as to what’s a comfortably familiar trope and what’s an archaic cliche. I myself was more interested the more modern and three-dimensional interpretation of ghost characters seen in 1999’s “The Sixth Sense.”) I’d even go so far as the say that the first ghost that we see in any detail is actually disappointing — the otherworldly figure connected with the bowler hat felt too cartoonish for me, like something we’d see on Walt Disney World’s “The Haunted Mansion” ride. (Trust me, they get more intimidating after that.)
Give this show a chance — and stay with it if you think it’s too slow, or if you find its characters a little unlikable at first. You’ll be glad you did.
Weird world: if the diffident, sometimes off-putting character of Steven looks familiar to you, it might be because that’s none other than Michiel Huisman, who plays the charismatic Daario on “Game of Thrones.”