A review of Season 1 of “The Haunting of Hill House” (2018)

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.”

 

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A short review of “Split” (2016)

For much of its running length, I was considering writing a review for “Split” (2016) that rated it a perfect 10.  (I am an unabashed fan of M. Night Shyamalan, no matter how reviled he is by other Internet commentators.)  I love the way he frames his shots, I love his dialogue, I love his stories, and I love the strange way he can make a slowly paced film nevertheless absorbing.)

And “Split” looked nearly perfect.  James McAvoy handed in a tour-de-force performance as Kevin, a man with dissociative identity disorder (DID).  (Yes, I am aware of the clinical controversies connected with whether the disorder even exists — I was a psychology student many, many years ago.  I think we should suspend whatever disbelief we have for the purposes of enjoying the movie.)  McAvoy plays his role to perfection.  His “Dennis” persona is particularly frightening, and “Barry,” one of the “good personalities” he portrays, is surprisingly endearing and sympathetic.

Playing off McAvoy wonderfully are Betty Buckley as his gentle psychiatrist and Anya Taylor-Joy as one of three teenaged girls kidnapped by his nastier personalities.  The talented Taylor-Joy was also perfect in her role.  (I last saw her 2015’s “The Witch” and she was also in last year’s “Morgan;” I’m gaining the impression that this promising young specializes in cerebral horror-thrillers.)

I would rate “Split” an 8 out of 10.  It suffers a bit, I think, from two missteps toward the end.  One, this taut psychological thriller takes an ill-advised turn into dark fantasy.  I thought it was amazingly good as a thriller grounded only in the real world — it was far less so with the later jarring story elements.  (I do realize why Shyamalan made this creative decision, and you will too, after watching it and then reading up on it.)  But I still think that this would have been a perfect film if the majority of it focused on McAvoy’s personalities either aiding or misleading his psychiatrist, with Taylor-Joy’s fate hanging in the balance.

Two, this film seemed to suffer from the too-many-endings syndrome that people often associate with Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” movies.  We seem to have one denouement that works quite well, then a second that should have been re-shot and re-scripted.  And then there’s another plot strand finally addressed … but it is played so subtly that I’m not even sure I got it.  And this isn’t even counting the significance of the movie’s final line, which works as a fantastic framing device.

About that line … if you’re a Shyamalan fan, then you simply must watch the film until it’s very end, as the camera pans through the coffee shop.  You’ll love it.

 

 

A quick review of “The Visit” (2015)

I quite liked M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Visit” (2015); I’d give it an 8 out of 10.  It is by no means a perfect movie.  But it has all of the elements of Shyamalan’s work that I love: it’s beautifully shot; it has a fresh, creative story; it’s suspenseful; it’s atmospheric, and it has well drawn, likeable protagonists.

I am an unashamed Shyamalan fan.  I love all his horror-thriller movies, even the one or two in which I can guess Shyamalan’s trademark “twist” in advance.  Yes, I even liked “The Village” (2004).  And I liked “The Happening” (2006) a hell of lot too.

This movie indeed has said twist.  I thought I guessed what it was in the opening minutes.  I was wrong, and when the real twist was revealed, it was pretty damn effective.  For a moment, I was as dumbfounded as the characters on screen.  This was despite the fact that all the clues had been right there in front of me, and seem obvious in retrospect.

And it is scary in places.  A scene beneath the house comes first to mind.  So does the “oven” bit that we see in the trailer.  The cast is uniformly good.  The standout was a fantastic performance by Deanna Dunagan as “Nana.”

A couple of things nudged this movie just slightly left of the “great” category, into the “good but not great” category.  For one, I think this could have been a short film, and didn’t need more than 40 minutes or an hour to tell its story.  The pacing seems to suffer a little because of that.  For the first hour, we keep revisiting the same arc in tension: a grandparent behaves strangely, a grandchild queries them, and then the behavior subsides.

Character choices are also implausible.  These are bright, savvy kids, who are either oblivious to or cavalier about obvious signs of danger.  I think any person in real life would be too frightened to remain in the house where “The Visit” takes place.  Later, certain things change a little too conveniently after the twist is revealed.

The rapid change in tone after the story’s conclusion was a little heavy-handed.  I thought the story’s final minutes were nice, but maybe a little too much.  (I am being intentionally vague here to avoid spoilers.)

Still, I’d recommend this.  If you can overlook the movie’s faults here and there, you’ll enjoy a damn creepy modern fairytale.

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