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Haunting of Hill House, The
Like Ari Aster, Mike Flanagan has a unique knack for blending psychological horror brought upon by family trauma with old-fashioned genre spooks and scares. We jump out of our seats in the moment of any given expertly structured ghostly set piece, take a relieved breath afterward, then move on. In that sense, he pays off the prerequisite conditions of modern horror. But it's the painfully relatable drama and neuroses that come from complicated and hurtful experiences with past family ties and relationships, still lingering as they darken our day-to-day lives while blocking our path forward for a content and peaceful existence, that makes his work special.
That horror sticks, and Flanagan is fully aware of it. That's why his attention to character development and psychology, derived from a painful past with family, turns him into one of the most insightful horror filmmakers working today. His two Stephen King adaptations, Gerald's Game and Doctor Sleep, used their raw horror premises to dig deep into childhood abuse. Even an ostensibly work-for-hire project like Ouija: Origin of Evil delved into matters of trust within a family, and how everything can fall apart without it. This makes him an apt choice to direct this massive miniseries based on Shirley Jackson's classic haunted house tale and/or harrowing family drama, The Haunting of Hill House.
It takes a bit of courage to adapt this material again. Robert Wise's 1963 version, called The Haunting, is a genre masterpiece in the way it strips the narrative into pure psychological terror, to the point where one of the most unique aspects of the film becomes whether or not anything supernatural occurred in the first place. On the other hand, the craptacular 1999 The Haunting serves as a cautionary tale against solely relying on cheap CG and over the top sound design over any attempt at story cohesion or character development. With this ten-hour canvas at his disposal for the miniseries, Flanagan, who directed all ten episodes and wrote five, is able to dig deep into the childhood trauma that irreparably altered the lives of five siblings who were forced to flee their home as children after their father (Henry Thomas) ran them out in the middle of the night.
Later, they find out that their mother (Carla Gugino) committed suicide in the house that night. However, as years roll on and the siblings become adults, their begin to realize that a supernatural presence in their old home might have caused their mother's death, and the ghostly memories, some literal, some figurative, haunt them to present day. Steven (Michael Huisman), the closest we get to a protagonist in this ensemble work, works through his pain by openly writing books about haunted places, his bestseller being a perhaps too candid revelatory book about his own experiences as a child.
This attracts the other siblings' ire, since they understandably don't think their family's intense grief and past troubles shouldn't be used as generic paperback entertainment for ghostheads. That's especially considering some of the siblings, namely Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), a drug addict, and Nell (Victoria Pedretti), who never got over her past, didn't even get a chance to live normal lives because of what happened. Other siblings manage "normal" lives one way or the other, but have held onto the bitterness that stems from the past. A sudden tragedy in the family forces them to go back to where it all started, the titular house, and finally come face to face with the ghosts of the past, as well as the actual ghosts that perhaps still roam the gorgeous gothic nightmare they used to live in.
Flanagan is able to emphasize the developing intricacies of these characters intimately, before the big scares begin. That way, the terror becomes that much more palpable as we feel a deep connection with the characters. This requires a bit of patience from horror fans who want big scares and grand spooks every five minutes, since there are big chunks during the first five episodes that focus almost entirely on character development and world building. I kind of prefer this slower pacing, since Flanagan lulls us into thinking we're watching a family drama before suddenly reminding us of its creepy underpinnings. For example, a sequence with a dead kitten will burn into your memories not only because of the viscerally unnerving imagery, but because it smartly undercuts the tender family moment that precedes it. There are many surprises in the last five episodes that I won't get into here, suffice to say that if you're hooked to the characters alone in the first five episodes, you won't be disappointed with the second half of this giant, grand, but surprisingly intimate tale of horror.
Since the miniseries is readily available on Netflix in HD, I compared both transfers for those who might be interested in upgrading to the Blu-ray while still having Netflix subscriptions. Of course the higher bit rate and contrast results in imagery that holds more depth and clarity, especially considering that The Haunting of Hill House holds a fairly grayscale cinematography, making depth through contrast a big key, but the non-AV-nerd audience probably won't see a discernible difference between this terrific 1080p transfer and Netflix.
This is where we get a clear difference between streaming and disc. The lossless DTS-HD 5.1 track blows the lossy Netflix audio out of the water. The miniseries predictably contains more than a handful of scares and mood setups that rely heavily on sound depth, panning, and especially mixing. In that sense, we get more clarity and dynamic range when listened through the surround system.
Director's Cut: This is the clear motivation to grab this set, since these cuts aren't available on streaming. We get them on three episodes, "Steven Sees a Ghost", "The Bent-Neck Lady", and "Silence Lay Steadily". As far as I can see, the extra footage adds some interesting character details and some story additions that enhance the experience.
Commentary by Mike Flanagan: Flanagan talks us through the production details and various key visuals we might have missed. The commentary appears on four episodes: Director's Cuts of "Steven Sees a Ghost", "The Bent-Neck Lady", "Two Storms", and "Silence Lay Steadily".
Robert Wise's The Haunting will remain the clear choice if we're looking for a near-perfect adaptation of the source novel as far as transferring it to the visual medium and format of cinema is concerned. However, the extended space and Flanagan's attention to character detail and development turns this miniseries into a more than worthy addition. Finally, just ignore the 1999 flick.
Oktay Ege Kozak is a film critic and screenwriter based in Portland, Oregon. He also writes for The Playlist, The Oregon Herald, and Beyazperde.com