Rating: 3.5 out of 5
The most powerful tool in any horror film is the location. Whether it’s the Overlook Hotel, a mysterious cabin in the woods, an arctic base or the Nostromo, the setting creates the basis for the preceding house of horror. Before the ghouls and goblins first come the halls and crawl spaces they will inhabit. The latest from horror filmmaker Mike Flannigan, The Haunting of Hill House, improves upon his sensitivity for setting found in his previous efforts (Oculus, Hush, Gerald’s Game) and expands his strengths to the television format for a ten episode series for Netflix. He brings along some of the flaws of those films as well, including his occasionally ham fisted attempts at sentimentality, but he has developed his keen sense of place to a point of crippling claustrophobia. Then he deftly applies it to mental illness.
If there is any question over whether television can operate as a home for the now booming horror genre, this might be the best argument we’ve received for the potential of the mediums possibilities, because first and foremost this show is scary. I jumped, i yelled “stop!” and “no, no no, no, no” at the screen, whether it was my laptop or a television set. The small screen may prove to be the new frontier for horror filmmakers yet. Each episode focuses on one member of the family who lived in the house from their point of view flipping back and forth between their memories and present day experiences. This means we get to see the same events from different points of view both in the present and past, Flannigan has great fun in this area, switching motivations and sympathies episode to episode, no interaction is what it seems on the surface, not even characters who populate the background. This also means the beginning episode is a wee bit of a slog following the most simple and easily digestible character as we see the events of the story from the most singularly boring point of view in the series. Trust me, however, the final moments of this beginning are worth sticking around for.
While the beginning drags, Flannigan wisely chooses to begin his story following the skeptic of the family, the eldest brother Steven, who while moderately insufferable, brings an interesting dynamic to the families history. He blames the misfortune and tragedy that has befallen his family on mental illness rather than supernatural entities. This makes for some fascinating subjectivity, not only are we seeing events from multiple angles and perspectives, some of those perspectives may not be completely reliable.
The series reaches a peak with “Two Storms”, an episode where all the running plotlines converge seamlessly. Flannigan’s control of space comes into its fullest as he weaves twin storms, one at the namesake hill house, the other at a funeral home. Capturing the intimacy of these two shattering, monumental nights in the lives of these family members. The tightness of the story and filmmaking (with it’s Rope by way of Birdman camera trickery) evokes the small, concentrated feeling of a play, even the gradual increasing drunkenness and intoxication of the characters feels like a Raymond Carver story (another Birdman parallel, coincidence? Absolutely). This is an undeniable high point in the series even if it’s not necessarily the most you’ll scream.
Rest assured the scares are aplenty, this isn’t all just juicy family drama, the show balances jump scares (there is a fright in episode 8 in particular on a certain car ride that had me screaming just as much as the characters on screen) and slow rolling terror perfectly. There are sluggish, stalking figures in addition to hands wrapping around faces, horror tropes are expanded upon brilliantly at almost every turn. Almost. Sometimes the classic familial ghost story reaches into areas of overbearing sentimentality. At its worst it feels like the murder house season of American Horror Story, with cheap, flimsy and convoluted logic but at best it reminds one of the Wunderlark middle section of Black Sabbath, a brutal, overtaking tale of a compulsive, destructive love.
The most fun and rewarding horror experience of the year thus far will not be found at cineplex’s but can be streamed right now. This show is a blast, and while it can become occasionally heavy handed, I guarantee some scares. Mike Flannigan makes a case for himself as an exciting television auteur, here’s hoping Netflix turns this into an anthology series.