My friend Giulia Bia (IG @parttimedandy) wrote this wonderful write-up of the Netflix hit The Haunting of Hill House.
THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE AND THE PERILS OF SAPPINESS
90% of myself subscribed to Netflix just for the horror section.
Like many hardcore horror lovers, though, I’ve been bitterly disappointed many times by the crap that has been put under that category, apart from some brilliant exceptions (e.g. “The Similars”, “The Bar”).
When I saw “The Haunting of Hill House” was available, I embarked in an epic binge and watched the whole 10 episodes while my face went from this
and not because the story touched something deep inside me.
But let’s see what the maze that is Hill House has in store for us.
The story and its strong points
You probably already all know this: “The Haunting of Hill House” is based on Shirley Jackson’s masterpiece novel of the same name, and loosely so. Basically, what remains is the title and the house itself.
The story revolves around a family composed by parents Olivia and Steve Crain and their children Shirley, Luke, Theo and Eleanor (Nell). Olivia and Steve’s job is to buy decrepit old houses, flip them and sell them: what better investment than the stately and haunted Hill House?
When the series opens, the children are troubled adults, father Steve is almost absent from their lives, and mother Olivia has been killed many moons ago by Hill House.
Nell’s call for help will bring together the semi-estranged members of the Crain clan, wo will have to fight their own demons to defeat the lingering power of Hill House.
I must say the first episode is one of the most gripping I’ve watched in years. So many hints of horrible past and future events are scattered around that one can’t help but keep watching episode after episode.
The telling of the Crain family’s last night at Hill House sent a shiver down my spine, mostly because one doesn’t see what’s really happening and everything is left to the imagination of the viewer. The blurred image of Olivia running after her fleeing family is rather haunting (forgive the pun), and the hysteric pack of children is enough to convey all the terror of the unknown. Far be it from me to spoiler: suffice to say Olivia dies in the house under circumstances that will be revealed later.
The closing of the first episode is notable too, as Luke, now a writer of paranormal stuff, finds himself face to face with the ghost of someone close and dear to him.
The series gives us many blessed moments of delightful horror: just to mention a few, the sixth episode, “Two storms”, juxtaposes a tempest that occurred during the Crain family’s stay at Hill House and the storm that is raging in the present time while the siblings share stories about Nell around her coffin. Pity “something” keeps messing with her body…
The Bent-Neck Lady, too, is pretty memorable, and I must say I didn’t see the twist coming. Hope this doesn’t sound conceited, but 99 times out of 100 I spot the horror gimmick a mile away: this wasn’t the case. Plus, one of the stories that scared me the most when I was little was Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Thrawn Janet”, and because of that I tried not to look at Bent-Neck Lady too much.
Episode 3, “Touch”, offers us another creepy moment when young Luke accidentally descends to the basement because of a faulty dumbwaiter and is attacked by a vicious zombie-ghost thing.
I also loved how Hill House reveals time and time again its labyrinthine nature, especially when the mysterious “Red Room” shows its true face and how it has molded itself over the desires of its occupants.
Many are the strong points of “The Haunting of Hill House”: the seamless alternation between past and present, the depiction of Hill House as a restless, evil Venus flytrap patiently waiting for its victims, the duplicity of the house as a place of death and eternal life, the accurate depiction of the characters and the relationship with each other.
But there are also numerous flaws that ruined the series for me, which are totally underrated in the reviews I’ve read so far.
Why sappiness should never have anything to do with horror
Let’s start with a general consideration: the last two episodes are incredibly soppy. So soppy I swear I had an unbearable desire to punch everyone, and especially sweet Olivia, in the teeth. So soppy they ruined the whole other excellent 8 episodes. So soppy they cemented my hope there isn’t an afterlife for anyone.
Carla Gugino, who portrays Olivia, is a beautiful woman and a talented actress. Pity her character, which is a pivotal part of the plot, is one-dimensional and, well, unbearably sappy.
Olivia has a dark side: why would she be the first of the family to fall prey to the lure of Hill House? She somehow echoes Jack Torrence’s role in Stephen King’s “The Shining” (which, in fact, was inspired by Shirley Jackson’s novel), but she is portrayed as the All-American mother, an almost angelical figure whose main job is to be the rock of the family. Her “darkest” moments are the migraines that sometimes plague her and make her snap at her kids. Even in death she lovingly hovers at her husband’s side whispering mindful suggestions. Her sweet facial features, large green eyes, long flowing hair reminded me of those corny statuettes of the Virgin Mary one finds in Catholic churches.
And don’t get me started on the stupidity of her reasons for wanting to kill her whole family inside Hill House.
In the infamous last two episodes, the “Virgin Mary” aura looms also around Nell, and her speech in the Red Room reeks of such do-goodism that I seriously considered switching to some other series.
It’s such a departure in tones and mood from the rest of the series that one can’t help but feeling cheated and, well, deprived of a good old bloody ending.
The ghosts, too, play such blatant mind tricks one should be really an idiot to fall for them.
All in all, “The Haunting of Hill House” remains one of the best things offered by Netflix so far; some more courage in denying the viewer a reassuring and pleasing ending would have been appreciated.