TV Series Review: Netflix’s ‘The Haunting of Hill House’
The Horror genre has always been largely disrespected in the eyes of serious film criticism.
The reasons for this are clear. The mechanics of a horror story seem so obvious, that many aspiring filmmakers choose the genre because they think it’s easy. If the formula is followed correctly, and a few jump-scares sprinkled on top, the product sells; whether or not it’s good is an afterthought. But to my mind, the horror genre is one of the most difficult to work in. To make a truly effective horror film requires otherworldly patience, passion and even a bit of cruelty. To keep the sense of dread and unease going for upwards of two hours requires a gargantuan effort.
In Netflix’s original miniseries “The Haunting of Hill House,” Mike Flanagan proves that he understands this better than any living director, and that he manages to maintain the dread for the length of an entire miniseries proves to me that he may be the only person working in the genre today deserving of the title of “master.”
The story of the show is one horror fans will no doubt recognize. A family moves into an old, sinister looking mansion, in this case with the intention of remodeling it and selling it, and they discover that, within the walls of the house is something far more grim than they can imagine.
On this note, I should also add that the house itself is spectacularly designed for the tone of the film. The camera lingers on shots of long, dimly lit hallways, and expansive rooms with dark corners, daring the viewer to search every corner of the frame for something sinister. To this end, the house functions as a character in the story in and of itself.
But even more than this, what makes this series so interesting is the way it transcends its simple story, and the trappings of the genre, to get at the very nature of horror itself, and to mine fear out of things that are far less obvious than viewers are used to.
The miniseries format is a great opportunity, and unlike many directors in the past, Mike Flanagan doesn’t waste the opportunity he is given. The characters in this show are given a lot of room to breathe, and to grow, and it is this very character development that makes this series so terrifying to me.
The audience is given time to care about these characters, and to become involved in their lives.
The narrative of the series jumps back and forth between the present, and 20 years earlier, when the family first moved to Hill House. As the series goes on, a remarkable thing happens: it ceases to matter that the scares are predictable.
By this, I mean that, as the story progresses, even though the viewer knows the mechanics of the story and the genre well enough to see what will happen next, it feels less predictable, as it would in the hands of a less qualified director, and more cruel.
As I was watching the series, I was struck by the feeling that, even though I knew what would happen next, more than in any other horror story I have experienced in the past, I really wished it wouldn’t.
The scares in this series are not based on surprise, or anything cheap, but based on a sincere desire to see these characters end up okay, and the secret knowledge that they won’t be.
And another fascinating thing about this story is how it uses the characters feelings of grief and guilt, and uses them as tools to amplify the horror.
Grief and guilt, after all, are emotions that can haunt a person, lingering for years in the subconscious even after a person thinks the pain is long gone. Grief and apparitions, in this way, haunt in very similar ways.
Our fear of the unknown is directly linked to our fear of death, and our fear of death, being the ultimate unknown, is given physical form through the suffering caused by grief.
Mike Flanagan truly understands this, and it is this understanding of the mechanics of fear that I think makes him such a fresh voice in the tired world of horror.
In this series, Mike Flanagan reminds us that what truly terrifies us is not the invisible thing making those bumps in the night, but rather what the thing might mean to us.
He reminds us that we’re not scared of ghosts, we’re scared of the loss, loneliness and death that ghosts represent to us.
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