Firstly I went into this series with little to no expectations of anything exceptional or groundbreaking and how wrong I was. From the first moments of episode 1 I have been enthralled with the characters and their stories, and that is a big part of why this series has made such an impression on me.
Now, I’m not a huge Mike Flanagan fan. Last year’s Gerald’s Game was a big disappointment for me. It never really got going and felt a little bit disconnected, but The Haunting of Hill House is an entirely different matter. The central family, the Crain family, are all completely agreeable to start with and you learn about them and their plight as young children and parents in their brief stint staying in the now famous Hill House one summer. And because you first see these characters as children you are set for the rest of the series, always linking them back to the innocent and imperilled small people being placed in jeopardy just by being in the house.
The format to centre around the family and the individual members, initially each getting their own episode, is another reason you are drawn into their plight. Seeing the transition from children to adults and the effects that their experiences in the house that summer makes you care for them and feel you really know who they are. Delving into how they have been affected and how it continues to affect them in their ongoing lives further integrates you into their world and keeps linking back to the house. This family-centric approach is what really makes this series for me. Focusing on the relationships to each other and to the house itself simply draws you in.
The building, creeping dread is done so well with multiple small things placed unnervingly in shot. Not necessarily meant to be noticed but there are extras scattered around, providing a malevolent presence that you may not even consciously notice, but it is there doing it’s work on your psyche. And that is the beauty of this series. It isn’t all in your face, it is the subtle work done, laying the groundwork to reap in a later episode. Not to spoil anything but some of the later episodes, when linking back to earlier events are breathtakingly done. Haunted houses are usually capable of bending the rules of time and space and Hill House is no different in this aspect but it is so well done, crafting an intricate web of experiences that ripple through the entirety of this series, and not just for the person involved at that moment. Everyone is linked together by the house and remains so.
The performances across the board are superb, from all the child actors of the Crain children (Violet McGraw, Lulu Wilson, Paxton Singleton, Julian Hilliard, McKenna Grace) through to their grown up personas (Michiel Huisman, Elizabeth Reaser, Kate Siegel, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Victoria Pedretti), the continuity is there, the traits are carried over and the marks have been left, just like in the house. The echos of the people who have been there have remained, have been carried over and continue existing in the house itself.
The parents of the Crain family, Olivia and Hugh, played superbly by Carla Gugino and Henry Thomas (and later by Timothy Hutton), are the people that you should be reliant upon to debunk the events in the house but by placing them in the same situation as the children it amplifies the terror that is being felt. Adding to that the slow decline of stability, particularly by Gugino, would be a joy to watch if it wasn’t so hard to digest the price being paid. On top of the parental responsibilities being highlighted the psychological effects of losing someone you love, or putting someone that you should be protecting in the path of danger, and the ongoing effects that that can have on their upbringing is another burden put upon the parental unit and examined in detail and at length. The problems that can manifest as an outcome of the experiences at Hill House play a huge part of this series and again ties all the children together and unfortunately to one thing, Hill House.
I can’t praise this series enough. The production and effects are superbly done with great styling work done to take you back to the times that are being portrayed, along with fantastic make-up and creature design to provide maximum fear and reality, with the work done on extracting the most fear rather than a cheap shock. However, it doesn’t forgo the jump scare but by putting the emphasis on the dread and creeping terror, building it up through the episodes and slowly creeping into the current day lives of the, now adult, children we get a totally different atmosphere to proceedings. And this creative decision allows the series to focus and take its time with the character development much to the benefit of all. That being said, when it does do scares, they are so out of the blue and so well crafted that they are really effective.