If you have not yet read the Three Episode Thoughts: The Haunting of Hill House I recommend that you start there before going any further with this review. If you have read it, then buckle up!
When we last left the Crain family they had all been reunited for the first time in many years. It’s a very emotional occasion where grief, followed by anger with blatant finger pointing takes place between all of them. When the time comes for them to all separate the youngest son, Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), expresses his need to just go walk outside for some fresh air, but there is much more going on with him, which leads to even greater speculation and some accusations about how he has been leading his life. There is also a huge rift that has taken place between daughters Shirley and Theo over what will eventually amount to nothing more than a tragic misunderstanding, as well as some required self reflection on Shirley’s part. But how did things get to be this bad?
A trip to the past shows how Olivia Crain is becoming unstable, almost as if she were possessed. It is decided that she will take a trip away from Boston to spend some time with her sister in order to clear her head. If only that’s what she actually did! Instead she heads back to the house in the middle of the night and is no longer in her right head. She talks about “waking up” from her terrible dream, only in her mind waking up means something far direr as “terrible dream” is the term she apparently uses for being alive. Something has also convinced her that her children are in danger, especially Luke and Nell, so she plans a little tea party for them; only what she has prepared is nothing like tea. She takes them, along with Luke’s new friend Abigail Dudley, upstairs to the room behind the Red Door.
There they start to have their tea party only to be interrupted by Hugh, who has been woken by daughter Shirley informing him that Olivia is back in the house. He runs into the red room and knocks all of the tea off the table, but not before Abigail drinks some of it. Hugh then takes the twins, finds both Nell and Olivia and takes them to the car. He then runs into the house to grab Steve to take him to the car as well. While gone Olivia has a face-to-face conversation with a rather crazy ghost named Poppy, which sadly leads Olivia to make a very bad choice. Hugh finds her, and then along with the Dudleys, goes up to the room with the Red Door and finds Abigail’s body, as well as Abigail’s ghost. For this reason he must keep the house standing.
Now, an adult Luke has shown up at the house with several containers of gasoline with the intention of burning it down. Mysteriously it doesn’t go as planned. Hugh and Steve learn that Luke has been seen near the vicinity of the house and head over there, where Hugh finally opens up to Steve about their mother’s dark past and what happened that last night. Meanwhile Shirley is being haunted in her own home, and even after Theo shows up to apologize for something she had done, they both experience wild noises and banging on the doors and windows. Now they are heading to the house. All parties arrive, and each one of them has their own reckoning with Poppy in the form of hallucinations. The only one left alone from Poppy’s dark thoughts is Hugh when someone intercedes on his behalf. The remaining members of the Crain family are now all in the room behind the Red Door, and each one of them is saved from their own nightmare. They all escape, but not without one dark promise that must be kept.
As intense as this show was getting with the scares and creepiness, there was also the mystery of the house. Is the house alive? Are all of the ghosts there evil? Is there a central demonic figure behind everything going on there? The series most adequately paced this story with all of the right climaxes along with much needed dramatic breaks. It even took a bold step and where in episode 6 director Mike Flanagan filmed all of it in FIVE long takes, the longest of which is a verbal argument between each of the Crains, and the sequence is over 17 minutes long! By doing this Flanagan was able to find a way to maintain, if not elevate, the dramatic tension of the series without having to resort to any scares or typical horror tropes. Instead he shifts the tone of the horror from the supernatural to something more human. It’s only later that he shifts the focus back to a supernatural horror to drive the story along. However, with all of the mystery that is being built up, it’s only natural for there to be a sharing of answers as to what is behind the question of Hill House. Part of the reason the horror and creepy scares worked so well is because they were all unknown. The characters, as well as we the viewer, see that something is there, but we don’t understand it. This allows for the story to start playing on some of our most base fears, and it was done with great effectiveness. However, to not let the audience down episode 9 features a revealing of those answers, and in doing so actually de-mystified the house, some of the players, and the series in general. The danger in doing this is the removal of the very element that made the series scary. I found myself concerned that this could take the steam out of the final episode, but once again this adaptation of the story takes it in a new direction and reveals a new type of horror. This is the kind of horror that is intimate and deeply personal. Even Steve, in the final episode, refers to the ghosts he has seen, only his ghosts are walls that he has built around himself. That is his horror. Shirley’s horror is something that she did a few years earlier and has kept locked down within her causing her to be the unpleasant person she has become. Theo’s horror is not being able to connect with anyone and fearing that she would always feel nothing. Luke’s own horror is failing in his recovery. The series has introduced us to the horror of personal tragedy. It now has a human element that each viewer can potentially find something that might resonate. In doing this there is also the possibility of something beautiful and maybe even healing.
This was not like any other horror series I have ever experienced. There have been movies and short films that achieved the same effect, but never before has an episodic show delivered these types of goods. When the series needed to be creepy it managed to do so in a way that quite literally gave me shivers. When the series needed to actually scare me it did so with the kind of intensity that actually had me scream out loud… TWICE!!! Then finally, when the series needed to truly get to the heart of the matter it did so with a poignancy that had me crying. Not only was this series terrifying, it was also beautiful. There was not one weak cast member. All of them, from the young members of the Crain family, to the older present day version, were amazing. Their performances kept me engaged in the story to the point where I cared about each and every one of them. And when I was afraid that the series was going to take a bad turn in either the reveal or the fallout from the reveal, it took a new approach with its narrative and instead pleasantly surprised me. To walk away from a series where I was able to have some good scares, as well as be moved to tears, is a rare gift indeed.
The Haunting of Hill House continues to receive 5 out of 5 ghosts!
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