Most horror productions usually fail to impress viewers because of one strong reason – they have weak plots. And that’s where the 2018 Netflix horror series ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ shines. It has a solid story circling around five siblings, the Crane children, who briefly lived in a haunted house, where their mother Olivia Crane allegedly killed herself. While the father packs off all his kids on the night of that tragedy, the ghosts of Hill House continue to haunt the children into their adulthood.
Created by Mike Flanagan & loosely based on Shirley Jackson’s novel, this gripping horror mystery is backed up by a great cast, each of them slipping effortlessly into their roles. In-fact, the child actors almost overshadow the adult line-up. The series unfolds during multiple timelines, so we see constant flitting between the past and the present. The past is broken into two timelines, one where Olivia (Carla Gugino) is still alive and the second is right after her death, where patriarch Hugh Crain (Henry Thomas plays the younger version) gathers his children and faces police investigation over his wife’s death. In the present, another tragedy strikes, forcing them all to re-unite and confront buried demons.
Some viewers may have a hard time following the multiple timelines that are interwoven together, but it all makes for perfect storytelling and is not confusing at all, if you just pay enough attention. The Haunting of Hill House is more of a psychological mystery, with just enough scares to satisfy horror fans. For those looking for a lot of blood, gore and monsters, this is not the right pick. The focus is heavily on the Crane siblings and how living in a haunted house changes their lives forever. Their relationship with their father becomes strained because he never reveals to them how their mother died and becomes estranged, leaving the kids in the custody of an aunt. Each sibling has an episode to themselves, and the makers poignantly give us a peek into their lives and minds.
What works perfectly for the plot is the fact that it’s not just your usual scream fest, and the Crane crew is led by an atheist Stephen Crane (Michiel Huisman), the eldest sibling, who is a supernatural author, but doesn’t believe in ghosts. As a child, he did not experience traumatic supernatural events like the younger ones and is constantly applying logic to anything that seems off. He strongly believes that their family is damaged and in need of therapy. What makes the show more interesting is the fact that there isn’t just one ‘ghost’, but multiple of them. So just when you feel slightly disappointed when they reveal what the phantom looks like, (if a supernatural being’s face is shown much before the end, it kills the joy of watching horror), they introduce a new specter. The makers also avoid the temptation of avoiding jump scares where viewers most expect it.
“Sometimes, a ghost is a wish”, Stephen says one of the most powerful quote in the series. He explains how some people would rather see their loved ones as ghosts, than to never see them at all. And while the analogy makes perfect sense, it’s made clear that the Crane siblings do experience paranormal activities, both in the past and the present. The biggest question that continues to remain unanswered for them is their mother’s death. Mike Flanagan and his team of writers ensure that they keep the viewer intrigued about it, by giving us constant crumbs from the past, just the smallest of scenes from that fateful night, without explaining how Olivia Crane actually dies. Did her husband kill her? Did the ‘ghosts’ do something sinister? Did she really simply kill herself? And was she trying to attack her children that night? Because that’s what is implied in the very first episode of the series, with father Crane hurriedly packing off his cubs in a car and driving them away from the house.
‘Haunting of Hill House’ vividly touches upon PTSD, mental health, drug addiction and strained family ties. Despite fraught relations, the Crane family tries to be there for each other in times of need. Towards the second-half, the emotional drama does feel a little overdone, for example, Shirley Crane (Elizabeth Reaser), the second sibling, who is a mortician with a funeral home business, keeps seeing a man’s ghost. The writers explain his identity towards the end, and that little sub-plot was completely unnecessary. It’s understandable that they try to show how each sibling is ‘broken’ in their own way, but everybody doesn’t need to have crippling problems for viewers to feel empathy.
Victoria Pedretti and Oliver Jackson-Cohen who plays the Crane twins Nell & Luke are fantastic as the most fragile members of the family. Pedretti was quite annoying as the lead character in ‘The Haunting of Bly Manor’, but here she really delivers a moving performance. Kate Siegel as the middle sister Theodora Crane was first-rate, exuding the aura of a cold therapist with a strange power (she can sense events by touching things/people). McKenna Grace was perfect as the younger practical Theo, who prefers being by herself, but deeply cares for her siblings. Violet McGraw & Julian Hilliard were absolutely adorable as the little Crane twins, making the viewers feel terrible each time they witness something sinister. Lulu Wilson as young Shirley was perhaps the only weak link in the cast & isn’t able to emote aptly.
I like how there is a lot more action and dialogue in this series and not excessive dreams or hallucinations like in most horror/zombie series these days. It keeps you very invested in the story, especially because there is just one family that is involved in the plot. All the weird, scary flashbacks from the past culminate into a powerful ending, with a chilling explanation of the Olivia Crane mystery.
‘The Haunting of Hill House’ leaves no loose ends, it doesn’t leave the viewer with more questions, but with a wholesome horror mystery that’s absolutely worth your time. It’s a 8.5/10 from me.
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