Written by: Robert Hamer, CC2K Staff Writer
The major challenge with making a TV series (is it even appropriate to call them that anymore, in the age of online streaming?) work is fitting the narrative into a longform episodic format. How many stories actually require 10+ hours to tell? That’s only for one season, too. When stretched out to multiple seasons, we’re looking at several dozen, sometimes over a hundred hours dedicated to ostensibly one overarching story. Sometimes they can make it work with the same core characters in multiple discontinuous stories, which is why so many popular TV dramas that have been on the air for a long time are police procedurals and medical dramas — sure, the doctors and detectives are (usually) the same, but every episode is a new mystery or a new disease, solved by the end of the episode and then it’s off to the next crime/patient.
That’s not quite so easy to pull off with other genres. Take, for example, horror. Scaring your audience is something that can’t be sustained for hours on end. Eventually the initial shock or revulsion of whatever terrifying situation they’re witnessing gives way to numbness, even boredom. Hence why most horror series are anthologies that tell only one self-contained story per episode, like Tales from the Crypt and Masters of Horror. Among the few exceptions, American Horror Story can only sustain a continuous story for a single season before moving on to a new one, and even that approach can be hit-or-miss. The only seasons of the show that succeeded (like Asylum and… uh… let’s see… y-you know what, I think that might actually be it) always ran out of steam near the end and felt like they should have been compressed into two or three fewer episodes than they ended up with. And when you have a horror series that couldn’t even justify its story or characters past the third episode but keeps going on for eight years and counting? You’ve got one of the most incompetently-written TV shows of the last thirty years.
People always remember the old Shakespeare phrase “brevity is the soul of wit,” but they often forget the second part: “…and tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes.” Telling an effective story, especially an effective scary story, is really hard and doubly so if you’re trying to tell a really long story.
Which is why Mike Flanagan’s Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House, which debuted two weeks ago, felt like a minor miracle for about eight-and-a-half of its ten episode run. Here was a show telling a single sustained narrative with ten episodes, each one an hour long, that managed for an admirable stretch to maintain a consistent feeling of foreboding. A series that understands what is truly scary is connecting the monster or ghost or whatever supernatural threat to the terrors of everyday life. A series that isn’t above jump scares, but is smart enough to not overdo them. But for a bum finale, this would have been one of the best horror shows ever produced.
Mike Flanagan has had an interesting career as a horror filmmaker with the rare distinction of steadily improving with each successive directorial effort, and he continues getting a little better here. His leitmotif of memories from the past seamlessly bleeding into the present is back again, and his penchant for switching back and forth between timelines, often within the same shot, is flexed even more here than in Oculus. Once again, Flanagan is fascinated with the faultiness of perception and memory, and explores that theme through two bisected plotlines revisited through multiple perspectives: namely, how a haunted mansion terrorized a family of house-flippers over the course of a summer in 1992, resulting in the eventual suicide of their mother (Carla Gugino), and how that traumatic event permanently altered the lives of their father (Henry Thomas as a young man, Timothy Hutton in the present) and their five children Steven (Paxton Singleton as a child, Michiel Huisman as an adult), Shirley (Lulu Wilson as a child, Elizabeth Reaser as an adult), Theo (McKenna Grace as a child, Kate Siegel as an adult), Luke (Julian Hilliard as a child, Oliver Jackson-Cohen as an adult), and Nell (Violent McGraw as a child, Victoria Pedretti as an adult).
The series presents these twin stories in fragments, often showing incomplete scenes from the limited perspective of one character and not showing us the fuller perspective of another until much later. The first five episodes are committed to developing each child and fleshing out how they experienced the terrors of Hill House and how that followed them to adulthood.
That seems repetitive on paper, but in practice they’re the most effective part of the series, as Flanagan (and writers Liz Phang, Scott Kosar, and Meredith Averill) do a terrific job utilizing all the grubby mechanics of a supernatural thriller to disorient and creep us out in the past while exploring, with surprising mournfulness and sobriety, the human tragedy underlining the present. Luke’s descent into drugs, Nell’s descent into paranoia, Theo’s emotional shutdown driving her into one-night stands and alcohol, and the ultimate falling out between the siblings as Steven decides to cash in on their childhood trauma with a book deal, are all drawn back to key events in that house twenty-six years ago. The past contains the frightening apparitions and (most of) the jump scares, but the true horror is outlined in the present as no member of that family emerged unscathed. They are all still haunted.
Which is what being haunted truly means. “Monsters” – however you define them – are scary, sure, but we can survive them. But how do you survive what comes after? How do you deal with the lingering trauma, the scars, and the memories of the monster? Possibly for the rest of your life? How do you deal with the scariest moment of your life altering the course of it? It’s why suicide surpasses war as the leading cause of death of military servicemembers. It’s why sexual assault survivors are usually just one trigger away from reliving their attack all over again. The terror never really goes away.
Unfortunately, Flanagan doesn’t commit to this oppressive vision of soul-crushing existential dread. For whatever reason, he decides the best way to conclude his miniseries is to coat it in unbearable saccharine schmaltz, wrap every conflict up in a neat little bow (including introducing a brand new conflict to Shirley that’s resolved twenty minutes later), and tack on a “moral of the story” virtually identical to the one Finding Nemo taught us fifteen years ago. It’s jarring how badly this show, so committed to putting its audience through an emotional wringer and using every narrative structural gambit to keep us on our toes, fumbles the final episode, “Silence Lay Steadily.” Perhaps Flanagan felt the need to leave his characters on a hopeful note to leave the door open for a second season (which this story absolutely does not warrant) or maybe was pressured to bring his series more in line with megahits like It and Stranger Things. Whatever the reason, the result of ending his series with the implication that Hill House is some kind of benign spiritual netherworld is totally incongruous with the outright malicious cruelty of the house throughout the rest of the series, especially in “The Bent-Neck Lady” and “Screaming Meemies.”
It’s a shame, too, because I was ready to give it top marks, though the show was not perfect up to that point. There are still overused tropes deployed from time to time (attention, horror filmmakers: no one wakes up from a nightmare by sitting bolt-upright on their beds!). The CGI effects are nowhere near as impressive as the makeup and practical work shown off, and while D.P. Michael Fimognari does a splendid job gliding his camera through long takes of the halls of Hill House and the disorienting headspaces of the Crain siblings, a few too many conversations between two characters devolve into rote shot-reverse-shot.
But these are minor quibbles for nine episodes of a harrowing family nightmare, threading elegantly between despair and frazzled, demented energy. Nine episodes of visual ingenuity, smart plotting, intriguing mysteries, and (mostly) strong performances. I don’t know why Mike Flanagan, one of the most promising genre filmmakers of the decade, let’s be clear, has such a hard time sticking the endings. The same problem marred Oculus and Gerald’s Game.
But the good news is, this is the best-directed effort he’s put out yet. His upward trajectory does, overall, continue with The Haunting of Hill House, and I have no doubt we will one day be blessed with an ending from him worthy of his gripping journeys.
Author: Robert Hamer, CC2K Staff Writer
Robert Hamer is CC2K’s resident opinion columnist. In addition to being a self-centered 30 year-old white man living in northeastern suburbia who obsesses over movies and nerd culture ephemera, he also works to ensure Donald Trump does not succeed in permanently destroying the United States.