Available on Netflix
The Haunting‘s one of those classic horror movies that’s thoroughly deserving of the title. Directed by Robert Wise and based on Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel of the same name, it sees a group of people taken by a scientist to an old house to investigate whether it’s really haunted or not. These people, some sceptics, some psychic, some a bit unhinged, slowly learn that either the house is haunted or they are.
Wise’s direction doesn’t involve horror or ‘jump shocks’ but is instead based around the slow build up of tension and horror, as we try to piece together what’s happening and our imagination runs riot. It’s a technique that’s been used countless times since and the likes of Ghostwatch owe The Haunting a huge debt.
Cycles of horror
Horror, like every other genre, is subject to trends and the style of horror exemplified by The Haunting was to reach its zenith in The Exorcist, before changing cinema rules meant gore took over as the mode of choice for directors by the mid-70s and 80s. Since then, we’ve had The Blair Witch Project give us more than a decade of “found footage” horror, while the Saw franchise and the likes of Eli Roth dialled up sadistic horror to the max. Meanwhile, the “jump shock” school of horror – aka “quiet, quiet, BANG” – has had a renaissance in movies such as The Quiet Place.
Thanks to director Mike Flanagan (Occulus, Absentia, Before I Wake) we also now have a return to at least something of the original The Haunting‘s tension-building horror with a new adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House for Netflix as a ten-part series. To expand the story out to that much of a runtime, Flanagan does a lot of tinkering with the underlying story, making the various original characters siblings, yet otherwise keeping them similar. He also gives us two timelines.
In the first, set in 1992, we have a family move into the old ‘Hill House’, a fixer-upper if ever there was one. They intend to remodel it and redesign it, before selling it on, so they can make enough money to settle down permanently and build and live in their ‘Forever House’. Tragically, however, before their dreams can be attained, the family has to flee in the middle of the night, leaving mother Carla Gugino behind dead. What happened? Father Henry Thomas (ET) claims it was ghosts; others say it was suicide.
The whole world wants to know, so naturally when son Steven (Michiel Huisman) is down on his luck, the aspiring novel writes a tell-all book, which makes him rich – but ostracises him from his sisters, mortician Elizabeth Reaser, child psychologist Kate Siegel and struggling addict Oliver Jackson-Cohen.
Sister Nell (Victoria Pedretti)? Well, she’s a bit batty these days thanks to all the dreams. Of course, things take a turn for the worse for her once she decides to go back to the house one night, leaving the rest of the family to piece together what happened to her and revisit old memories – that’s when old memories aren’t revisiting them…
85% terrifying, 15% silly
There is an old adage in horror that the imagination is always more powerful than anything than anything a film-maker can create. So it is with The Haunting of Hill House. When the show is leaving everything the viewer’s imagination, it’s downright terrifying; when it shows you what it’s only been hinting at, it’s often laughable. Indeed, there’s one scene in episode four that’s more redolent of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode Hush than anything properly frightening.
Largely, the first four episodes tread over familiar but nevertheless still unsettling territory. As well as flashbacks, it deploys a threaded narrative, so that we see the same events from different people’s points of views in different episode. Why’s Jackson-Cohen stealing Huisman’s iPad in episode one? We find out in episode four and it’s not for the reason we thought in episode one. It shows a refreshing trust in the patience and intelligence of the viewer and one I think pays off.
Flanagan is also happy to borrow techniques from The Haunting, with the nightmarish thumping of the original readily imitated/homaged here and achieving similar results. However, most of the horror is from long, wide, highly formal Kubrick-esque compositions of gothic interior design, in which little happens but the viewer is always expecting something to happen, leaving that expectation to generate the scares. What’s that moving behind that locked door? Where’s that basket of kittens from and why are they dying? Who’s that talking at the other end of the house intercom system? Who’s that making that noise outside? Who’s turning that door handle?
Again, to Flanagan’s credit, he avoids the simple “quiet quiet BANG” pay off in favour of more cerebral scares for the most part. Unfortunately, when he does eventually choose to reveal all, what’s revealed is often a bit of a let down. That scary old women reflected in the ear trumpet? Didn’t I see her in The Muppets Christmas Carol?
Small wonder that the show only gets a 15 certificate – I imagine the light relief removes at least one rating level from the terror.
The show also spends far less time in the house in modern times than one would like. Instead, we’re focusing more on the grown-up children’s modern day issues, many of which seem to be caused by their experiences. Steven never saw a ghost, even though the rest of the family did, so he’s on the perpetual hunt for a real ghost to write about in yet another new haunted house book. Jackson-Cohen and his addiction is the natural outcome of being stuck in a cellar with a dead body clawing at you and floating men in bowler hats entering your bedroom at night. Siegel’s one-night stands are what you get if you have psychic powers and can’t readily touch anyone, so can’t ever truly get close – or tell people what you experienced as a kid.
They’re interesting character studies, but they’re also not especially deep and are a bit predictable. It would have been more fun to see Siegel over-empathising and close to everyone, say, rather than constantly distant from everyone.
Big name star Timothy Hutton? Justifiably an “…and Timothy Hutton”, judging from the screen-time he’s had so far.
It’s a shame that Flanagan didn’t have the confidence to rely on more disembodied ghosts than the ones he presents, because it’s the show’s biggest misstep. The predictable characterisation is something far more forgivable and with six episodes to go, I’m fairly sure there are still twists ahoy for me.
Otherwise, it’s a genuinely unsettling piece of work that’s probably best not watched in the dark.
Barrometer rating: 2