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If you go to Netflix and click on The Haunting of Hill House hoping to watch a scary-movie TV show, be prepared to binge it for a while before you get to anything that’ll make you scream. This adaptation of the 1959 Shirley Jackson novel is by writer-director Mike Flanagan, who specializes in horror films so carefully modulated, using the term “horror” seems a bit overwrought or exaggerated.
In films like Hush, Ouija: Origin of Evil, and his Netflix adaptation of Stephen King’s Gerald’s Game, Flanagan takes care to slowly build an atmosphere of dread before unleashing the frightening elements. It’s easy to see why good actors such as Carla Gugino and Elizabeth Reaser want to work with him: He helps create vivid female characters who aren’t (just) victims, and he keeps bloody gore to a minimum.
When Flanagan applies his method to feature films no more than two hours in length, he’s on firm ground creatively. When he’s charged with producing the 10 episodes that comprise Hill House, however, he falls prey to what I call the Netflix Flaw: The arbitrary necessity to spread out a story to cover about 10 hours stretches everything too thin. As with so many Netflix series, you feel the whole thing could have been wrapped up after about the third hour. Maybe the second.
Hill House could have been titled House Haunters: Like an HGTV series, much of it is about the layout and structure of an old house that a family chooses to buy and renovate. In so doing, the family discovers the place is … haunted? Just very rickety? Occupied by evil spirits? Good spirits? The show likes to leave everything open-ended for much of its length.
Carla Gugino and Henry Thomas play the husband-and-wife parents who buy dark, dank Hill House some time in the 1980s. Their five children grow up to include Reasor’s Shirley, a funeral home director, and Michiel Huisman’s Steven, a bestselling author. (Henry Thomas’s Hugh Crain ages into Timothy Hutton — the age-math here makes no sense whatsoever.) This is the kind of TV show in which all of the adult children are in various stages of recovering from childhood trauma. Indeed, everything that is supernatural in Hill House could be considered a metaphor for psychological scarring and neurosis. As such, it’s a very obvious production that takes entirely too long to make a few dramatic points. It wasn’t until Episode 5 that something happened — all I’ll say is there’s a so-called bent-neck lady — that struck me as an effective horror-movie event. Well-acted and ponderously paced, The Haunting of Hill House would have benefited from less straining for the artistic and more of a desire to jolt its viewers.
The Haunting of Hill House is streaming now on Netflix.
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