The Haunting of Hill House

The Haunting of Hill House ★★★★½

I really find it hard to watch TV series these days. I mean, I went through that whole period - you know, this “golden age of TV” which I guess everyone is convinced is still going on – where I pretty much stopped watching movies and instead binged on all these beautifully produced shows. Aside from some notable exceptions though, I’ve completely gone the other way now – it’s movies I’m obsessed with and I just don’t have time for TV series.

I was talking about this with a friend a while back and they were like “No, sorry. Films are just too narratively limited – you can put so much more story into a long form TV series.” I think this is an opinion shared by many but I also think it’s a fundamental misapprehension of what makes a good narrative. It’s not about cramming as much content into a story as possible. It’s about how a story can engage and satisfy an audience, managing the ebb and flow of natural attention spans not overloading us with too much content – because in the end that just means there a whole heap of story arcs that we can’t keep track of. Some stories can hold a lot of content and still work – Game of Thrones managed to keep about a hundred narrative plates spinning for seven full series before dropping pretty much all of them to smash on the floor in the final series.

I’m convinced this conventional wisdom of the long-form series being the superior format has led to an enormous con. There are some series out there which are taking the same amount of material that would comfortably fit in a 2 hour movie and stretching it out to eight or ten episodes. I tried watching Castle Rock recently, but after that one great episode which was all about Sissy Spacek’s character, there was an episode where literally nothing happened – there was zero story progress. I don’t have time for that shit.

Anyway, The Haunting OF HILL HOUSE (yes, Letterboxd, that’s the name, what the fuck is up with this "The Haunting" nonsense???) is NOT one of those cons. If nothing else, it’s beautifully written – at least up until the last episode, on which opinions have been divided (I’m in the camp that found the conclusion a bit underwhelming but I actually found that to be a fairly minor flaw in an otherwise wonderful series).

It works magnificently as a haunted house horror – Mike Flanagan has genuine flair in staging scary sequences. There is at least one genuinely scary moment in every episode. He doesn’t even rely on jump scares – although there are one or two excellent examples of those. There is such a visual ingenuity and innovativeness to some of these shots.

But this is also a fantastic family drama. The characters feel real, and we care deeply about what happens to them. It’s a very melancholy kind of story, but there’s plenty of levity and humour throughout. My wife is no fan of horror, but somehow I convinced her to watch the first episode of this with me. She became totally fanatical about the show, so we got through this entire series in a few nights. And she hates being scared, but she didn’t even feel like she was watching a horror film. I did, because I was admiring the horror craft of so much of it, but she was just wrapped up in the personal stories, and that’s a testament to how thoroughly this show succeeds in its lofty ambitions.

I haven’t even mentioned the production design and cinematography which is never anything other than breathtaking. This thing is absolutely gorgeous, with a command over colour motifs that would make Krysztof Kieslowski proud.

I won’t spoil the ending, or what made me a little disappointed in the final episode, except to mention something which I also noticed in Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep as a minor quibble when set against the immense achievement of the rest of it. It’s the fact that the ghosts become somehow knowable at the end – and once you can get a handle on what these things are, no matter how it may follow through on the supernatural angle, they lose their enigma and, for me, most of their power.

But man, the places this will take you, particularly around the middle of the series in episodes four, five and six, will blow your mind – especially if you are a fan of ghost stories and haunted houses. Too many highlights to mention here, but I want to leave a call-out to the whole story around the Bent-Necked Lady. Just… fucking… wow.

Yeah, it’s awesome and one of the few series out there worth devoting 8 or 9 hours of your life to.

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