The Haunting of Hill House

2 out of 5

Directed by: Mike Flanagan

I am fuming over the general pointlessness of the way the story in this series is constructed, as it means that that flub – which is apparent from rather early on – is additive as the episodes pile up to ten; in typical Netflixy streaminess, what might’ve worked as a smaller mini-series or even a movie becomes ridiculous (and frustrating) when stretched out.  Atop this we get my puzzlement with the cheers for director Mike Flanagan, as I couldn’t sense a “reason” for most of his shooting style throughout the show, especially questioning how The Haunting of Hill House is being perceived as scary or unnerving when almost every fright beat is undermined by a weird telegraphing or, after the fact, holding the shot too long.

But while we’re here, let my sprinkle some praise that – besides my curiosity as to whether or not things would get better – made it more easy than hard to keep watching: firstly, and probably most importantly, the titular House’s design is fantastic.  While the way Flanagan’s somnabulant camera foregrounds particularly uninteresting elements just to keep a wide background in play is, I dunno, like a forest-for-the-trees approach, the production design of the background, i.e. the house – littered with doorways and statues that are constantly suggesting people secretly watching the goings-on – is riddled with promise, having you (if you’re so inclined) rewinding to see if you saw something you think you saw.  This is akin to the way Paranormal Activity’s whole m.o. has you watching static scenes for movement; while Flanagan – again – underwhelms when he does actually takes advantage of it, I can’t deny appreciating the concept of being torn between wanting to watch the shadows and being woefully distracted by whatever scene-stretching nonsense was going on in the foreground.  Secondly, and also certainly a key factor, many of the main actors – particularly the women, both their present day “post house events” and younger “during house events” flashback actresses – sell the complicated mix of emotions required to make their characters fleshed out, believable humans.  If I can continue ragging on Mike, this would seem to be despite disconnected direction, as a guy we know can act, Timothy Hutton (amazingly effective in American Crime) is wasted and ultimately ineffective here in portraying the haunted father of the Crain family.  There are other ho-hum performances, alas, so it’s good that much of our screentime is with those who grow their roles beyond the script: Kate Siegel and McKenna Grace as the present and past Theo, respectively; Elizabeth Reaser and Lulu Wilson as Shirley; and Carla Gugino as mama Crain.

The Haunting of Hill House is a series about two deaths that have happened amidst the mother and father, three sisters, two brothers Crain family: one in the past, when the Crains move into the huge and creaky Hill House to restore it and flip it, and one in the present, when all have physically moved on, but remain clearly emotionally affected by the lack of details concerning their previous loss.  So when a present day loss occurs – and ties back to the house – whatever emotions they’d been tamping down start manifesting; we jump back and forth between the times and between viewpoints for about half the series leading up to both deaths, then the backhalf does something similar with the aftermath of each, which allows Flanagan and his writers to fill in some Whys.

There have been comparisons to This Is Us as well as Hereditary, presumably for the ensemble cast and the emotional component of the former, and the “every day horror” aspects of family life of the latter.  My opinions notwithstanding on either of those, there is something to glean from those two disparate examples: that The Haunting of Hill House wants to be a spooky show, but with affecting drama to back it up.  And while Flanagan does achieve some theoretically creepy concepts, as well as threading together some potentially compelling storylines, the way these elements are matched prevents either one from being effective.  The story just feels too “safe;” I was never scared for the Crain family, nor was I invested in understanding (or sympathizing with) their emotional baggage; the show holds back on both accounts, wanting to go BOO and then apologizing to put on its serious face again… as the camera drifts, Flanagan with a smirk on his face while setting up the next disappointing scare.

This is summarized by episode 6’s ‘Eulogy,’ a midpoint for the series that breaks the singular POV setup for three sections of single, 20-minute shots.  We can applaud the technical achievement, except I could sense no reason for doing this in a single shot.  Without digging into that further, my thoughts on that episode in particular mirror a lot of what I felt about the series on the whole: that it’s an affected mood that doesn’t end up serving the story well at all.