- Matt Linton
[SPOILERS] The Haunting of Hill House Marathon Reviews
Netflix is notorious for not releasing viewership numbers, but if social media is anything to go by EVERYONE watched The Haunting of Hill House. From what I can gather, the overwhelming majority of those who did loved the show (most of the criticism I saw came from fans of Shirley Jackson's 1959 novel who were not on board with the many liberties taken with the original story). I've never read the book - and I'm generally not too concerned with fidelity in adaptations - but found the trailer very effective, and have heard really good things about director Mike Flanagan's work on Gerald's Game. I also enjoyed Oculus and Hush, so I was excited to check out the show. It's been about a week and a half since I finished it, and I'm still not sure what I think of it overall. So, in the interest of trying to work that out, I thought I'd take a look back at each episode, and share my impression of those, to try and determine where I ultimately land on the series as a whole. There will, consequently, be SPOILERS.
Episode 1: "Steven Sees a Ghost"
Recap: In this episode we meet Steven Crain, the oldest of the Crain children, now a successful writer. He's also kind of an asshole. Via flashback (this show loves flashbacks like Lost loved flashbacks) we're also introduced to the rest of the Crain family, including the parents - Olivia and Hugh - and Steven's siblings - Shirley, Luke, Theodora, and Nell. Most importantly, we also meet Hill House and some of its ghosts.
Thoughts: This was my first indication that I wasn't going to love the series as much as I expected to. While I loved the atmosphere and the suspense that Flanagan built and sustained throughout the first episode, there really wasn't much in the way of scares. And what little there was (the two appearances of the Bent-Neck Lady) weren't particularly effective. The moment that worked the best for me came toward the end, when all of the present-day Crain family wakes at the same moment, uttering the same phrase - "Nellie's in the Red Room" and her sudden appearance at the end of the episode. Other than that, I left the first episode with the impression that Carla Gugino (Olivia) felt kind of wasted, which isn't the ideal takeaway.
Episode 2: "Open Casket"
Recap: The focus for this episode shifts to Shirley Crain, a mortician. And, like Steven, she's kind of an asshole. Along with a flashback to her attempting to care for some kittens (which ends with, surprise, dead kittens) we also see her in the present day preparing Nellie's body for the funeral. Plus, more family dynamics, albeit from a different perspective.
Thoughts: I'm now two episodes in, and the only character I really like at this point is already dead, so that's a thing. The pacing, which I hoped was just a first episode thing, is still kind of dragging, and the atmosphere-to-scares ration seems to be about 90/10. It's not that anything they're doing so far is especially bad, it's just very much not what I'm looking for in a ghost story. And between the shifting perspectives and the shifting time frames, I'm having to work harder than I'd like to keep some of the characters and plot elements straight (it wasn't until this episode that I realized Theodora wasn't just a friend of Shirley's, but one of the Crain kids). At this point I'm wishing the show had either a little bit more energy, or a little bit more intensity, because it's feeling very "meh."
Episode 3: "Touch"
Recap: Theo touches things and knows things about them. Nerd moment: As I learned from the 1986 comic book miniseries Longshot, this ability is known as psychometry. Theo is a child psychologist, and in this episode discovers that one of the children she is seeing is being sexually abused. We also see Theo, as a child, looking out for her younger brother Luke, who even then was kind of an idiot.
Thoughts: This episode was a turning point for me. I still wasn't thrilled with the pacing (and my concerns there would grow) but the plot was compelling, and the scene where Theo confirms her suspicions about what's going on with her patient is brilliantly staged and performed. Also, while Theo is as much an asshole as everyone else in her family (seriously, they're all assholes with the exception of Nellie), she's an entertaining asshole who fights child molesters and has a superpower, and she's bitter and sarcastic, so she's kind of awesome.
Episode 4: "The Twin Thing"
Recap: So, Luke and Nellie are twins, and because of that they have a sort of psychic connection.Luke is also an addict who has burned pretty much every bridge with his family over the years. And, just as Nell is haunted by the Bent-Neck Lady, Luke has his own ghost, who I will call Floating Hat and Cane Man. In this episode we learn that Luke is on his most recent bout of recovery, having maintained his sobriety in rehab for 90-days when Nellie dies.
Thoughts: I had two responses to this episode. The first is that, like "Touch", it had a fairly compelling story, involving Luke's search for his friend at rehab who has gone missing. Luke also shifted into the "asshole, but I like them" category, though in more of a sad way than Theo. So, all of that is good. The second response was the culmination of what had been bothering me from the first episode - the pacing. This is when it fully clicked for me that each episode up to a certain point in the season was going to focus on one specific character, and that it was going to do that in both the present-day and in flashbacks. And there are seven major characters in the series (the 5 children, and two parents). As such, there's VERY little advancement of the present-day plot over the course of those episodes, and it was starting to get annoying. I'm pretty sure the only reason I kept watching at this point was that I was stuck on a bus traveling from Brooklyn to Detroit and really didn't have any better ways to spend my time.
Episode 5: "The Bent-Neck Lady"
Recap: It's finally Nellie's turn, four episodes after she died. We learn of her sustained haunting by the Bent-Neck Lady, her short, tragic marriage, and her lifelong struggle with mental illness (or ghosts - the series kind of problematically connects the two without doing a whole lot with it). We also see that, as the youngest, she's the glue that held the family together to any real extent. Then we learn exactly how she died, and what followed. And HOLY SHIT.
Thoughts: The sequence where Nellie is lured through the house and compelled to hang herself, leading into the reveal that Nellie is the Bent-Neck Lady who has been haunting her all of these years (executed amazingly by Flanagan) is the moment the series turned the corner for me, and I was all in. The way it was presented, the playing with time, and the tragic and horrifying implications finally justified the pace and structure of the narrative and the time it took to get to the reveals. None of my earlier problems really go away for the rest of the series, but the extent to which they bother me is significantly less.
Episode 6: "Two Storms"
Recap: This is Hugh, the father's, episode, as he's finally reunited with his children. Previously, Hugh packed the kids up into the car one night and bolted out of Hill House without Olivia, and we got very little information about what happened. Much of the episode takes place at the visitation in the funeral home, as the family gathers to say goodbye to Nellie (and, in the case of Theo, to drink. A lot.). There's an incredibly long and well-executed tracking shot that lasts about a quarter of the episode as we see the family come together and ultimately fall apart. And, in the past, the family is trapped together in the house during a horrible hail storm.
Thoughts: I'm a huge fan of Timothy Hutton (this counts as a Fun Fact about me), who plays the older Hugh (E.T.s Henry Thomas plays the younger version) and he gives an outstanding performance as a man who recognizes the effects his actions have had on his family, but believes that both those actions, and his keeping of secrets, is for the greater good. Where I'm a bit more on the fence is with the ramping up of the family conflict. On the one hand, it's an interesting take on what's essentially a haunted house story. On the other hand, it means that Steven and Shirley become even more intolerable than usual, and that's a whole thing.
Episode 7: "Eulogy"
Recap: While we finally get Nellie's funeral, we also get some of the backstory for the Dudleys - the not-so-much-kindly-as-they-are-slightly-odd couple that apparently come with the house. Mrs. Dudley is the housekeeper, while Mr. Dudley is the groundskeeper/handyman because gender. They know more than they let on about the titular haunting of Hill House, and are smart enough to never set foot on the property after dark. Young Hugh also finds a body bricked in behind a wall, "Cask of Amontillado"-style. This does not deter his plan to finish remodeling the house and flipping it because capitalism. Oh, and if you haven't picked up on it already, you get more indications that Olivia is slowly losing her shit.
Thoughts: I'll be honest, this is not a particularly memorable episode. Unlike the first handful of episodes, though, we do learn more about the house itself and what it's doing, and there are some effectively creepy moments, and a nicely intense (in a quiet way) scene between Hugh and Mr. Dudley in which the latter reveals (in an oblique way) the danger Olivia and the family are in. And, in the present day, Luke is rushing back to Hill House, which is never a good idea.
Episode 8: "Witness Marks"
Recap: In flashback, we see Steven taking a more active role in looking after his siblings (what with his Mom's growing insanity and his Dad's preoccupation with home improvement. We also learn that Steven's marriage fell apart when he revealed to his wife (apparently immediately after an awkward moment at a fertility clinic) that he had a vasectomy before they even got together, out of fear of passing on what he believes is his family's mass mental illness. In the present day, we see Steven and his father in one car rushing after Luke, and after an encounter with some doorbell ringing ghosts at the funeral home, we see Shirley and Theo (who are still fighting about Theo making out with Shirley's husband during the visitation - sorry, I can't cover everything) also driving down after them.
Thoughts: Okay, so I mentioned watching the series while stuck on a bus heading from Brooklyn to Detroit in the middle of the night. Let me set the scene: I'm crammed in a seat in the dark bus, unable to see virtually anything out of the tinted windows. I'm watching on my phone and wearing earbuds, so I'm hyper-focused on what's going on in this episode. Cut to Theo and Shirley, driving through the dark night, screaming at each other. Suddenly, mid-screaming, Nellie's ghost bolts forward from the backseat, her head between them, and lets out a blood-curdling shriek. I legitimately jumped in my seat and almost screamed myself, earning this moment the award for the best jump-scare I've ever experienced. The rest of the episode was fine.
Episode 9: "Screaming Meemies"
Recap: Finally, nine episodes into the ten episode season, we learn what was happening to Olivia all along. She's being haunted by her own particular ghost, who is showing her things that are slowly driving her mad (including images of her two youngest, Nellie and Luke, dead as adults. As the episode progresses we also learn just what happened the night Hugh and the kids took off in the dark, leaving Olivia behind. Convinced by the ghost of Poppy Hill that her children were living in a nightmare and she needed to wake them up (by killing them) she sneaks back into the house after pretending to go to her sister's for awhile. Once back, she takes the two youngest kids to the Red Room (along with Luke's apparently-not-imaginary friend, a young girl named Abigail. They're going to have a tea party, with a heavy dose of rat poison. Hugh, after realizing what's happening, rushes in, but not before Abigail has drank the tea and died. He rushes out with young Nellie and Luke, and Olivia steps to the spot where Nellie would hang herself years later, and jumps off to her death.
Thoughts: This has been a pretty dark series though out, but this might be the darkest episode yet. Carla Gugino is finally given something to do, and plays her descent into madness very well. The one element that doesn't work for me at all is the ghost of Poppy Hill, who seems to be a flapper. It just plays as more camp than spooky, and while that works in American Horror Story, it feels out of place in this show. Still, at this point we're rounding the final turn into the finish line and I'm invested in seeing how it all wraps up.
Episode 10: "Silence Lay Steadily"
Recap: The reunited Crain's have their final confrontation with Hill House, and while some of them make it out okay, it's a rough ride getting there. Each of the kids is trapped in a delusion (in some cases) or memory (in others) until Nellie shows up in each to rescue them. So, the Red Room. This is a room in the house with a red door. In the flashbacks previously it had been revealed that the door was locked and they were never able to get inside. What we learn here is that the Red Room is the heart of Hill House, and it decides who gets in and when - and they've ALL been in there before, without realizing it. That's because the room takes a different form for each of them - a game room for Steven, a treehouse for Luke, a dance studio for Theo, and a reading room for Olivia. And it's here that the house is able to get inside the characters and feed on them.
Thoughts: Looking around at some reviews, this is the episode that really failed for a lot of people. And, to some extent, I get it. There's the revelation that Abigail was the last surviving child of the Dudleys, and they're surprisingly chill about Olivia Crain murdering her because they can come to the house and see her ghost whenever they want. There's the possibly-too-happy ending, in which Hugh sacrifices himself to Hill House, saving his children and reuniting with the ghost of his wife, Olivia. There's a super-sappy scene where the four surviving Crain kids mourn their sister Nellie, whose ghost reassures them that time isn't linear, so she's not really gone (or something). None of that makes any sort of logical sense. But, maybe because of sleep deprivation, maybe because I endured the first few episodes, maybe because I like clever reveals like the truth about the Red Room - for whatever reason, it all totally worked for me. Well...maybe not the thing with Mr. and Mrs. Dudley. That doesn't work on any level.
So, having thought out loud for ten episodes, where do I come down on the series? I have to go back to my Lost comparison, because I think it ends up being apt. It's a much-loved series with some ups and downs, it meanders a bit for entire episodes, and ultimately ties things up with revelations and outcomes that seem to disappoint most people, but work for me on an emotional (rather than logical) level. I like, but don't love, it, and would definitely recommend it with some warnings about the pacing. It's a fun weekend watch, if nothing else.