Shirley Jackson‘s 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House is a classic work of horror literature. Eerie, atmospheric, and poignant, this ghost story has been adapted on more than one occasion with varying degrees of success: the 1963 film The Haunting is a mostly faithful adaptation and a classic in its own right, while the 1999 version with the same name is…to put it nicely, a product of its time. And while Mike Flanagan’s 2018 Netflix mini-series is pretty much an “in name only” adaptation, it still manages to capture the tense, beautiful, heartbreaking tone of its source material.
The Haunting of Hill House sees the Crain family forced to confront memories of their old home after the youngest sibling, Nell (Victoria Pedretti), dies there, seemingly having taken her own life. Flashing between the past and present, we see how trauma they endured at Hill House has followed them throughout their lives- and how hard it is still trying to pull them back.
Because this show premiered two years ago and was wildly successful, resulting in tons of articles and videos reviewing and analyzing it, I doubt I’ll have any new hot takes, but because its highly-anticipated follow-up, The Haunting of Bly Manor (loosely based on the Henry James novella The Turn of The Screw), is coming out next month and will be covered in my HallowStream series, it seemed like a good idea to revisit Hill House in preparation for the new season.
While the mini-series isn’t a retelling of the novel, there are so many little references to it that fans of the book can appreciate. The most obvious are the names of the Crain family members: father Hugh (Timothy Hutton/Henry Thomas) is the name of the house’s original owner in the novel; siblings Nell (Victoria Pedretti/Violet McGraw), Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen/Julian Hilliard), and Theo (Kate Siegel/Mckenna Grace) are the names of the three guests of Hill House; and Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser/Lulu Wilson), of course, is a reference to author Shirley Jackson. Besides the names, there are smaller details- Nell’s cup of stars, the “Welcome home, Eleanor” message written on the wall, the phantom hand holding, Olivia’s story about rocks falling from the sky, and probably several others that I missed during both times watching. My favorite nod to both the book and the ’63 film is a cameo from Russ Tamblyn, who played Luke in the original film, as Nell’s psychiatrist, Dr. Montague- the name of another character from the book. Despite the show not being a direct adaptation of the novel, there’s clearly still plenty for book fans to nerd out about.
The Haunting of Hill House not only appeals to book nerds, but theater nerds, because so much of the show feels like a play- unsurprising, as the novel lends itself well to theatrical adaptation. Each of the main characters gets at least one beautifully written monologue in the series; Theo’s monologue toward the end of episode 8 is gut-wrenching, Luke’s eulogy in episode 7 will break my heart every time, and Nell’s farewell to her siblings in the last episode has already become an iconic television moment. Even some of the supporting characters (Mrs. Dudley, played by Annabeth Gish, Poppy Hill, played by Catherine Parker, and Leigh Crain, played by Samantha Sloyan) have some juicy monologues that I kind of want to borrow the next time I audition for any community theater productions. Episode 6 feels especially theatrical thanks not only to some excellent dialogue, but to the nearly 16-minute-long uncut and unedited take at the beginning of the episode. It’s done so seamlessly and so skillfully that I didn’t even notice it during my first watch, and I had to keep reminding myself of it during my second watch.
Obviously such rich dialogue and such demanding scenes wouldn’t be nearly as impressive without a talented cast, and The Haunting of Hill House absolutely has that. The actors playing the five siblings-both in the present and in flashbacks- have such fantastic chemistry, especially Elizabeth Reaser as Shirley and Katie Siegel as Theo (my sister and I have definitely had the “Did you just punch me in the boob!?” fight from episode 8 on more than one occasion). The young actors playing the siblings in flashbacks are unbelievably good, but the standouts for me are Lulu Wilson as Shirley, who had already started making a name for herself in horror before this (in Flanagan’s Ouji: Origin of Evil-which, incidentally, was the first movie I ever reviewed for FlixChatter- and Annabelle: Creation), and Violet McGraw and Julian Hilliard as twins Nell and Luke, who, besides being incredibly cute (Violet’s reading of “Maybe it’s a cotton candy machine!” in episode 2 melts my heart), are given some seriously heavy scenes to perform and do so spectacularly; their nightmare speech to Olivia (Carla Gugino) in episode 9 is especially chilling. Speaking of Carla Gugino, she gives a captivating performance throughout the series; seeing her go from a warm, loving, free-spirited mother to an unhinged wretch is magnificent.
Of course, I can’t end this without talking about the real reason I’m including it in my HallowStream series: the scares. While The Haunting of Hill House has more of a slow burn than other horror series, being half family drama, it is still a ghost story. There are several jump scares throughout the show, but they all feel earned. The hidden ghosts all over the house add a level and tension and unease, because you’re not sure if you saw something. The production design of the enormous, decrepit, labyrinthine mansion is everything you could want in a haunted house. My only real critique is that the CGI can look a little cheap and unimpressive at times, but those moments are few and far between.
Even after watching The Haunting of Hill House twice, I can easily see myself returning to this show, finding new things to appreciate, and still jumping out of my skin at the scary parts. It’s a great one to watch this Halloween season, and I can’t wait to see what Mike Flanagan has planned for The Haunting of Bly Manor.
Have you seen The Haunting of Hill House? Well, what did you think?