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‘Haunting of Hill House’ is complex, artistic adaptation

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IMAGE COURTESY OF IMDB

In 1959, Shirley Jackson published her famed gothic horror novel “The Haunting of Hill House.” The book was praised for its nuanced handling of its dark themes and complex character. Not only has the novel garnered a status as being one of the best ghost stories ever written but it holds a firm legacy in pop culture. So much so that there have been three live-action adaptations of the story.

The first was a 1963 film simply titled “The Haunting,” directed by Robert Wise and starring Julie Harris and Claire Bloom; this adaptation was quite faithful to Jackson’s novel and received acclaim. The second was a 1999 film also titled “The Haunting” directed by Jan de Bont and starring Liam Neeson and Catherine Zeta-Jones; this adaptation was a very watered down and generic take on the story and it ended up being a critical and commercial failure.

The third and most recent rebranding of Jackson’s work comes to us from Netflix and up-and-coming American horror auteur Mike Flanagan. This is less an adaptation of “Hill House,” and more of a re-interpretation. Flanagan uses the concepts of Jackson’s novel to tell the story of the Crain family and their long, terrifying and tragic history with the titular home of horrors.

The ten-episode series follows two storylines: one in the summer of 1992 when the Crain’s first move into Hill House and the other in present day, as the surviving family members deal with the trauma from their past. Things come to a head once the Crain family is brought back together by a tragic event that evokes the grisly death of their mother that divided the family. It is set up as the macabre love-child of “This is Us” and the first season of “American Horror Story” but the result could not possibly be more rewarding, terrifying and emotionally resonant.

IMAGE COURTESY OF IMDB

Each character is unique and compelling in the way they cope with the literal and metaphorical ghosts of their past. The eldest son of the family, Steven, used his childhood drama for profit by writing a book on his family in the Hill House while denying that any supernatural activities ever actually took place, much to the dismay of his siblings. The eldest daughter, Shirley (a respectable nod to Jackson), becomes more icy and standoffish in demeanor but uses her early childhood fascination with death to become a mortician. The middle child, Theo, uses her trauma as inspiration to become a child psychologist even though she frequently finds herself struggling to keep her personal demons at bay. The two youngest are twins, Nell and Luke. Luke buries his trauma in drugs and alcohol and Nell posses a particularly disturbing case of sleep paralysis.

These character dynamics are quite intense and when they are brought together on screen, Flanagan emphasizes how isolating these traits are for the characters. Not only are they literally being haunted by ghosts (most of which are absolutely terrifying) but theses characters consistently haunt themselves with their own self-inflicted mental torture. This is heightened by the series structure, with Flanagan giving each character an individual episode representing their arc and perspective.

With “Ouija: Origin of Evil” and “Gerald’s Game,” Flanagan established himself as an artist who is able to immaculately combine horror with genuine human empathy. “Hill House” is an example of this trait at top form. Giving each character an individual episode allows for the audience to properly identify and empathize with their perspective. This then makes it doubly rewarding when the sixth episode rolls around and we get to see these characters interact from an objective perspective and everything is able to feel lived-in and emotionally driven.

As the season comes to its close, there are many revelations that result in a rare finale that delivers on all of the promises that the show holds. It’s layered, compelling, and oh so emotional (reader, I cried. A LOT).

Flanagan’s form is tremendous. There isn’t a single shot or sequence that rings false and the scares land most effectively. And one can’t possibly write about this without talking about just how powerful the performances are. But a show such as “Hill House” can’t be this good if it doesn’t have a beating heart underneath the terror and that’s where Flanagan shines. “The Haunting of Hill House” is not simply a haunted house story, it’s a story of a family torn apart and then bonded by their own personal terror – a portrait of how horror shapes us and lets us know we are alive. Because of this, it’s by far one of the best pieces of art Netflix has ever released and is perfect for the Halloween season (or any time of the year for that matter).

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‘Haunting of Hill House’ is complex, artistic adaptation