When I hit play on Netflix’s adaptation of “The Haunting of Hill House,” I didn’t expect to end up rooting for the house. The opening episodes of this interpretation of Shirley Jackson’s classic gothic-horror story were promisingly eerie, all shadows and inky blacks, and I crossed my fingers for something satisfying—a stylishly directed Halloween binge-watch, with a few decent jump scares. And, now and then, it delivers. But there’s something existentially soul-dead to the over-all enterprise; it has corn syrup in its veins instead of blood.
Jackson’s funny-nasty psychological thriller is about a very bad house, which is described in fabulously hyperbolic terms: Hill House is “arrogant and hating,” full of “sickening, degraded cold.” In the novel, we’re trapped not merely inside this malevolent architecture but in the mind of an unreliable mouseburger named Eleanor, a spinster whose sanity gets eaten away during her days at Hill House, where she’s gone to participate in a study about the paranormal. Mike Flanagan, the show’s creator, takes these ingredients—bad house, shy woman, blurry line between insanity and ghosts—and pours them into a fresh mold, transforming the neurotic adults of the study into a nuclear family, like that of “The Amityville Horror,” “Poltergeist,” and “Six Feet Under”—but also, and mainly, of NBC’s hit family drama “This Is Us.”
It’s a sharp commercial concept. When the story starts, the five Crain siblings—know-it-all Steven, bossy Shirley, prickly Theodora, and the sweet twins, Luke and Nell—are hot, brooding basket cases, survivors of a summer that nobody wants to talk about. Twenty-five years ago, they all fled the mansion screaming, leaving their mother, Olivia, behind to die, supposedly from suicide but maybe from something worse. The show’s chronology is scrambled, so only gradually, over ten episodes, through incrementally doled-out twists and flashbacks, do we find out exactly what happened.
The approach is familiar: we’ve seen it, recently, on everything from “Lost” to “Damages,” “True Detective,” and “Sharp Objects.” Yet, early on, the direction is hypnotic enough to make it feel newish, gliding with fluidity between past and present. At a funeral, Hugh Crain, the family’s estranged father, sees his adult children as kids, including the one in the coffin; when he wanders through a funeral-home hallway, he enters Hill House and watches his younger self come down the stairs. The camera performs some wickedly effective tricks, such as hovering close to a character’s face as she glimpses a fresh horror—a ghost, a corpse, or, sometimes, nothing at all—and then lingering there, refusing to show us what’s scaring her (and suggesting, by implication, that we’re the scary thing). Then, midway through, there’s one truly skillful episode, “The Bent-Neck Lady.” A beautifully structured fairy tale with a sad ending, it’s an O. Henry story about mortality, in which the gentlest Crain, Nell, is haunted by her own terrifying future—the fear of which leads her straight to that terrible fate.
But an episode isn’t a season. Clever direction, on its own, isn’t good art. And a reshuffled chronology can masquerade as complexity—an ongoing irritation in our era of streaming television, in which puzzle-solving has become an easy way to motivate viewers to push play, by retrofitting momentum onto a story that’s not really about anything, other than closure. Even the best episodes of “The Haunting of Hill House” have big problems, among them performances that are all over the map—and, occasionally, as with the unscary ghost of a flapper, straight out of summer stock. But the bigger problem is that the pungency of the original story—its off-kilter vision of how fear shreds identity; its insight into social outsiders—has been drained away, sanded over, then renovated with Goop-y self-help truisms about bereavement and healing.
Supernatural stories are natural vehicles for confronting grief, of course. But, too often, “Hill House” reduces the ungraspable terrors that shudder through the original to mere “issues,” as if evil were just another trauma to be confronted, then resolved. There’s something stealthily cornball in the show’s vision of human character, which renders even a relapsing heroin addict as yet another cute, shaggy sad boy, whose worst act is to help a friend. Since the Crains are each matched up, as if by corporate algorithm, with ethnically varied but entirely undeveloped love interests, it’s awfully hard to blame them for their intimacy issues. There’s lots of parenting advice in the show—talk to your kids about death, tell them that it’s O.K. to be sad, and believe them when they describe a hidden basement that is not in the blueprints—but it all feels pre-chewed, anodyne. Health kills horror.
Most frustratingly, the adaptation abandons the raw feminine perversity that made Jackson’s story so indelible. In the book, Eleanor is a true-blue weirdo. She’s Emily Dickinson, she’s Jane Eyre—a dangerously needy oddball, but also one who’s funny, observant, and full of rage. She’s a mess, but she’s a specific mess: “I have red shoes, she thought—that goes with being Eleanor; I dislike lobster and sleep on my left side and crack my knuckles when I am nervous and save buttons.”
Nobody in the Netflix version has anything like this granular eccentricity. Instead, the characters feel cut and pasted from some emoji file labelled “scowling brunette,” then outfitted with lesbianism or bossiness. Eleanor’s traits get distributed willy-nilly: her anxiety about living with her sister goes to Theodora Crain, a child psychologist slash intimacy-impaired clairvoyant; Eleanor’s iconic “cup of stars” monologue, which is all about defying conformity, is placed in the mouth of Hill House’s caretaker, Mrs. Dudley, a character who swings, for no reason, from fundamentalist bully to stoic heroine.
And Nell suffers from anxiety, just like her namesake, Eleanor. What may rankle the most is the way that this character—Eleanor’s closest analogue—is transformed from a queer duck into a dream girl. Nell is a sweet child, then a glowing bride, then a grieving widow. At every step, she’s a lovely, loving woman whom everybody adores. She’s the sort of female character who gets described in a casting breakdown as “gorgeous, but she doesn’t know it.” It’s not that Victoria Pedretti doesn’t give an appealing performance, particularly in “The Bent-Neck Lady,” which is her showcase—she delivers some truly terrifying scenes of sleep paralysis—but there’s a cloying blandness to her character’s conception. All fury and peculiarity are cut away. When Nell suffers, it’s for no deeper reason than that she’s been designated by the plot to suffer, and to make us care. She’s pathos-bait.
Only one actress manages to defy this pseudo-gothic conformity, the fabulous Carla Gugino, who plays the doomed mother, Olivia. Swanning around in astonishing high-femme outfits—to comfort a child after a nightmare, she wears an emerald velvet robe over a peach negligee, with cork-heeled platforms—she reads like a little girl’s notion of a grown woman. Miraculously, Gugino comes across as both a sensitive, faintly bohemian parent and, without its being any contradiction, a terrifying diva, capable of bloodcurdling crimes. Other characters try to find a clear cause for Olivia’s behavior, as she smashes mirrors and slips into fugue states: they blame mental illness, or her husband’s neglect, or those damned pushy ghosts. But Gugino’s charisma resists the story’s attempts to simplify matters. Her seductive intensity, which wavers uneasily between giggle-inducing and chilling, shudders with the chaos that the story represses, a force pushing back at the show’s unwillingness to let anyone be pathological.
I won’t spoil the finale, but let me put it this way: the final line from the book—“And whatever walked there, walked alone”—has been mutilated so hilariously that, if you squint, you might think the creators were being ironic. In Jackson’s version, two intruders arrive halfway through the study, spiritualists who insist that anyone who fears ghosts is a bigot: spirits are just lonely, waiting for someone to talk to. “How would you feel if people refused to believe in you,” the newcomers chide the terrorized participants, who keep warning them not to go outside at night. This damp sentimentality, so brutally satirized by Jackson, is the guiding principle of Flanagan’s series. “Ghosts are guilt. Ghosts are secrets. Ghosts are regrets and failings,” Steven explains. “But most times . . . most times a ghost is a wish.” Fingers crossed for something bolder, sometime soon. ♦
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