*Spoilers ahead in a blog on what Mike Flannagan’s Netflix horror series got so right*
I have a strange habit of watching horror films on Saturday or Sunday mornings. Especially when I’m hungover, more than anything I just want to plonk myself in front of a screen (or plonk a screen in front of me) and watch something scary.
This is partly because I am too much of a scardy cat to watch horror films at night. But there is also something that makes horror suited for a lazy morning. Maybe it’s the high action to dialogue ratio, or the adrenaline rush from a good scare, or the comfortable reliability of the format (person/people fleeing scary thing/things).
Horror tropes fascinate me. While the form changes, the fundamentals of what we find scary – the dark, death, surprises – are entrenched into our psyche, so horror is almost always creating a different painting with the same pallet. Even the characters in horror have become defined over time – from the baddies (vampires, ghosts, demons) to the victims (children, virgins, jocks). Of course, this was brilliantly explored in The Cabin in the Woods (2011). I love to see how writers and directors play with these expectations and subvert them, which all the best horrors do.
I started watching The Haunting of Hill House (HoHH) on a Saturday morning, and for two episodes I was completely enthralled. I was also scared shitless. So scared, infact, that I had to leave it a month before coming back to it. Despite being terrified all over again, this was my favourite show of 2018 and here’s what I think made it so good:
The sheer attention to detail
HoHH will be remembered for that fantastic sixth episode that is largely a one shot. It’s hard to even imagine how much planning went into making that work, and how many times they had to cut and start the entire sequence again. But that’s just one brilliant feature in a series littered with them.
My personal favourite scene of the entire show comes in episode one (and then again in episode nine) – where Steven is awoken in the middle of the night by his dad and they flee the house together. This scene set the mood for me, it was something I’d never seen in a horror film before, and with just the slightest show of threat it scared the living shit out of me. This is completely because of camera angles showing Hugh from the front dashing down the corridor, pursued, with Steven on his back.
Then there are HoHH’s hidden ghosts, which I didn’t even consciously notice the first time round. Looking at the scenes where unexplained figures lurk in the background, or under the piano, or under the stairs, I remember feeling uneasy while watching it and now can’t work out if that was from the quality of the story or because my subconscious mind had clocked a hidden face. Think of all the extras hired and coordinated in every shot to disturb the viewer on a level they may not have even been aware of.
Writing with a resolution
However, what made HoHH special was that each of these artistic flares had a purpose, it wasn’t just showy for the sake of it. We’ve all seen horror films that have very creepy set pieces which, on repeat watching, make absolutely no sense. Realising at the end of the film that the scariest bit had nothing at all to do with the plot always leaves me feeling a bit cold. Even some of the best horror films – while not intentionally misleading the audience – lean heavily on the “unexplained”: who can say why these weird happenings are occuring? who can say why Jack Torrance’s face is in an old photo on the wall? The creators rely on the viewer to fill in the blanks themselves.
What HoHH did that I have never really seen any other horror do is actively resolve the mysteries that are so shocking to the viewer. In fact, resolution is – in my mind – the core thematic motif of the show, as we repeatedly come back to past scenes from different angles. Everything scary we are shown at the beginning is explained to us by the end and this is a brave and bold choice on the creators part. Where this could have simply been another show about a haunted house, the HoHH becomes so much more because they effectively let us peek behind the curtain.
That shot I loved from the first episode, for example. In itself, a brilliant piece of filming that already elevates is above most horror. In a worse series, that would have been exactly what it looks like – a boy and his father being pursued by a ghost, who then gazes creepily out of the window as the car veers out of the driveway. “That’s not your mother”. But where the HoHH cuts itself above the rest is to come back to that scene from the angle of another character, that of the “ghost” – who of course turns out to be Steven’s mother. And yet, the scene and the way each of the actors act (including Hugh’s line that it isn’t her) make complete sense in that context as well. It is masterful.
Not being afraid to be subtle
Perhaps this is the benefit of having a long-form format to work with but another thing I really liked about HoHH is that it didn’t rush anything. Rather than being confronted up front by the big bad horror, the viewer was drip fed it over 10 episodes and this meant that the show was a lot more subtle and nuanced than your typical horror. As discussed, this isn’t a series that relies on cheap scares. In fact, given the nature of the show, there are actually very few true “jump scares,” which makes the ones there are (usually involving the Bent-Neck Lady) even more impactful. I like to think that in this one Nelly was just trying to get her sisters to stop fighting:
The trust in the audience to follow and understand a more subtle plot really paid off when it came to the resolution of the red room mystery. I have to say, as I neared episode 10 I had serious concerns that the red room was going to be a serious let down. Not a sentence I thought I’d ever say: but I was going to be very disappointed if it was just a room someone died horribly in. However, the actual revelation that it was a room we had seen each of the family members use repeatedly is one of the best twists in any TV series ever. Mostly because of all the times during the show that I was thinking “this room is nice, why don’t they always hang out here!?” completely ignorant to the fact that I was walking on a hollow door that was about to be yanked out from under me.
Again, in any other series, that revelation would have been thickly foreshadowed. In retrospect, you do remember characters acting confused when someone mentions the tree house, or the mother’s reading room, or Steven’s game room, but I was so distracted by everything else that was going on that I didn’t even notice this sleight of hand. Instead of showing you someone acting loopy in a bare room, this plot development was dropped in the most subtle and creepy way: Hugh Crane telling Steven there was no tree house. Honestly, I still get shivers.
Finally, the subtlety of the writing also plays off big time in that this is a horror with actual decent, likable, believable characters that act in normal human ways. This is a feat I haven’t given enough space for here but it is truly an achievement in the horror genre to tick all of those boxes. I completely understood the motivations of each character, at no point did anyone do anything that was absolutely unfathomably stupid.
Again, I think HoHH benefitted from having the time to let us spend an hour with each character and get to know them a bit. My favourite was Theo. Often, the all-too human interactions between them were as interesting to me as the actual horror elements of the story. This meant that you cared about each character as they walked down the stairs into the basement, or slipped out of rehab to follow their junky friend, or drove towards Hill House in the dead of night. And as the series ended I was glad that those who survived, had.