NEW YORK (CNS) — Horror master Stephen King has been raving on social media about Netflix’s limited series “The Haunting of Hill House,” and he’s not alone. It’s one of the best reviewed new offerings of the fall.
According to “Business Insider,” moreover, the program is also popular, ranking as the third most in-demand horror show after AMC’s “The Walking Dead” and FX’s “American Horror Story.”
But does the 10-hour chiller, which began streaming Oct. 12, live up to the buzz? The answer is a qualified no.
The series is loosely based on acclaimed fiction writer Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel. Best known for her short story “The Lottery,” Jackson wanted to write a classic ghost story, which — combining the supernatural with the psychological — would throw strangers together as participants in a paranormal study of the titular dwelling, built by the deceased Dr. Hugh Crain.
Creator Mike Flanagan’s adaptation is the third film version of Jackson’s book, which has long been regarded as a classic of the genre. A 1963 movie starring Julie Harris and called simply “The Haunting” was critically well received. An identically titled 1999 production, by contrast, was panned by reviewers and spoofed in 2001’s “Scary Movie 2.”
In Flanagan’s retelling, initially set in 1992, homebuilder Hugh Crain (Henry Thomas) and his designer wife, Olivia (Carla Gugino), have moved their young family of five children into a 100-year-old New England mansion. The couple intend their stay to be temporary as they repair the place, then sell it. They plan to use the profit they’ll make to create their “forever house.”
At the outset, the Crains’ oldest, adolescent Steven (Paxton Singleton), stirs one night to comfort his baby sister Nell (Violet McGraw), who has awakened from a nightmare. “Don’t worry,” Steven says, “dreams spill” — meaning they can be easily handled. This incident, however, turns out to be merely the first of many unsettling phenomena the family will experience.
These eventually include the monster that terrifies Nell’s fraternal twin, Luke (Julian Hilliard); “the bent-neck lady,” a spectral presence who petrifies Nell; and the inexplicable deaths of kittens the oldest daughter, Shirley (Lulu Wilson), was tending.
The middle child, Theodora (Mckenna Grace), develops a keen sensitivity to the cold, prompting her to wear gloves for the rest of her life. But, subject to overwhelming migraines she refers to as “color storms,” it’s the emotionally fragile Olivia who may be the family member most profoundly affected by living in Hill House.
By 2018, grownup Steven (Michael Huisman) has become a successful author, largely by mining his clan’s harrowing past. His siblings, unsurprisingly, resent the use to which he’s put their sojourn in what is now, thanks to him, “the most famous haunted house in America.”
Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser) is a Boston funeral director. Theodora (Kate Siegel), who lives with Shirley, works as a child psychologist. Nell (Victoria Pedretti) struggles with a troubling sleep disorder while Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) battles drug addiction.
The deaths of relatives in both the original and current time periods compel the various family members to confront Hill House’s impact on them.
Red flags for parents include not only the narcotics theme but depictions of violence and sexuality as well as an adulterous relationship. While these matters aren’t dealt with graphically, one character’s lesbianism does require mature discernment by viewers well-grounded in church teaching on the subject.
The use of vulgar language is initially restrained, but sometimes becomes gratuitous as the show progresses. Similarly, scenes of gore are relatively subtle at the program’s onset but grow increasingly extreme. Overall, “The Haunting of Hill House” is appropriate only for adults.
The series hooks you immediately, and there are authentically startling moments viewers will appreciate. Additionally, the actors who portray the Hilliard children are believable and easily engender sympathy in the audience.
But “The Haunting of Hill House” gradually drifts off course. At a crucial moment at the funeral home, for instance, the filmmakers lather on percussive thunderclaps. Ancient recriminations among the relatives also resurface tediously and prosaically. Flanagan seems to forget, as the story unfolds, that his source material is a venerable spookfest, not a garden-variety family melodrama.
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Byrd is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.