Let’s just start by erasing from memory 1999’s spectacularly overwrought, CGI-heavy nonsense. It’s better that way. For the purposes of discussion, the only Hill House texts that exist are Shirley Jackson’s seminal 1959 novel, the 1963 film adaptation (in which the title, as in 1999, was shortened to The Haunting), and the 2018 Netflix Original reimagining.
Rarely has the term “reimagining” been more appropriate. Unlike the 1963 adaptation (and the-remake-that-must-not-be-named, both straightforward attempts to transfer the original text from the page to the screen), Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House takes as the novel as more of an inspiration of sorts, selecting isolated images, impressions and namesakes from Jackson’s work, plugging them into a familial melodrama about loss, mental breakdown and post-traumatic survival, and firmly setting its own course into pastures new. When this works, it really, really works. Mostly, I would argue, it works. I’m not alone in this, though the major criticisms are not exactly few, nor are they unreasonable.
For a start, there’s the problem of Steven. The eldest of five Crain siblings in this iteration (the youngest four of whom are named to reference the novel and Jackson herself), Steven’s voiceover is our introduction to the series when he quotes the novel’s famous opening lines—“Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within […] Silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone”—against the opening credits, and the first episode (“Steven Sees A Ghost”) is told from his perspective. A successful author of “true life” ghost stories who vehemently and unrepentantly does not believe in ghosts, no matter what he’s prepared to write for profit, we discover early into the episode that he has amassed a substantial fan-base around his most successful work of almost-fiction: “The Haunting of Hill House,” which, in this universe, is his cynical, click-baity take on what happened to his family in the summer of 1992, when his parents moved them all into the titular crumbling mansion to flip it for profit.
See the problem?
Jackson’s novel, famously described by Stephen King as “as nearly perfect a haunted-house tale as I have ever read,” ostensibly revolves around a paranormal researcher and his efforts to determine the truth behind the rumours that swirl around gloomy, forbidding Hill House. Built some eighty years previously by Hugh Crain (namechecked on screen in 2018 as the head of the Crain family and Steven Crain’s father), Hill House has been associated with a series of tragedies and mysterious deaths, and is now all but abandoned, save the daylight-only ministrations of its caretakers, the Dudleys. Intrigued, Dr Montague gathers a couple of willing participants to the house, both selected on the basis of their apparent affinity for extrasensory perception, and that goes every bit as well as might be expected. Shy, cloistered Eleanor Vance (check — the youngest member of the Crain family, after her marriage to Arthur Vance) has sacrificed her own desires to caring for her mother, while Theodora (again, check: the middle Crain child) is her polar opposite: a confident, flamboyant artist. They are joined by Luke Sanderson (check — renamed Luke Crain, he becomes Eleanor Crain’s twin brother), and the proverbial begins to hit the fan. So much, so utterly terrifying, and the 1963 film manages to capture (fairly) faithfully the novel’s most potent scares (this reviewer will testify to having watched it in its entirety from behind a cushion, my preferred method for viewing horror). But what it can’t capture, except obliquely, is the novel’s silent, screaming core. This is, in short, a novel about female desperation; about the demands of duty and the sacrifice of self. This is a novel about a woman desperate to escape the strictures of a life that’s in no way her own, desperate for connection, desperate to belong. This is a novel about Shirley Jackson and her own domestic misery: a woman’s novel about a specifically female catastrophe. But, hey: let’s hand it off to Steven.
Is it deliberate? One doubts it. Most likely, it’s the result of the Hollywood male-ificiation process, because, as we all know, only men engage with speculative fiction and women viewers, if they exist at all, are simply trying to impress their boyfriends. It would be a risky strategy indeed to let a female voice run the show: who could bare to even watch? The bitterness in those previous two sentences is genuine, by the way, but it’s not really directed at The Haunting of Hill House; not in any kind of focused vituperation. Because the series does not neglect the female stories; far from it, in fact. There are three Crain sisters: Eleanor, Theodora and their older sister Shirley (yep, check; one imagines her middle initial is J), and they all get an episode to themselves and a complex, well-realised narrative arc that sustains them and motivates their actions and dialogue throughout the series 10-episode run. These are not supporting scream-queens. And yet… of the seven Crains who moved into Hill House in the summer of 1992, one is dead before the series opens and another is dead by the end of episode one, and both of the dead are female. It would be too simplistic to call this a straightforward act of fridging, because both deaths are narratively significant in their own right, but the uncomfortable fact remains that both women die, in no small part, to allow the family to have a plot-driving emotional reaction. It’s not exactly fridging… but it also kind of is.
The men of the family, however, are scarcely heroic leads. There are few enough heroes in this family that has been so completely laid waste by their weeks in Hill House. Luke is a heroin addict who has abused his last chances with every last one of his surviving family members. Hugh has been absent since the death of his wife (Olivia) in the house, and sent the children off to live with their Aunt Janet while he allows himself to be haunted by Olivia’s presence at his shoulder (a “coping mechanism” according to his therapist). And Steven…. Well, Steven’s just a bit of a jerk. He writes “true” stories he knows to be false, elaborate webs of half-truth and embellishment for profit. He knew his siblings were unhappy with his decision to write “The Haunting of Hill House” and he wrote it anyway. He’s closed-minded and dismissive, denying the experiences of his family members and insisting on his own personal worldview to the point that it actively endangers the family. And the Episode-8 revelation about what caused his marriage to end is so utterly repellant, so indicative of his self-obsession to the point of severe emotional cruelty, that it had this reviewer hoping that the season finale would swallow him whole. Somebody was likely to die, I reasoned. Please, oh please, let it be Steven.
Does it matter? Yes… and no. None of these characters is ever completely sympathetic, with the possible exception of tragic Nell, tormented from the very first night in the house by the horrifying ghost of a woman whose neck hangs at an unnatural angle. Her point-of-view episode — Episode 5, “The Bent-Neck Lady” — is both genuinely terrifying and genuinely deeply, deeply sad, both of which are testament to the skill of the writing and the skill of the actress. Her character also has the best jump-scares of the series, including one that I was not expecting, could not prepare for (by hiding behind my cushion), and which took quite some time to recover from. Like her literary namesake, Nell’s desperation for connection, to be heard — to be seen — leads to both horror and tragedy; her decision to take charge of her life, to fight back against the demons that have pursued her since the first moment she stepped foot in Hill House, is also her undoing, and, even only five episodes in, it feels earned. The narrative has done the work required to bring her full circle; her decision makes sense, even as we’re yelling at the screen. And yet, it can’t help but feel slightly cheap: the madness of Hill House is a specifically female madness. It’s Olivia Crain. It’s her daughter Nell. It’s crazy former-resident Poppy Hill. It works its way into the cracks of an ostensibly happy family and it breaks them all into pieces, but the only characters who stay broken are female. Jackson’s novel may have followed similar themes, but it was unpacking them, picking them apart to lay bare and critique, and the ambiguity of the novel’s finale is perhaps its most powerful commentary.
Which brings us to that final episode.
To discuss it in full without spoilers would be impossible. Suffice it to say that it’s unquestionably the series’ weakest link, resorting to stock horror cliches and CGI to an extent that it is, ultimately, robbed of its emotional impact. Worse, rather than tying up the myriad fascinating loose ends that the narrative has spun out of its rich cloth, it offers up a dubious kind of resolution that makes a liar out of what has gone before. The coda to Olivia’s arc is confusing at best; Steven’s is borderline offensive. Luke’s makes no logical (or medical) sense. Nell’s writes out everything that made her a compelling, believable character. Shirley’s character reveal comes far too late to impact on what came before, and Theo’s closing decision is all about shallow visuals and contradicts a key element of her character. Hugh’s is the only vaguely satisfying conclusion, and even then, nothing about it feels earned. It’s a bizarre ending to a series that, at its best, functions fully on multiple levels, satisfying the requirements of character, narrative, horror and melodrama, and feels, in many ways, as though it belongs to a different show. Apparently, according to a showrunner [spoiler alert: don’t go looking for this unless you’ve watched the series to its conclusion] one final image on the closing tableau would have completely rewritten the meaning of everything in the final montage, but it was left out because it was felt that it would be “too cruel”. In horror. Let that sink in for a while, and then ignore Episode 10 and go back and re-watch Episode 6 (“Two Storms”) and connect again with the fact that when this show gets it right, it gets it really, really right. In keeping with Hugh Crain’s desperate and misguided post-Hill-House actions, sometimes it really is better to remember something the way it ought to be, rather than the way it ended up.
5 February 2019