The Legend of the Haunting of Hill House on Haunted Hill

Binge-watch! Fiona got a migraine devouring six (or was it seven?) episodes of the new Haunting of Hill House series on Netflix. But it was very more-ish.

It reminds me of when we got into True Crime, which also featured an epic long take and built up accretions of horror and misery before attempting, less convincingly, to end in sweetness and light.

Good jump-scares. Arguably too many of them. But impressive the way the thing keeps the creepy scenes coming, even if a lot of them are dreams. They managed to make me not resent that too much, perhaps because the narrative structure is so ingenious. We have two timelines unfolding, but not altogether chronologically, and from various points of view so that some scenes get replayed in new contexts, with extra background. Add to this the facts that the entire cast of the earlier timeline, except someone who dies then, get replaced by adult/older surrogates, and that the central family have five damn kids, and it should be confusing (every woman on this show seems to have long brunette hair; every man talks in a throaty, husky voice) but it very rarely is.

Not only is the show out of sequence, so are the characters’ lives, with ghostliness used for a kind of time travel. Too complicated to explain but impressive to see play out in gruesome/tragic ah-hah moments of revelation.

And match-cuts! Many many match-cuts, which suggest the whole project has been PLANNED, which is a nice feeling to get.

I will say the thing began unpromisingly, with the amazing opening passages of Shirley Jackson’s book crudely doctored for length and… for no reason, sometimes. With a real brute insensitivity, as of someone who has no idea the clumsy violence he’s doing. Mind you, even the excellent 1960 film is guilty of a bit of that.

The series includes many nods to the book and film, and a couple to Richard Matheson’s rather close homage, The Legend of Hell House, book and film. But it’s a whole different animal. The movie remake Spielberg produced, apart from being lame and stupid, suffered horribly by comparison with the original because every point of comparison was proof of inferiority. The new series benefits from striking out on its own, so I didn’t like the way it appropriated character names and a few characteristics (a lesbian called Theo, an anxious Nell) from its esteemed forbear. But it’s always nice to see Russ Tamblyn.

Not Russ Tamblyn! A much, much taller man.

One thing still bothers us, like Columbo. Were the parents meant to be so incompetent? It arguably makes sense. This show is about a traumatised family, and families often get that way in part due to parental mistakes. But these people make unending screw-ups  with their kids, and while we hear a lot of complaints from the offspring when they grow up, it’s not entirely clear showrunner Mike Flanagan is aware how bumbling his character are. And how did Timothy Hutton get to be so wise in the final episode when he was such an idiot when he was Henry Thomas? Years bring wisdom, I guess. Apparently I’m still in my Henry Thomas phase.

Featuring Elliot, the Silk Spectre, George Stark, Daario Naharis and Tom Thumb.

5 Responses to “The Legend of the Haunting of Hill House on Haunted Hill”

  1. Right you are about the feeble reading of the Jackson opening (which is arguably even worse in Johnson’s inexplicably almost jovial reading in the ’61 flick). What is really called for is something like Joanne Woodward’s confidential, insinuating voice-overs for Scorsese’s AGE OF INNOCENCE. but the barbaric reworking of the paragraph in the final seconds made me want to kick the teevee in like nothing I’ve ever seen outside the malodorous confines of Fox News. Perhaps Flanagan was not incorporating notes from Spielberg on a particularly over caffeinated morning, but he certainly seems to have a genuine feel for the kind of notes Spielberg would give when pulling a happy ending for “The Haunting of Hill House” out of his ass. A crying shame too, because here and there, particularly in the scary and touching fifth hour, the series showed considerable promise.

  2. And it’s high time for Eliot to retire to Dagobah or wherever the hell it is his rubber friend hails from. The guy has been working for forty years, and seems to have added precisely nothing to his skill set.

  3. You do notice an improvement when he turns into Timothy Hutton…

    Spielberg is a fan of the first film, but apparently doesn’t understand what makes it good, because he said of his first remake, “It’s a great opportunity for CGI.” No. It. Isn’t.

    The Wise movie turned Jackson’s prose into a speech from Richard Johnson, so I guess he had to read it in character. Giving us a sense of how out of his depth he is, I suppose.

    But then at the end Julie Harris has to say, “those of us who walk here, walk alone,” which doesn’t make sense. “How can I be alone if you’re with me?” as John L. Sullivan would say.

  4. Indeed. My enthusiasm for the Wise film is measured, but it’s certainly impeccable compared to the Spielberg assays (pun, if there is one, intended). I don’t understand Hollywood’s general insistence on remaining tone deaf to great prose.

  5. I can imagine that anyone captured by Hill House might have to exist, if that’s the word, on his or her own individual plane, so even if the house was bursting with ghosts, they may have no interaction with one another, and might even haunt each other. That doesn’t mitigate the wreckage of Jackson’s writing, however (though she was on record as being very happy with the Wise film.

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