I wrote this two weeks ago, when it would have been timely, then kept bumping it. So… hopefully this still works for some of you.
In 1959, Shirley Jackson wrote what is still considered to be one of the best horror stories of all time, famous for the relatively little amount of actual horror in it. “Horror” is usually defined as involving an actual scare or the feeling of revulsion and fear that comes after experiencing it, like what happens after you see Cthulhu or a Naked Steve Bannon. Instead, most of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House was heavily reliant on feelings of dread and the emotional instability of the characters.
In 1963, this film was adapted into The Haunting by famed director Robert Wise (West Side Story, The Sound of Music, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Editor of Citizen Kane, etc.). The title changed to differentiate it from House on Haunted Hill. It was a solid terror film which managed to spend most of the movie making the characters, and the audience, uncertain if anything happening was supernatural or if it was all in the mind of the main character. It’s still regarded as a high point of cinema and is great upon rewatching. It’s not everyone’s favorite, mostly because it DOES rely heavily on dread rather than actual scares, but I personally love it.
In 1999, Jan de Bont, fresh off of Speed 2, remade the movie and it was so bad that Catherine Zeta-Jones wearing nearly nothing couldn’t help it. Granted, I was 12 when it came out, so I didn’t have that opinion at the time, but I have seen it since and, wow, it really was not well thought-out. Roger Ebert thought the production design was good, which… okay, I guess is true, but that’s not what I look for in a movie. However, it did work as a great basis for parody in Scary Movie 2.
Well, this year Netflix decided to adapt it into a 10 episode TV series, the first one to be titled The Haunting of Hill House. While it had to change almost everything from all of the previous incarnations in order to fill the time, it captures the spirit of the book very well, despite being its own animal.
SUMMARY (Spoiler free)
Twenty-six years ago, the Crain family moved into Hill House. During their relatively short stay there, a large number of incidents involving the supernatural occurred, scaring and scarring every member of the family, before they were forced to flee after a particularly horrible event. Now, all of the family members are massively dysfunctional from the event and rarely communicate. However, after another family tragedy, they are all forced to confront the fact that none of them have ever fully left the house, resulting in them returning to resolve things.
If you’re a fan of horror, you need to watch this show. It’s one of the best collections of horror images you can get in 10 episodes. The designs of the ghosts are fantastic, but one of the best parts is that they’re so well hidden that you can miss them throughout entire scenes until the end, but they’ve been there the entire time.
The show is structured non-chronologically with many episodes containing events from both the past and present timelines running together, but this later becomes important to the story because some of the events don’t happen exactly chronologically either in the traditional sense. It ties the traumas of the past more directly with the issues that the Crains have in the present.
What’s really impressive about this show is that it doesn’t have any resemblance to the book whatsoever. The book and the original movie both contain a lot of hints that much of what’s going on is just in the head of the characters and that they’re letting their fears get the better of them. This show demonstrates ghosts about 10 minutes in and shows over a dozen of them. In that sense, it’s almost closer to *shudder* the 1999 reboot, but fortunately, it does everything right which that movie did wrong, while also doing more than the original film.
Earlier I brought up how the book mostly focused on terror and dread over horror and revulsion. This show actually manages to do both at the same time, because we’re following two different timelines. We see the horror of the characters reacting to the past events and in flashbacks we see the terror building up to these events, but we also get the horror coming from present events that scare the characters, while also building up the terror of the inevitable return to the house that both the audience and the characters know is coming.
The family dynamics also really sell the show. All of the characters are dysfunctional and resentful towards each other, but each one also has some other defining element, whether it be a connection to ghosts, psychic abilities, or just being high as hell all the time. Each of these distinctions adds to the level of resentment and conflict between the characters, because they literally have something that the other parties can’t understand.
Overall, I can’t talk too much about the show without spoiling it, which has made this difficult, but it’s really a solid show. If you like horror, you’ll like this. If you don’t… you’ll probably hate it for making you spill your lukewarm broth that you have for every meal.
If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.
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