I’ve been following director Mike Flanagan’s career ever since his debut, ABSENTIA, was quietly released to video following a successful film festival run. I’d been so eager to see it that I’d messaged him on Facebook to inquire where I could find it and he’d politely responded. Now look at him: in less than eight years, he’s matriculated from a kind fellow answering Facebook inquiries to landing the gig of making a sorta-sequel to one of the greatest horror films of all time, THE SHINING. (He is also still politely answering questions, this time on Twitter.) As we gear up for the release of his next film, DOCTOR SLEEP, which sees the return of Danny Torrance (this time played by Ewan MacGregor), Paramount has done the unthinkable: released a physical media version of a Netflix production–the wildly successful miniseries, THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE.
Following the release of ABSENTIA, Flanagan has remained loyal to the horror genre, writing and directing the haunted-mirror flick OCULUS, the criminally underseen sequel OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL, the similarly criminally underseen horror fairy tale BEFORE I WAKE, and Netflix originals HUSH and the Stephen King adaptation GERALD’S GAME. Flanagan has yet to make a horror film that’s not been at the very least engaging, with nearly all of them being frightening in some manner, and in different ways. (OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL is legitimately spooky, and if you’ve been ignoring it because the first OUIJA is so terrible, please rectify that immediately.)
Though Flanagan is still early on in his career, I’m tempted to call THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE his masterpiece. While it heavily revises the source 1959 novel of the same name by Shirley Jackson (previously and abysmally adapted for the screen with 1998’s THE HAUNTING), all the characters from the novel appear in the new take, though rewritten to be members of the same family. Instead of a group of volunteers gathering in the infamous Hill house to take part in a study on the paranormal, those volunteers are now siblings growing up under the guidance of their romantic, dreamy parents (Henry Thomas and Carla Gugino), who have somehow taken the concept of flipping houses and turned it into an admirable, artistic act. Hill House is just their latest endeavor, and a huge financial risk, but if all goes well with the restoration, it will be the last house they ever flip, and they can finally build their own “forever home” to live out the rest of their days. Soon, the ghosts of the house begin to victimize them all, especially setting their sights on the emotionally unwell Olivia (Gugino), pushing her to a mental breaking point and permanently altering the family dynamic.
Spread out over ten, approximately one-hour episodes (several of those appearing as extended director’s cuts exclusively in this release), THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE is a magnificent piece of filmmaking — one intent on positioning horror and human emotion side by side, in the same way the Crain family lives side by side with the varied ghosts of Hill house. The series is honest about many human issues, many of them taboo, and many of them topics trapped in the constant debate of everyday news cycles — chief among them, depression and mental illness. In many ways, THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE is a brutal gut punch because of this, and one of the lead characters, Steven Crain (Michiel Huisman, GAME OF THRONES), lays out in one of the opening scenes what a ghost actually is: “A memory, a daydream, a secret. Grief, anger, guilt. But, in my experience, most times they’re just what we want to see. Most times, a ghost is a wish.” Along with the typical, spooky-faced specters, all of those things — grief, anger, guilt — appear throughout the miniseries, and they all haunt our characters in different, meaningful ways. (Each of the characters, allegedly, also represent the different stages of the grieving process.) Though Flanagan has drastically changed Jackson’s story structure, he remains firmly true to the intent of her novel. The haunted house exists in the background, but the story itself is about Nell (Victoria Pedretti), her unhappiness, her inability to fit in, and that being surrounded by people who don’t understand her, and who dismiss her struggles and feelings of isolation, leads to her ruin. Obviously, this is the crux of the show, so it’s no surprise that the siblings’ relationships to each other serve as the emotional center; the back-and-forth timeline technique juxtaposes their children and adult counterparts, and the prologue scenes begin to break your heart once you know how badly things will go for the Crain family.
In many ways, THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE is a Rorschach test. If you’re in it solely for the horror, you won’t be disappointed; there are numerous moments that will chill you to the bone, and you’ll have fun trying to spot all the background ghosts hidden throughout the show (there are a lot). Meanwhile, if you’re more interested in the drama, you’ll get that too, and if you truly invest in the characters and manage to relate to any one of them, you’ll find yourself in tears. And if you want both, I can’t think of a single piece of genre filmmaking in recent memory that’s gone anywhere as close to offering and achieving those two things. You will bring out of it exactly what you want to put into it—like the mysterious Red Room itself.
Paramount’s presentation of THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE is stellar in the PQ and AQ departments. The original Netflix “broadcast” maintained a soft sepia hue throughout its run, and that’s been mostly preserved here, though, to my eye, it looks just slightly cooler, allowing for a bit of blue. The audio presentation is great as well, really falling back on eerie, ethereal ambient tone during scenes set in the title house, and the musical score by composers the Newton Brothers is surprisingly melancholic — a far cry for their usual electro-tinged droning compositions. Most importantly, dialogue is clear, well rendered, and marries well into the rest of the audio presentation.
Flanagan provides four audio commentaries, three of those for the episodes that have also received extended director’s cuts. His commentaries are generally insightful and modest, and this is no exception. As you might expect, the most enthralling commentary comes with “Two Storms,” the incredibly shot episode that features only five cuts in its 58-minute running time, as he discusses how the hell he pulled off shooting an eighteen-page scene without a single break in the filming. There is no other supplemental material to be found — no interviews, trailers, etc. — and that’s a shame, but I’m absolutely not going to audit a gift horse, because, like most Netflix productions, this could have easily never seen the light of day on home video.
It’s a bold claim, but for my money, THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE is the best thing Netflix has ever done (I’ll certainly say that “Two Storms” is one of the greatest episodes of any television show — ever), and it’s touched many of its viewers in different ways. (DG’s own Samantha Schorsch wrote a beautiful and deeply personal piece about it, which you need to check out ASAP.) For as long as I’ve delved into films and television as a means for exploring artistic expression, I’ve been hearing people say, “Such and such changed my life,” and for years I wrote that off as a clichéd, bullshit expression that didn’t mean anything — a haughtier but equally vague way of saying something was “amazing.” Following my now multiple viewings of THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE, I finally understand what those people were saying. Its many themes about life, its ruminations on death, and the way it presents real struggles of people both ordinary and extraordinary have resonated with me in a profound way, and I can honestly say THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE has changed my life. Flanagan is currently hard at work on a spiritual follow-up, THE HAUNTING OF BLY MANOR, based on the novella The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. Another tale of a children growing up in a haunted house, it premieres October of 2020. Between that and HALLOWEEN KILLS, this next year is going to be the most agonizing wait of my life.
THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE is now available on Blu-ray from Paramount Home Entertainment. Even though we’re all slaves to Netflix and have access to it whenever we wish, I would implore you to buy this release. Encourage Netflix to consider further physical releases of their properties — something I wish would become commonplace, as far too many Netflix originals are languishing behind the streaming service’s paywall — but more importantly, buy this release to encourage smart, honest, and emotional horror. We could use more of it.
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Tags: Blu-ray, Carla Gugino, Elizabeth Reaser, Henry James, Henry Thomas, Horror, Kate Siegel, Michiel Huisman, Mike Flanagan, Netflix, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Paramount Home Entertainment, Paramount Pictures, Shirley Jackson, Stephen King, The Newton Brothers, Timothy Hutton, TV, Victoria Pedretti