Harrowing and beautiful

Harrowing and beautiful October 24, 2018
The Haunting of Hill House
Steve Dietl/Netflix – used for promotional purposes only

Fear is the relinquishment of logic, the willing relinquishing of reasonable patterns. We yield to it or we fight it, but we cannot meet it halfway. –The Haunting of Hill House

I have now watched director Mike Flanagan’s The Haunting of Hill House all the way through twice. I may watch it a third time. The attraction is hard to describe. It’s good horror. It’s a good story. It’s a good horror story. It has that mysterious spark of magic that all the best stories—whether written or filmed—have. In that last quality it matches that other great Netflix supernatural series, Stranger Things.

Dark, moody, full of dread from start to finish, The Haunting of Hill House, through ten one-hour episodes, starts quiet and builds to a grand crescendo. It gets under your skin and into your psyche. Based loosely on Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel, it tells the story of the Crain family—Hugh and Olivia and their five children. In the early 1990s, they move into Hill House for the summer, the plan being for Hugh to rehab it and sell it, and finally have enough money to build their forever house.

It doesn’t quite go that way. Hill House may be full of ghosts, but it does not so much haunt the Crain family as start to devour them. Things finally come to a head one night and Hugh escapes in the station wagon with the children, though Olivia is left behind. The wounds gashed into the minds and souls of the children remain with them as they age—and leave Hugh broken and withdrawn.

Mr. Flanagan is no stranger to this territory. One of his earlier movies, Oculus (2013), also is about childhood trauma that lingers into adulthood. He also directed last year’s Netflix adaption of Stephen King’s Gerald’s Game, which I thought was un-filmable, but which Mr. Flanagan pulls off masterfully.

I have not read Ms. Jackson’s novel (I’m buying it this weekend), but Mr. Flanagan manages to weave together the stories of the Crain children while also moving back and forth between that single lost summer at Hill House and the present day. None of them is doing very well.

The youngest, Luke, is a junkie. He’s been in and out of treatment for years and hits up his brother and sisters for money. His twin sister Nell has severe emotional problems. Two more sisters, Shirley and Theodora, live as neighbors but barely tolerate one another. All of them resent the oldest, Steven, because he exploited their childhood experiences in a best-selling book that made him a rich man. Their father, Hugh, lives as a recluse down in Florida.

Then there’s a death in the family and they all have to endure each other’s company.

The reunion at a family member’s funeral is de rigueur in stories like this. But while the convention is for the surviving family members to forgive old wrongs, renew friendships, regroup, and make plans for the Big Final Battle With Evil, The Haunting avoids that cliché: Mr. Flanagan does not heal. He re-opens old wounds.

And so, instead of unity there is finger-pointing and blame. Alcohol-fueled shouting. Possible marital infidelity is thrown in for good measure. And all the time, Hill House—unwanted and unasked for—coils itself around the warring family.

It works. This episode, the sixth, is terrifying. And in case there isn’t enough tension yet, Mr. Flanagan films the episode in just five long takes, the longest of which is seventeen nerve-wracking minutes. And there are still four episodes to go.

The ending of The Haunting of Hill House has generated a lot of argument. Some don’t like it. I found it harrowing—and ultimately very beautiful. Some say the conclusion betrays the ten hours of dread and despair that leads up to it. I disagree. It is hard to explain why without giving anything away, but I reject the notion that a story of overwhelming dread must have a dreadful ending. A eucatastrophe is as valid as a catastrophe, if done well—and may have more meaning.

Just as the horror of Frodo’s succumbing to the Ring and claiming it for his own gave way to the Ring’s destruction and the downfall of Sauron; just as the agony of the Via Dolorosa and the Crucifixion gave way to the Resurrection—so the lies and horrors of Hill House lead to…Well, you’ll just have to watch it.

“Love is the relinquishment of logic,” Steven Crain says, rejecting the sentiment of the above quote, “the willing relinquishing of reasonable patterns. We yield to it or we fight it, but we cannot meet it halfway.”

When you watch The Haunting of Hill House, remember, sacrificial love does not betray.

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