Oh, Great, More Ghosts

The Haunting of Hill House

I'm a big fan of horror films. I know a lot of people don't like them, either because the stories are sadistic towards the characters (which, without a doubt, they are) or because they're sadistic towards the viewers (such as the ever hated "jump scare"). I won't deny either of these points, but I don't think they're flaws in the genre -- they're strengths. Horror acts as a kind of parable, a story to teach the viewers an important lesson, be it "don't wander the neighborhood alone on Halloween night," or "don't get drunk and wander the woods alone," or, of course, "don't be a babysitter." In the end, most horror movies treat those without sin as the pure characters that get to live, but since none of us are without sin (as per horror movies), there's that fear that any of us, if trapped in a similar situation, would die just like the characters on the screen.

It's fun, that visceral, gnawing fear that you get when you watch these productions. Admittedly, for me, there aren't a lot of things that really scare me in horror films anymore. A well constructed jump scare will still get me to bounce in my seat, to be sure, but it doesn't stick with me past the end credits. About the only things that really stay with me, that can give me long-term scares, are zombie films. Of course, that's exactly why I watch zombie films: because they scare me. That's the fun of horror.

And yet, despite enjoying films about the walking undead, I've never managed to get into a different kind of horror sub-genre: haunted houses. While I love zombie movies, ghost films have never, ever worked for me. I think a lot of it comes down to subject matter, namely that some place, or person, or thing, has such a bad energy about it that they then become possessed by the angry energy of the undead spirit. Inevitably we then get the same kinds of creeps and scares from this material -- knocking and pounding on the walls, things getting movies, creepy crawlies hiding just out of sight to move behind the characters when they aren't looking. And then, normally, it comes to a head when someone finds some way or another to exorcise or otherwise dispossess the spirit. There's a hard, set-in-stone formula that these films all follow and once you've seen one (or a few dozen, like I have), you quickly get tired of them.

Sure, okay, occasionally a good haunting film will come along that breaks the mold. I actually rather enjoyed Oculus, for example, but that was a film about a haunted mirror that had a really neat time-warp bent to it. It was also super creepy and went to some really dark places beyond the usual haunting trappings, and it really worked. Of course, then you get other movies like The Conjuring that do absolutely nothing new with the material and yet, for some reason, become super-popular blockbuster hits (that spawn endless sequels and spin-offs). So, maybe my tastes are the norm among horror fans.

Still, whenever a new production comes along that is lauded by critics, I feel the need to give it a watch. Maybe this will be the next Oculus, the next haunting movie that really does something fresh with the material. With that hope in hand I went into the new Netflix series, The Haunting of Hill House, and I will admit, right off the bat, I thought that this series was really pretty good. It's still a haunting production, it still plays with all the usual tropes of the genre, but for a while the series manages to find a new groove and try something a little different from the norm.

Hill House is set between two eras: the "current" time where we see older, grown-up versions of all the main characters, and the past set at the titular house, where we have the main kids and their mother and father of the Crain family. The characters are Steven (adult Michael Huisman, child Paxton Singleton), the eldest son of the family who grows up to be a writer of horror "non-fiction" and ghost skeptic; Shirley (adult Elizabeth Reaser, child Lulu Wilson), eldest daughter who becomes a mortician; Theodora (adult Kate Siegel, child McKenna Grace), middle daughter who also seems to have telepathic abilities (psychometry), and grows up to be a child psychologist; Luke (adult Oliver Jackson-Cohen, child Julian Hillard), youngest son, who grows up with an addiction to heroin, and is also fraternal twins with youngest daughter, Eleanor (adult Victoria Pedretti, child Violet McGraw).

These kids, and their parents Hugh (older Timothy Hutton, younger Henry Thomas) and Olivia (just Carla Gugino), spent eight weeks in Hill House, a property the parents had bought to repair and flip. However, during those eight weeks a number of strange occurrences began (all the usual haunted house trappings you'd expect), followed by strange behaviors from the mother. In the end, the father fled with the kids one night, the mother still at the creepy old house. Later, he found her dead in the house under mysterious circumstances. The mystery of the show, then, was what really happened in the house and how did Olivia die?

To figure that out, the show first focuses on each of the kids, devoting a single episode to each of their stories both in the past during the eight weeks in Hill House and then, years later, in the time leading up to, and just after, Eleanor goes back to Hill House and, apparently, commits suicide there. These first five episodes set and interesting tone for the show. Although the bouncing back and forth in time to show two sets of stories is a trick I've seen before (such as in Oculus), I did like how the show devoted so much time to these stories, really fleshing out the kids are fully realized characters (and not just fodder for the ghosts). The five episodes end with a pretty decent (although not unexpected) twist, and the momentum from those five episodes helps to drive the final five episodes of the season forward.

The problems with the series really come to the fore, though, in the back half. As an exploration of a family going through the trauma of losing a loved one, Hill House nails the material. As a scary season of television, though, the show falls apart in the back half. I think much of that is because of the twisty nature of the show. With the way the season is setup there's an expectation for answers from the twists and turns of the material, but the show gets so bogged down trying to explain everything it loses sight of the scares. This is a haunted house series, remember, so horror has to be part of it.

Once we get into that back half, though, the material starts to feel like a lot of other stories I've seen. As noted, the time-twisting nature of the series is reminiscent of Oculus, and that's a movie that was able to manage both good twists and good scares. The crazy, possessed mother angle has been done in a lot of films, including the fairly popular first Conjuring film, and while I didn't much like that movie, I felt it mined better creeps and scares out of that plot line. And then there's the ghosts. All the damn ghosts. The house, as we learn over time, is positively crawling with specters, ghouls, and ghasts -- all the people that have died in the house over the years. If you die there you become one with the house. It's like the property comes not only furnished but populated with squatters you can never get rid of. Of course, we've seen that before, too, over in the first season of American Horror Story.

There are so many other influences on the series, productions that have not only done this material before but, honestly, done it better. Certainly they stick the landing better. By the end of the season a lot of questions for the story are answered, but I certainly wasn't satisfied with most of them. Is the house evil, or is it just some of the ghosts? Who are all the people haunting the place and what are their stories? What does any of it have to do with the time-twisting angle? I don't know because the show never says anything about it. Maybe those answers will come in Season 2, except I don't really see how they can get a second season out of this story. Sure, the house is still there, but all the kids have had their plot lines resolved, one way or another, by the end of the season. Unless we do a season far in the future, or in the distant past, there's really no where for the show to go.

It's frustrating, really, because the first half of the season is so damn good. I wanted to really like this show, it had earned my respect for much of it's run. The ending just isn't there to make it a satisfying season of television. If a second season does come about, I'm going to be hard pressed to really care.