Shirley Jackson defined the haunted house genre with her novel back in 1953, and Robert Wise delivered one of the greatest horror films ever made with his 1963 screen adaptation. But if anyone was going to make a worthwhile update (we’ll forget the risible Jan De Bont remake), it was Oculus writer-director Mike Flanagan. While the set-up for his new spin may be a little jarring to Jackson devotees, it’s not only a skilful and intelligent way to tell the story, it’s faithful to the book and entirely in keeping with his own interests.
The Crane children are haunted by the tragic events that occurred while they lived at Hill House, as their father Hugh (Henry Thomas) worked on restoring it while their mother Olivia (Carla Gugino) lost her mind. The five siblings have all struggled in their own ways to move on, but when the fragile Nell (Victoria Pedretti) finds herself at the centre of another calamity, the ghosts of their past come crawling out of the shadows to pull them back home…
Stories that blend family drama and the supernatural are Flanagan’s speciality, and by turning the source material into a Six Feet Under-style tale of shattered sibling relationships he’s playing to his strengths. Superficially at least, their individual happiness and success depends on how close they were to the supernatural events that they witnessed as children, with oldest brother Steven (Michiel Huisman) turning their tragedy into a bestselling book and youngest brother Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) struggling with drug addiction, but each is very much broken in their own way.
The ensemble cast is superb, and while it seems cruel to pick out favourites, Elizabeth Reaser delivers another fantastic performance as brittle oldest sister Shirley, Kate Siegel gives Theo a learned toughness, Gugino shines as the lost mother, and Thomas and Timothy Hutton are wonderfully matched as the younger and older Hugh, once bright and optimistic and now a shell of a man struggling to communicate what really happened to children who don’t believe anything he has to say. It’s also worth noting that each of the five child actors playing the young Cranes are brilliant and the casting department deserve extremely high praise for matching them with their adult counterparts.
And while all this family business is completely new, the script finds a way to keep close to Jackson’s story even as it drastically deviates. There are references galore, but there are also the themes of repressed trauma, unreliable narrators and a desperate desire to belong. It also recreates several of the book’s most terrifying sequences and offers several chilling new ones of its own.
Inevitably, the biggest flaw is the length and it feels a little padded at 10 episodes. However, there’s such a love and care for these characters even as Flanagan puts them through the wringer. The episode focusing on Nell is absolutely heartbreaking, and Carla Gugino is fantastic as we see how Olivia gradually lost her grip on reality in the second half. So sure, it could have lost an episode, but you won’t resent the extra time spent with it.
The Haunting Of Hill House is not only a worthwhile update but one of the best horror TV series we’ve seen in years. Turn off the lights and settle in for an emotionally intense and genuinely frightening experience.