I know that I’m gonna get side eyes for writing this. I know that. But I have to be honest and honestly, The Haunting of Hill House (2018) was overhyped and extremely lacking. Lacking a satisfying ending, lacking a rich backstory for the house. Just—lacking.
I’m not saying this to entirely shit on the series. I liked it enough. It held my interest for the most part. I think the series had places where it shined. Let’s talk about those first.
Things That Worked: Family Element/Heart
One of the main criticisms of horror as a genre is that it lacks depth. It’s a shallow thrill for adrenaline junkies and people who like to see the macabre onscreen. I think that this criticism comes from people who don’t really watch or study horror movies or at least don’t familiarize themselves with the wide range of subgenres available in horror. This year has been deemed by some to be a Reawakening of “Good Horror” with films like A Quiet Place and Hereditary giving audiences a healthy balance of what Blake Snyder calls “Hook plus Heart” in his guide to screenwriting.
The idea behind hook plus heart is that a successful movie needs a good hook (what draws audiences in or the eye candy part of the story) and a good heart (what audiences can relate to or the emotional center of the movie). Ever see an action movie with a ridiculous and unnecessary romance subplot thrown into it for no reason? That was the writer trying to shoehorn in a heart. See, hooks are usually the easy part.
Hooks are the whole reason you write a movie. It’s the WOW factor. In Transformers, the hook is obviously the fact that our ordinary cars are really Autobots in disguise. They’re robots sent here to protect earth from the evil Decepticons. Great hook. What makes the first movie a success is that it blends this with the story of a boy and his friend. I think that people mistake the emotional center of that movie to be the romance between Shia LaBeouf and Megan Foxx but I would argue that it’s really the bond that develops between Shia LaBeouf and Bumblebee, but that’s another post for another blog.
A Strong Heart
What The Haunting of Hill House does exceptionally well is the Heart element that so many screenwriters struggle with, or ignore altogether when writing a movie. The heart element here is the family, specifically Nell and Luke. The episode titled, “The Broke Neck Lady” is the one that tells the tragic story of the youngest Crain sister and is lauded as one of if not the best episode of the series and it’s not just because of the shocking reveal at the end of it.
Part of the episode’s success is due to the fact that you feel for Nell the entire time. You hurt for her and with her. You hate Steve for exploiting her. And when Nell falls in love, you fall in love right along with her. In that heartbreaking scene with Luke in the car before she drops him off to rehab, you see how naïve she is. She almost looks like a little girl again. I almost cried. Then, when it’s revealed that Nell is the Broke Neck Lady, that she’s the one who’s been terrifying herself for decades…it’s a punch in the gut.
It’s the same with Luke. We see Luke go from probably the cutest kid on earth to a man who manipulates his twin sister into buying heroin for him on his way to rehab. The audience watches him form a bond with a fellow addict and get burned by that bond. We see him resist temptation all while being stalked by ghostly figures. It’s beautiful and tragic.
A Family Drama Disguised as Horror
And that’s not even all the heart we get. It’s a story of children who miss their mother. A story of a husband who misses his wife. It’s a story of love and loss and anger and guilt all those great things. But one thing the Netflix special is not, is a horror movie. At least…not quite.
The Haunting of Hill House looks like a horror movie from the outside. It has ghosts, a haunted house, and takes its name and a few plot points from Shirley Jackson’s novel of the same name, but it doesn’t quite do the genre justice. Here’s why: The hook is off.
The hook of the story isn’t missing entirely. It was probably made you click the title in the first place, the name, the creepy atmosphere, the gossip about the hidden ghosts. The makings of a great hook were all there, but it was just handled poorly.
Show Don’t Tell
Let’s start with The House itself. I think it’s safe to say that a big part of a good haunted house is finding out the history of it. Even if you never find out why the events are taking place, it’s always fun to see some kind of origin story, some of the more gruesome tidbits or so. Notice I said see not learn.
We learn a lot about Hill House. Dudley tells us that the heir of the house met and married a girl he met in an insane asylum. He tells us she killed her kids. We learn about Mrs. Dudley’s miscarriage due to the House. We learn about Mr. Dudley’s mother losing her mind because of the House. We learn this all…in summary. This all boils down to that first lesson you learn in creative writing: show don’t tell. We are told way too much throughout the series when we should have been shown.
When I think about my favorite haunting stories, I think about images or scenes. I think about the blood gushing out of the elevator at the Overlook Hotel. I think about Ellen Rimbauer and Sukeena throwing Mr. Rimbauer out of the window at Rose Red. I think about Nicole Kidman discovering her servant’s death photographs in The Others.
The best haunted house moments come from being shown something, not told about it. It’s not that The Haunting Of Hill House doesn’t have its moments. The scene with young Luke under the bed, little Nell with the broke neck lady hovering above her, Luke in the basement, all of these are good scary moments, the problem is that there aren’t enough of them and the ones that are present, don’t go far enough. The scene with Luke under the bed cuts off. We never see what he sees.
Art Over Horror
Instead of giving us real and tactile frights, The Haunting of Hill House focused on hiding the horror and artistic editing. I know that it’s a cool idea to have secret ghosts all over a series, but my first thought when I read that they did that was “Why? Why not show us what we’re here for? Why hide the horror element?” It feels like he was doing this for the niche of it. To be artistic. To elevate the horror genre into something else.
And that brings me to my main point of this post. I don’t think that it was Mike Flannigan’s goal to create a horror movie in the traditional sense of the word. He created a family drama set against the backdrop of a haunted house. If you removed the Haunted House element but still had the mother go crazy and die, a lot of the story could have been kept the same. There could still be tension within the family, there would still be reasons for Luke to become an addict, and for Theo to be closed off. Shirley could still become a mother figure and Steve could still be a douche. I have more to say about Steve but I’ll save that for later.
Three Out of Seven?
I mentioned A Quiet Place and Hereditary earlier because I thought they were good examples of keeping the hook and heart balanced. In AQP the monsters are incredibly scary, the emotional element is real and present, and the sacrifices are huge. The same goes for Hereditary. You can’t say that for The Haunting of Hill House.
One of my main problems with the series was the ending. It didn’t feel (and I hate to say it) but it didn’t feel like the family suffered enough. I’m going to be extremely blunt here, especially because a total of ten people read my blog (if I’m lucky) but if there are five main characters and only one dies, you’re doing it wrong. One meaningful death?
Sure, if you count the mother and father, then the death toll rises to what, three out of seven? Still not enough. Especially when we already knew the mother was dead since the beginning and because the father willingly traded his life and didn’t really have an emotional connection with the surviving kids anyway. People wept when John Krasinski sacrificed himself at the end of AQP because we knew how much he meant to his children. The Crain kids are grown and don’t really give a shit about their dad. Half-assed sacrifice.
A Little ‘What If’
With that in mind, let me propose a different ending. Say, Nell didn’t save Luke. He drinks the cyanide tea and is framed for an overdose of heroin. And Shirley gets gruesomely murdered by the apparition of her one-night stand. Theo is guided into that deep pool of nothingness she feared and literally drowned in it. The father tries desperately to save them all but falls to his death from the same banister his wife fell from. Steven bears witness to it all and finally is able to see the ghosts but it is too late to save his loved ones. Steve escapes but is forever changed. He is filled with guilt for denying his siblings. That is the only way I would have been okay with Steven living, but it is also an ending that feels earned and befitting this genre.
But what did we get? Nell saves everyone, even though she is the new ghost on the block and there is one of her and hundreds of those other ghosts, and the dad sacrifices himself for his kids and gets to be with his wife and the only child that could tolerate him for eternity. Weak!
And that red room reveal? WEAK AF!
White Men Gonna White Men
So, this brings me to another aspect that a friend pointed out to me. The Haunting of Hill House series is based off a Shirley Jackson novel and while it pays homage to her by naming a character after her, they gave the words of one of the most influential female horror writers to … a man? Steve is the writer of the crew. He is the one narrating the story. Steve is the one doing the retelling of Jackson’s masterpiece. Why? Why not just have made that character a woman? Especially because horror is a genre that is painfully rife with men. You gave the words of one of the few well-known women authors in the canon to a dude? Ok man. Whatever.
What Is All the Hype?
Once again, I don’t hate The Haunting of Hill House. I just don’t understand how anyone was frightened by that show, let alone lauding it as one of the scariest things out. Is it because the reality of family pain is so real for us? I get that, but that doesn’t equal a good horror movie. Is it because of all the nifty stuff he does with camera angles and hidden ghosts? Artistic, yes. Horror? No. Is it because of the Nell episode? Now that episode was incredible, as were the Luke and Theo episodes, but those were three episodes out of ten and that’s worse than three out of seven.
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