Tuesday, 23 June 2020

The Haunting Of Hill House

Eleanour Handbasket

The Haunting Of Hill House -
Extended Director’s Cut

10 episodes. 2018
Directed by Mike Flanagan
Paramount Blu Ray Zone B

Warning: This one has spoilers for pretty much all iterations of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting Of Hill House.

Well this is going to be a hard one to write about because, in some ways, it feels almost like a personal attack on one of my favourite movie adaptations, the great 1963 version of The Haunting (which I reviewed here), based on Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting Of Hill House. Easily the best horror movie ever made and I suspect that’s why horror director Mike Flanagan, who I actually find fairly hit and miss, was so drawn to it. Everybody loves this novel/movie and, if you can get it right, it’s one of the scariest things you could do.

Alas, I’ll be up front here and say the reason why I’m torn on this new TV series ‘adaptation’, for want of a better word, is that it happens to be a quite well made TV show while, at the same time, having almost nothing in common with the original text.

That’s not to say the original text doesn’t make it into this iteration. It’s peppered all over the place throughout the series, just in completely different context. Richard Johnson’s opening delivery of Shirley Jacksons words, for example, open the series but this time spoken by the character Steven Crain and it is he who speaks dead Eleanour’s (Nell’s) lines at the end of this version.

Other examples would be the repeat dialogue from caretaker Mrs. Dudley’s line reading... “In the night... in the dark.” At least it’s, most of the time, Mrs. Dudley’s character who is saying it throughout the series here but there are a lot of lines of dialogue which are taken out of the mouths of others and given to different characters with a completely different context to the words... kinda like a fanboy homage to the original. Which in some way, I can’t really blame the writers for.

And as for the “Oh God, who’s hand was I holding!” moment, which was so terrifying in the 1963 adaptation (even though it was used as a highlight of the trailer), it’s referenced here at least twice by different characters. It’s like they wanted to have two different ways of giving us the same kind of scare (which is truly terrifying in the novel and original film version) but failing in the scare department and indulging themselves twice.

Not to mention a load of name drop references to people and things associated with the legacy... such as the funeral home being called Harris, in reference to Julie Harris who played Eleanour/Nell in the original movie. Heck, they even bring back Russ Tamblyn, who played Luke in the original, as Nell’s psychiatrist. Not to mention Nell’s ‘paranormal’ hail stone attack back story incident actually being present in the narrative, albeit given to the mother figure here, Olivia.

So, okay... I’ll start off with listing all the really bad points before finding my way to the positives because, it is a gripping TV show, even if it has nothing to do with the original...

Rather than three strangers brought together by the parapsychologist in the original... Nell, Theo and Luke are all siblings, along with their other brother and sister Steven and Shirley (obviously named after writer Shirley Jackson). They, along with their mother and father, played here by Carla Gugino of Sin City and Henry Thomas, who played the little boy in E.T. - The Extra Terrestrial, all live for a few months in Hill House. So when they eventually return (in the final episode), the events which are manifest are things which have been with them all their lives.

And the film takes a time jump kind of approach... which wouldn’t really be even doable if the director was making a straight adaptation. That is to say, the narrative keeps cross cutting from when the central characters were kids in Hill House to their various lives in the present (like in the original Stephen King novel IT)... where we have Timothy Hutton playing the older version of Henry Thomas’ Hugh Crain... another name which will mean something to fans of the original work but, again, taken totally out of context here. It’s actually not that confusing but the very nature of the structure is enough to tip you off to certain things as, of course, ghost stories have always been trafficking in states of temporal manipulation... ghosts by their very nature are ‘of a time’ different to that when they manifest.

For example, the death of Eleanour at the end of the novel/film is done and dusted in the very first of these ten episodes (half of the content of which doesn’t even take place in the titular residence). It’s not even the same death, instead it harkens back to the character who hung herself from the top of the spiral staircase at the start of the 1963 version. However, once Eleanour dies it’s more than enough to tip off the audience that the ‘bent-neck lady’ as seen by young Eleanour throughout the series, is obviously her older self revisiting backwards in time. I actually got there way before the character died right back near the start of the first episode actually but, yeah, by the end of the episode I think most people would have twigged it and it becomes something of a spoiler. Unless, maybe, Flanagan intended it to be just that, in order to give more meaning to the structure of the show itself... I dunno, could be, I suppose.

Another big element for me which kinda failed is that, unlike the 1963 movie, the show is not actually scary. And when it does go for some fright scenes it uses that technique of making the ambient sound in a room sound more ‘fizzy’ (a technical term, obviously) and it telegraphs (subconsciously for some, perhaps) that something unusual is about to happen. The 1963 one had outstanding sound design and that added much to the scary atmosphere... here it’s just like every other horror movie you see these days and... sometimes that works and sometimes that doesn’t but if you’re going to do a film following in the steps of the classic movie, then maybe you want to do something more jarring or special with the sound?

Also, the big, clever trick of the 1963 version is that you really see very little and your head puts the frights together for you... for this one, the big ‘scare’ moments are anything but subtle and often come across as cheap tricks.

Okay, I’m coming off as a little negative here but only because I love the original versions in their respective media so much. This TV show is actually quite well put together, in spite of some of my earlier criticisms...

For instance, the way the director inserts ghostly figures appearing and disappearing from certain scenes, such as a 360 degree pan which both includes and excludes ghosts depending on which revolution it is on. Or some nice transitions such as... one of those when they definitely got the sound right... a man nailing a frame to a wall in one shot cutting to a guy in Hill House knocking in a chimney as the bangs, slightly exaggerated, spill over between both shots and time zones.

There are also some nice moments scattered throughout where the director uses a very slow, almost imperceptible zoom on a static shot and, clichéd as this has perhaps become in modern horror, he makes this work fairly well and, while the show isn’t actually nearly as scary as it seems to want to be, it’s certainly handled competently as a technique and adds to a voyeuristic, creepy atmosphere which is held throughout the show’s ten episodes.

So yeah... some nice stuff and, because of the decade in which Flanagan is directing this from, Theo’s lesbianism is much more overt than what the Robert Wise directed version got away with when the character was played by Claire Bloom, where it was definitely there in a kind of capitalised highlight of the subtext but, by nature of its time (I suspect), much more suppressed.

Another interesting thing... and I didn’t even realise this until I was about four episodes in... is that the majority of episodes, bar a few of them, are all told through the eyes of one of the main characters. So Luke, Steve, Shirley, Eleanour, Theo, the mother and father are all given their own episode and, of course, this helps with certain ‘reveals’ when an event already witnessed by one character catches up with another character and we can see the whole picture. Such as when Carla Gugino smashes the mirror of a dresser in one scene. I mean, yeah, it’s pretty obvious what caused her character to do this but it’s nice seeing it revisited from her eyes when the time comes. So, while the structure of the way the story is presented may seem ponderous or padded out some of the time, it actually really isn’t... it’s just a complex puzzle the director is presenting to us in an interesting way and, I have to say, it must have been really hard to keep it all in your head in the right order at the writing stage when certain things need to be injected into a specific person’s episode and still be a ‘reveal’ when scenes are revisited. I wonder how much of that stuff was created serendipitously in the editing room.

So yeah, that’s me about done with this particular project. The Haunting Of Hill House TV show is an entertaining enough horror series with much more to be admired than scared of but, absolutely not anything like the original source material and fans of previous versions of this might find this a huge barrier to getting any enjoyment of the show. So if you’ve not read the original novel or seen the 1963 classic, then you will probably get a heck of a lot more out of this than others might. I’ll just leave you with this one thought though... in the 1963 movie, Eleanour, once she has ‘passed on’ and become a ghost, gives us the closing narration... “Hill House has stood for ninety years and will probably stand for ninety more. And we who walk at Hill House, walk alone.” In this version, it’s a very much alive Steven Crain who narrates the famous line reading but, this time around, it’s changed to... “And those who walk there, walk together.” Which is a very different look at the equation and says something, perhaps everything, about this new manifestation of what is, to many, a classic piece of literary and cinematic horror. Still, after all these years, it’s nice to see that walls continue upright, bricks meet neatly and the floors are still, to this day, firm.

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