Saturday, November 3, 2018

REVIEW: The Haunting of Hill House (live action TV series)

Netflix's new The Haunting of Hill House TV series is supposedly an adaptation of Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House. In reality, they have very little in common, despite the writer's frequent inclusion of lines straight out of the original book. Honestly, I'm not really a fan of the book and even I'm kind of mad that this series got to call itself an "adaptation."

The story: Hugh and Olivia Crain are a house flipping couple who decide that buying Hill House, flipping it, and selling it would be a great idea. It'll be their last job before setting down with their kids and building their dream home. Unfortunately, their time in the house starts to sour almost immediately. Their youngest daughter, Nelly, keeps having nightmares about the "Bent Neck Lady." Her twin brother, Luke, has seen terrifying things in the house as well, and he keeps seeing a mysterious girl in the nearby forest. Then one night something happens. Hugh, terrified, packs up all the kids and takes them to a hotel, leaving his wife behind. When the kids next see him, their mother is dead and the tabloids are plastered with news about the haunted Hill House.

Years later, their last night at Hill House and the horrible days afterward have burned themselves into the Crain siblings' lives. Nell still wakes up from nightmares about the Bent Neck Lady. Luke is a junkie. Steven, the eldest Crain sibling, makes money by writing books about hauntings he doesn't believe in, including the family's time at Hill House. Shirley is a funeral home director, "fixing" the aftermath of death the only way she knows how. Theo is a skilled child therapist who works hard to keep anyone from getting too close to her.

I didn't truly get into this show until episode 3. By that point, I finally had a better hold on the series' structure and timeline. It also helped that the episodes from that point on tended to focus more on Crain family members I liked better. The first two episodes focused more on Steve and Shirley, and I wasn't really a fan of either of them. Episode 2, Shirley's episode, added dead kittens to the mix. If you don't do well with on-screen animal deaths and animal-related horror, it might be a good idea to just skip episode 2 and maybe find a summary somewhere, so you can get the gist of it.

I liked this series best when I viewed it as something unrelated to the original book. Unfortunately, the show wouldn't stop shoving book references in my face. Characters would say familiar things, or there would be familiar details, but the context was entirely changed. It was as if an original family drama/horror were dropped into a blender with Shirley Jackson's novel.

But despite those issues, my attention was definitely captured. Episodes 3 to 7 or 8 were pretty good, even though I frequently wished the writer would lay off the jump scares just a little. It felt like there was one every five to ten minutes, and they eventually lost their impact. Yes, even with me, the horror wimp.

I wanted to know where the writer planned to go with this series. For a while there, it looked like this TV series was going to be as ambiguous as the book in a lot of ways  - the things the Crain family saw could be real, or they could be the fearful imaginings of people dealing with both overly active imaginations and undiagnosed mental illnesses.

Then the last two or three episodes happened and everything fell apart. I suppose it started earlier, though, in the episode focused on Nell. The big reveal about Nell's nightmares and the Bent Neck Lady was...kind of annoying.

Time basically had no meaning in this series. It went beyond the jumbled flashbacks. In the end, Hill House became a place where rules apparently didn't apply. It particularly bothered me that Hill House's effects didn't seem to be limited to the house's grounds, which was supposed to be one of the rules of the series. If you left the house and didn't stay there after dark, it couldn't get into your mind and hurt you. Except that was only true when the writer wanted it to be.

The bittersweet and hopeful ending struck me as schmaltzy and forced. I knew I was supposed to care about how things turned out for these characters, but the story had come apart at the seams so badly that I just couldn't.

All in all, I don't necessarily regret watching this, but it ended up making me mad. A fairly large chunk of this series was beautiful and suspenseful enough that I almost forgave it for being a terrible "adaptation." Unfortunately, the last couple episodes utterly ruined it and shined a spotlight on many of the problems in the earlier episodes that I'd overlooked. I wonder, am I the only one who found Mrs. Dudley to be an incredibly inconsistent character? She was stern and religious in her earliest appearance but, by the end of the series, happily gave herself up to what her earlier self would have viewed as a fate worse than death. And yes, I understand the motivation the series set up for her, but I still think earlier Mrs. Dudley would have spent the rest of her life grieving and praying and probably would have gone off to die as a nun or something.

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