REVIEWS: THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE

     
The adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s funny-nasty psychological thriller abandons the pungent feminine anxiety that made the book so original.

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The show is adapted from Shirley Jackson’s funny-nasty novel.Illustration by Katherine Lam
When I hit play on Netflix’s adaptation of “The Haunting of Hill House,” I didn’t expect to lớn over up rooting for the house. The opening episodes of this interpretation of Shirley Jackson’s classic gothic-horror story were promisingly eerie, all shadows & inky blacks, and I crossed my fingers for something satisfying—a stylishly directed Halloween binge-watch, with a few decent jump scares. And, now and then, it delivers. But there’s something existentially soul-dead lớn the over-all enterprise; it has corn syrup in its veins instead of blood.

Jackson’s funny-nasty psychological thriller is about a very bad house, which is described in fabulously hyperbolic terms: Hill House is “arrogant & hating,” full of “sickening, degraded cold.” In the novel, we’re trapped not merely inside this malevolent architecture but in the mind of an unreliable mouseburger named Eleanor, a spinster whose sanity gets eaten away during her days at Hill House, where she’s gone lớn participate in a study about the paranormal. Mike Flanagan, the show’s creator, takes these ingredients—bad house, shy woman, blurry line between insanity and ghosts—and pours them into a fresh mold, transforming the neurotic adults of the study into a nuclear family, lượt thích that of “The Amityville Horror,” “Poltergeist,” và “Six Feet Under”—but also, & mainly, of NBC’s hit family drama “This Is Us.”

It’s a sharp commercial concept. When the story starts, the five Crain siblings—know-it-all Steven, bossy Shirley, prickly Theodora, and the sweet twins, Luke và Nell—are hot, brooding basket cases, survivors of a summer that nobody wants to lớn talk about. Twenty-five sầu years ago, they all fled the mansion screaming, leaving their mother, Olivia, behind lớn die, supposedly from suicide but maybe from something worse. The show’s chronology is scrambled, so only gradually, over ten episodes, through incrementally doled-out twists and flashbacks, vì we find out exactly what happened.

The approach is familiar: we’ve sầu seen it, recently, on everything from “Lost” to “Damages,” “True Detective,” and “Sharp Objects.” Yet, early on, the direction is hypnotic enough to lớn make it feel newish, gliding with fluidity between past và present. At a funeral, Hugh Crain, the family’s estranged father, sees his adult children as kids, including the one in the coffin; when he wanders through a funeral-home hallway, he enters Hill House và watches his younger self come down the stairs. The camera performs some wickedly effective sầu tricks, such as hovering close to lớn a character’s face as she glimpses a fresh horror—a ghost, a corpse, or, sometimes, nothing at all—& then lingering there, refusing lớn show us what’s scaring her (and suggesting, by implication, that we’re the scary thing). Then, midway through, there’s one truly skillful episode, “The Bent-Neông chồng Lady.” A beautifully structured fairy tale with a sad ending, it’s an O. Henry story about mortality, in which the gentlest Crain, Nell, is haunted by her own terrifying future—the fear of which leads her straight to lớn that terrible fate.

But an episode isn’t a season. Clever direction, on its own, isn’t good art. And a reshuffled chronology can masquerade as complexity—an ongoing irritation in our era of streaming television, in which puzzle-solving has become an easy way to lớn motivate viewers to lớn push play, by retrofitting momentum onkhổng lồ a story that’s not really about anything, other than closure. Even the best episodes of “The Haunting of Hill House” have sầu big problems, amuốn them performances that are all over the map—và, occasionally, as with the unscary ghost of a flapper, straight out of summer stoông chồng. But the bigger problem is that the pungency of the original story—its off-kilter vision of how fear shreds identity; its insight into lớn social outsiders—has been drained away, sanded over, then renovated with Goop-y self-help truisms about bereavement và healing.

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Supernatural stories are natural vehicles for confronting grief, of course. But, too often, “Hill House” reduces the ungraspable terrors that shudder through the original lớn mere “issues,” as if evil were just another trauma to lớn be confronted, then resolved. There’s something stealthily cornball in the show’s vision of human character, which renders even a relapsing heroin addict as yet another dễ thương, shaggy sad boy, whose worst act is to help a friend. Since the Crains are each matched up, as if by corporate algorithm, with ethnically varied but entirely undeveloped love sầu interests, it’s awfully hard lớn blame them for their intimacy issues. There’s lots of parenting advice in the show—talk khổng lồ your kids about death, tell them that it’s O.K. lớn be sad, & believe them when they describe a hidden basement that is not in the blueprints—but it all feels pre-chewed, anodyne. Health kills horror.

Most frustratingly, the adaptation abandons the raw feminine perversity that made Jackson’s story so indelible. In the book, Eleanor is a true-xanh weirvị. She’s Emily Dickinson, she’s Jane Eyre—a dangerously needy oddball, but also one who’s funny, observant, & full of rage. She’s a mess, but she’s a specific mess: “I have red shoes, she thought—that goes with being Eleanor; I dislike lobster and sleep on my left side và crachồng my knuckles when I am nervous and save buttons.”

Nobody toàn thân in the Netflix version has anything lượt thích this granular eccentricity. Instead, the characters feel cut and pasted from some emoji tệp tin labelled “scowling brunette,” then outfitted with lesbianism or bossiness. Eleanor’s traits get distributed willy-nilly: her anxiety about living with her sister goes to Theodora Crain, a child psychologist slash intimacy-impaired clairvoyant; Eleanor’s iconic “cup of stars” monologue, which is all about defying conformity, is placed in the mouth of Hill House’s caretaker, Mrs. Dudley, a character who swings, for no reason, from fundamentadanh sách bully to stoic heroine.


And Nell suffers from anxiety, just lượt thích her namesake, Eleanor. What may rankle the most is the way that this character—Eleanor’s closest analogue—is transformed from a queer duông xã into a dream girl. Nell is a sweet child, then a glowing bride, then a grieving widow. At every step, she’s a lovely, loving woman whom everytoàn thân adores. She’s the sort of female character who gets described in a casting breakdown as “gorgeous, but she doesn’t know it.” It’s not that Victoria Pedretti doesn’t give sầu an appealing performance, particularly in “The Bent-Neck Lady,” which is her showcase—she delivers some truly terrifying scenes of sleep paralysis—but there’s a cloying blandness to lớn her character’s conception. All fury and peculiarity are cut away. When Nell suffers, it’s for no deeper reason than that she’s been designated by the plot khổng lồ suffer, and to lớn make us care. She’s pathos-bait.

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Only one actress manages lớn defy this pseudo-gothic conformity, the fabulous Carla Gugino, who plays the doomed mother, Olivia. Swanning around in astonishing high-femme outfits—to lớn comfort a child after a nightmare, she wears an emerald velvet robe over a peach negligee, with cork-heeled platforms—she reads lượt thích a little girl’s notion of a grown woman. Miraculously, Gugino comes across as both a sensitive sầu, faintly bohemian parent and, without its being any contradiction, a terrifying diva, capable of bloodcurdling crimes. Other characters try to find a clear cause for Olivia’s behavior, as she smashes mirrors và slips into lớn fugue states: they blame mental illness, or her husband’s neglect, or those damned pushy ghosts. But Gugino’s charisma resists the story’s attempts khổng lồ simplify matters. Her seductive intensity, which wavers uneasily between giggle-inducing và chilling, shudders with the chaos that the story represses, a force pushing back at the show’s unwillingness to lớn let anyone be pathological.

I won’t spoil the finale, but let me put it this way: the final line from the book—“And whatever walked there, walked alone”—has been mutilated so hilariously that, if you squint, you might think the creators were being ironic. In Jackson’s version, two intruders arrive halfway through the study, spiritualists who insist that anyone who fears ghosts is a bigot: spirits are just lonely, waiting for someone lớn talk to. “How would you feel if people refused to lớn believe sầu in you,” the newcomers chide the terrorized participants, who keep warning them not khổng lồ go outside at night. This damp sentimentality, so brutally satirized by Jackson, is the guiding principle of Flanagan’s series. “Ghosts are guilt. Ghosts are secrets. Ghosts are regrets và failings,” Steven explains. “But most times . . . most times a ghost is a wish.” Fingers crossed for something bolder, sometime soon. ♦