Horror movies often save their biggest scares for the latter half, building up tension before exploding into all out terror. Extrapolate that over 10 hour-long episodes, and you have Netflix’s newest horror show, The Haunting of Hill House. It makes for some fantastically scary final episodes and a relatively slow early half. If you can get invested in the Cranes’ family drama, it’s worth sticking through.
That family drama can at first be hard to follow. The Cranes are a big, unhappy family, and The Haunting of Hill House jumps frequently between their childhood and adults selves. That means there are young and old versions of Nelly Crane (Violet McGraw/Victoria Pedretti), Luke Crane (Julian Hilliard/Oliver Jackson-Cohen), Theo Crane (Mckenna Grace/Kate Siegel), Shirley Crane (Lulu Wilson/Elizabeth Reaser), and Steven Crane (Paxton Singleton/Michiel Huisman), not to mention their father, Hugh Crane (Henry Thomas/Timothy Hutton), their mother, Olivia (Carla Gugino), and various other characters like Hill House’s dual caretakers, the adult characters’ various spouses, and more. Especially at first, it can simply be hard to follow which young character corresponds to which adult character, despite the show’s sometimes half-hearted efforts to give them similar mannerisms or otherwise connect the young and old versions visually.
The Haunting of Hill House follows the Cranes throughout their strange, cursed lives, from the moment they move into Hill House–meant to be a single summer spent remodeling the house so they can sell it–to, in some cases, their bitter ends. Hill House’s first victim (among the Crane family, at least) is the mother, Olivia, whose mysterious death haunts the family for the rest of their lives. In the present, they wrestle with another death while fighting with each other over hurts both petty and real.
If you stick with it, you’ll eventually connect the dots, although stretched out as it is across 10 episodes, the drama can still be exhausting. That’s in large part due to the show’s structure. It’s not just the constant jumping between past and present; the show also likes to show us only bits and pieces of events, deliberately keeping us in the dark until it feels like making certain reveals. The season’s first half also repeats itself constantly, as each episode covers the same series of events from a different character’s perspective (and remember, there are a ton of them). That makes for lots of repetition, glacial pacing, and an overall feeling of treading water.
The upside of that is it makes each episode’s one or two really solid scares all the more startling. And halfway through the season, when all the characters’ storylines catch up to one another and they finally come together, things pick up considerably. Around the same time, the scares get more intense, with the greatest jumps coming late in the season. If you’re in it just for those, you might find it taxing to sit through the early episodes. That said, there’s plenty more to appreciate about the season as a whole.
Take the house itself. Hill House is very well designed, with multiple set pieces within the structure that will quickly jump out and lodge themselves in your imagination. There’s the red door that’s always locked and can’t be opened with any tools or force, and the red room behind it that seems to be occupied, though that’s clearly impossible. There’s the iron spiral staircase with the Chekhov’s gun of loosely tied hemp ropes ever present tied around it, the eery statue gallery the characters barely acknowledge–like it’s totally normal to have a room full of creepy sculptures in the middle of your home–and the dumb waiter leading to a secret basement that’s not on any floor plan.
By the same token, Hill House is full of strongly characterized spooks, ghouls, and specters. There’s the Bent Neck Lady, a floating ghost who appears to Nelly in her bed as a child, and elsewhere later in life. There’s the Bowler Hat Man, an impossibly tall Slender Man lookalike who rhythmically taps his cane despite floating above the ground. There’s a gnarled old lady who seems tied to one bedroom, an ephemeral girl who lives in the woods and visits to play with Luke, and the manipulative 1920s flapper girl. And there may or may not be a zombie in the basement.
The Haunting of Hill House is a horror movie in slow motion. It has too many characters, and gives too few answers. But it’s also an atmospheric trip through one family’s life, with a long, detailed view of the traumas they experience at the hands of a single haunted house and the ghouls that inhabit it. Even though it’s slow at the start, it’s worth seeing through to the end.
The Haunting of Hill House is streaming now on Netflix.