The Haunting of Hill House: S01E01, “Steven Sees a Ghost” Review/Recap

In 1959, Shirley Jackson released The Haunting of Hill House which would go on to be revered as an American classic novel and a staple of the horror genre.  While it has inspired many works of fictions, so far only two movies have gone as far to call themselves adaptations. If you are looking for a review/recap that compares the series to either the book or the movies, you’ve come to the wrong place.   In fact, I was planning on watching the 1963 movie and rereading the book before I started to write these up, but I want observe this series as its own entity. Perhaps at the conclusion of reviewing the series I might make some commentary comparing it to its fellow Haunting iterations, but for now you’re just stuck with me waxing poetic on a show in many ways hits close to home.  I’m going to apologize in advance if I get a little too personal when discussing the subject, but I’ll try not to make it too awkward.   

The series kicks off in a long cold open, introducing us to most of the Crain family who have settled into a gorgeous albeit creepy gigantic mansion that they are intending to flip.  This is no forever home, just a pit stop on the way to their dream house. One might think they are crazy to not want to stay in the palatial estate but within moments we get a glimpse of our first ghost and you realize that maybe temporary home is for the best.  For me it didn’t come across as a jump scare as much as a welcome for the youngest Crain and the viewers to this spooky abode.

After the opening credits, the show jumps to a present day Steven (the eldest son) recording a woman’s account of her husband’s death and his subsequent haunting of her.  Turns out Steven is an author of real life ghost stories, an occupation that only partially makes sense considering he ain’t afraid of no ghosts. In fact, he’s not a believer at all.  All it takes is one night in his interviewee’s home to debunk her claims and let her know it is all in her head, or leaking from her roof. He’s just here to “respectfully” take accounts from people broken by grief, polish them up into a work of fiction and sell it for a hefty profit.  One could say that he followed his dad’s footsteps into flipping, but instead of houses he’s flipping personal tragedy into wildly popular ghost stories for the masses.

From here the episode starts bouncing back and force at will between the past and the present, a choice I think my hurt the series trying to get an audience on board.  I found myself frustrated not really knowing the scope of the family or being able to recognize which character was which. I found it odd that at no point in the episode do we see the family as an entire unit and wonder if that was a conscious choice.  I do think if I could have seen all seven together I would have spent less time thinking about who I was watching and focus on what was being told.

What I was able to gather is that Nell is the youngest member of the family and the first to have interaction with a spirit, well if you can call laying in paralyzed fear as a woman with a bent neck disturbingly hovers over you an interaction.  Her father does his best in trying to convince her it was just a spillover from her dream, her mother agrees to stay with her, but the moment Nell is back to being alone she is visited once more. But we see Nell in modern time reaching out to her siblings so for the time being we know she is safe, or at least the adorable 6 year old version of her is going to make it out of there.  Modern Nell wants to place that concern we have onto her brother Luke who for reasons she believes is in danger. Eventually Steve calls his sisters to reassure them that he’s heard from his little brother, he’s safely in rehab and just received his 90 day chip. I’m not entirely buying this as the truth yet. Steve seems annoyed that he’s expected to deal with his family drama and I wouldn’t put it past him to lie, whether it be to cover for his brother or just have to deal with it while he’s working.  

The next family member we are introduced to is Theodora.  I love the name but I can’t say I’m thrilled with her debut.  I’m not sure what the world needed was another portrayal of a lesbian (or possibly bisexual) who is sexually aggressive emotionally detached libertine.  It walks a really fine line between female empowerment and playing into straight male fantasies. At this point I have to put my faith in Mike Flanagan that he was aiming for the former since he’s been great to this point in creating female characters that are multi-dimensional, smart, strong, and self-possessed.  But its not just the stereotype that feels off, the whole introduction just seems wedged into the premiere. It felt more like ticking off a box of things that people that needed to be included than organically weaving her into the tale. The only thing that feels essential is finding out that Theo and Nell are currently not on speaking terms and that the eldest sister Shirley is worried for her.  

Just as erratically as Theo is brought in, the show jumps to a modern day patriarch played by Timothy Hutton instead of Henry Thomas.  The choice to cast a different actor to portray the present-day father felt questionable to me as well. It makes sense that time jumping with kids requires a new cast, but grown men don’t usually change that drastically from 40 something to 60 something (I’m not sure their exact ages but I do know that Hutton is only 11 years older than Thomas).   I’m willing to let this minor squibble go though because with the jumping back and forth in time it does help distinguish when we are watching. Hugh gets a call from his youngest daughter in a what I am convinced at first is a final call before she commits suicide. The framing of the scene shows Nell calling from inside a car with fog surrounding her in the background and I being Ms. Smarty Pants am like “Yeah, she’s totally in a garage waiting for the carbon monoxide to let her drift off into oblivion”.  But guess what, I was totally wrong and very happy for it. Once she hangs up with her father we see that she’s actually parked in front of her brief childhood home. The lights are on inside but considering the eerie setting and what we’ve seen so far, it’s not exactly what I would call a welcoming look.

Her father picked up on the vibe that his youngest was calling to say her final goodbyes and jumps out of bed to go help his kid.  He rushes out of the house telling someone he’s going, but whether or not that person is in the room or in his mind remains to be seen.  Yet again the show jumps to the 80s with a frantic Hugh going into Steve’s room and telling him that they need to run out of their house as fast as possible and that he needs to keep his eyes shut no matter what he hears. After what I can only describe as maniacal door handle jiggling the two quickly dart to the car where the other Crain children await.  It’s the only time all 5 kids are featured in the same scene, but despite the dark shot, it’s very clear mom is not in the station wagon with the rest of them. The kids are yelling that she’s standing at the window but Hugh just insists that is not their mother and tears off into the night leaving his wife behind despite the protests from Steve. Whatever happened that night has stewed into a resentment that must have left the father and son estranged because Steve refuses to listen to his dad and chides him for even thinking he has the right to call and give his son instructions.  But dad is having none of it and tells his son he’ll meet him at his house.

Papa Crain isn’t wrong to be panicked because up next we get a shot of Nelly dancing around in a dark abandoned home with a partner we cannot see to music we cannot hear.   I love that we only get to see this occur from an objective perspective. Had they shown the audience what Nell was seeing, it would have been less unsettling to witness, perhaps too silly, and it would have killed the suspense  Great horror thrives on building tension and making the audience crave more. Flanagan is keenly aware of that and knows we haven’t earned insight yet.

What immediately follows is the seeing all other 4 children wake up in a panic, clutching at their throats at the exact same time (3:03 EST/12:03 PST),  Shirley, earlier portrayed as one who talks in her sleep is the only one to say a word. “She’s in the Red Room”. One can only assuming she’s referring to a room in Hill House that they girls were not able to get into.  Steve wakes up in the house of his interviewee and rather than dwell on what he just experienced, gets the evidence he needs to prove there are no ghosts haunting her home. Just wishful thinking and a faulty roof. I get the impression that Steve is the kind of guy who gets satisfaction in telling other people they are wrong.  Whether it being killing the hope of grieving widows or justifying why it was ok to exploit his family tragedy for personal gain, in Steve’s mind he’s always in the right. If he feels any sort of regret for this, he’s not showing it. He knew the price of publishing the family story (which was already famous through tabloid headlines) would be losing his Shirley, and not only did he move forward, he insulted her before he walked out the door.

Back to the 80s we discover that the mother, Olivia Crain, has died and that Hugh is as risk of losing custody of his children.  The house that once was going to be a windfall for the family is ordered by Hugh to sit empty and barred from all people besides the Dudley’s, the current caretakers.  We only briefly get to meet the pair although not in the same scene. Mr. Dudley is helping fix up the place and Mrs. Dudley is indoctrinating children and taking care of the belonging inside.  There is a hint of teasing Steve when she informs him that no staff has lived on the premises since the 1940s. They live on the edge of the property and never stay after sundown. The family in the home is alone…in the night…in the dark.  Annabeth Gish’s performance is brief, but she imbues Mrs. Dudley as a formidable woman of faith who knows a lot more than she’s saying.

In what turns out to be an undeniably the sweetest scene of the first installment we finally get to meet Luke at the end of the episode. It’s in flashback form with him hanging out in his treehouse asking his brother for help to make a “No Girls Allowed” sign.  The adorable brother bonding scene is has moments of tension as well as we discover Luke is drawing pictures of not just his family, but an imaginary girl he’s seen on the property and what appears to be a monster of some kind. Jumping to present day we see that the relationship with the grown boys is strained.  Well that’s the nicest way I probably could have said that considering Steve busts Luke as he is leaving his apartment with his Ipad and camera in hand. Steve offers him money to buy back the tablet and lets his baby bro pawn the camera. He doesn’t even seem pissed about the whole thing, which says all you need to know about how many times Luke has let him down.  If there’s one thing worth than anger or disappointment, its total apathy. Steve enters his apartment to find his sister Nell just waiting for him inside. He gripes she did nothing to stop Luke and that she’s unnecessarily worried the family and just when he starts getting real indignant his phone rings. A very broken up phone call from his father reveals that Nell was at Hill House and now she’s dead.  Steve turns around tentatively to try to make sense of what he is hearing versus what he just saw and that’s when we get confirmation that he’s talking to a ghost as Nell inexplicably is right in front of him, her mouth slowing contorting to a scream while her face changes to a look of rotted death. I don’t feel right calling that jump scare either, as it was completely predictable, but that doesn’t diminish my interest at all in the series.   As is Netflix’s design, I was completely ready to dive into episode two to learn more.

It is far from a perfect hour of television or even a great kickoff to a series, but it felt like a beginning with a lot of promise.  Maybe that faith is unearned, basing it off what I know of the source material and my general enjoyment of Flanagan’s style, but there’s no way I’m checking out of Hill House just yet.  There’s nine more installments ready at my fingertips and I’m itching to hit the play button for the next episode. Who am I kidding? It’s Netflix. That shit keeps playing without my input but this is one of those times I’m glad it’s not making me exercise my free will.  Much like Nell, I want back in Hill House for better or for worse.