Horror is once again dominating our cultural head space, for reasons I will now not write an additional thousand words about. (Go get your own master’s degree.)
Put simply, scary times mean scarier movies and TV shows. Any attempt to increase the adrenaline flow is plenty welcome, so long as you sustain the fear all the way through and resist the urge for a tidy and even sickeningly soft ending. Halloween is upon us and nobody likes horror that collapses into hokey.
In this spirit, I have good and not-so-good news about Netflix’s “The Haunting of Hill House,” creator Mike Flanagan’s 10-episode chiller that’s very loosely inspired by Shirley Jackson’s acclaimed 1959 gothic horror novel of the same name.
For eight and even nine episodes, the series does everything right as both a compelling, fractured-family drama and a dive-under-the-couch-cushions creepshow. Anyone near my office likely heard a few screams (manly screams, mind you) as I obsessively binged my way through it. That 10th episode, however? The less said, the better.
Until then, here is the show we didn’t even know we wanted: It’s “This Is Us,” only with all the flashbacks set in a creepy, poorly lighted, ghost-packed mansion. Both the past and the present are strewn with broken-necked phantoms, a corpse that sits upright on a stainless steel mortician’s table (and then cuts the wire holding its jaw shut so that it can scream at us), a basement monster crawling toward a child just as his flashlight conks out and — oh yes — a cardboard box full of dead kittens.
Michiel Huisman stars as Steve Crain, the oldest of five siblings who once lived in the Hill House, an extremely unwelcoming, run-down estate out in the boonies. His parents, Hugh and Olivia Crain (played in flashbacks by Henry Thomas and Carla Gugino), bought the mansion in the early 1990s with plans to restore it and flip it for a big profit.
Things started going wrong right away, as Hill House revealed itself to be both a money pit and a hellhole. Also, there were ghosts. Also, Mom didn’t make it out alive.
Years go by. Grown-up Steve jump-started his failed writing career with a semi-autobiographical account of what happened (titled “The Haunting of Hill House”), which became a bestseller and spawned several sequels, in which Steve has fashioned himself as an empathetic ghost-whisperer. Steve’s siblings resent him for getting the story all wrong, claiming that he never saw the extent of the horrors they saw.
Each of the Crain children has been affected by what went on in the house. The second oldest, Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser), became a mortician and funeral director, driven to help others cope with the realities of death; Theodora (Kate Siegel) became a child psychologist with a spooky sense of intuition; twins Nell (Victoria Pedretti) and Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) suffered most — Nell, haunted by visions, is grieving the recent death of her husband; Luke, also tormented, has been in and out of rehab for a heroin addiction.
Their father (played in his later years by Timothy Hutton), calls with urgent and terrible news: One of the Crain kids has returned to Hill House (it’s been abandoned since the family fled from it decades ago) and committed suicide.
Flanagan and his writers use the episodic series format to achieve the slow build that most 100-minute horror movies so desperately need. The screamies don’t come fast and furiously here, and when they do, they are genuine goosebumpers.
More impressively, the show takes itself seriously as a drama about a family coping with all kinds of grief — the fresh news of a death and the old wounds of mystery and deceit. The dialogue is precise and the acting is captivatingly plausible, even from the kid actors playing the young Crains.
In a midway episode that takes place in Shirley’s funeral home, “Hill House” reaches a level of family psychodrama and astonishing confrontations that comes close to transporting Hutton back to the Oscar-winning work he did almost 40 years ago with Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore in “Ordinary People.”
Yes, yes, I shouted above the clamorous thunder raging outside. This is the stuff that the horror genre was made for: the way it rips open the domestic ideal of family and home, the way it acknowledges what monsters we are to the ones we love.
I’m saying such good things about this show. Now, alas, I have to address its tragically dumb final episode, in the which the Crains make their inexorable return to Hill House for a forcibly sentimental ending that winds up coated in ectoplasmic sap. What happened? Why did it flip so suddenly to mediocre mush?
Things were going so well. Now here I am, out back in the cold of night, burying it.
The Haunting of Hill House (10 episodes) is available on Netflix.