The month of May saw the last-minute arrival of many new contenders in this year’s limited series Emmy race. With the abundance of new entries, it’s easy to overlook shows that hit the zeitgeist earlier in the eligibility cycle, like Mike Flanagan’s “The Haunting of Hill House.” This reimagining of Shirley Jackson’s 1959 gothic horror novel is the first “Haunting” anthology series installment, which premiered on Oct. 12 on Netflix.
Unlike most supernatural and horror fare, “Hill House” isn’t rooted in genre-typical jump scares or gratuitous violence, but in the tragic, character-driven story the show tells, about how a father and his five children cope with their traumatic experience at the titular location 26 years earlier. While the present-day members of the Crain family appear to be leading seemingly normal lives when we first meet them — Steven (Michiel Huisman) is a famous crime novelist, Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser) owns a mortuary and has two children, and Theo (Kate Siegel) is a child psychologist — something feels off. And that something is the gloom behind their smiles.
We soon learn about their confrontations with paranormal phenomena and the unexpected loss of matriarch Olivia (Carla Gugino). When Nell (Victoria Pedretti) turns up dead, said to have committed suicide, at Hill House at the end of the first episode, the family’s ensuing cheerless reunion stirs up past demons that they are forced to confront.
Their stories are told throughout multiple timelines: during their time at Hill House in 1992, in the years leading up to Nell’s death and the weeks following it. By devoting an entire episode to pretty much every single main character, we get to witness their grief process and understand the way they each channel their trauma. As a result, we empathize with them, despite their flaws. And they all have flaws: Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) descends into drug and alcohol addiction as a coping mechanism; Steven turns his family’s story into horror fiction without their consent; Shirley has an affair with a man she meets at a hotel bar; and Theo is caught nearly hooking up with Shirley’s husband.
The Nell-focused fifth episode, “The Bent-Neck Lady,” which chronicles a great portion of Nell’s life, hits the hardest. Despite being happily married to her sleep technologist, Nell continuously suffers from sleep paralysis and is haunted by a paranormal being with long hair and a bent neck. When her husband’s sudden death triggers a return to Hill House, she falls victim to its curse and is pushed off a ledge by her imagined mother with a noose that breaks her neck due to the fall.
While the reveal of Nell herself being the Bent-Neck Lady is arguably the show’s most creative twist, it’s the emotional gut punch this episode delivers that makes it truly stand out. Watching Nell go through happy phases of her life, even in the smallest moments like being amused by Shirley’s reaction to Theo being lesbian, come with the reminder that she will soon meet her demise.
Flanagan, who directed all 10 episodes and wrote or co-wrote some of them, turned this complex source material into a well-structured, well-paced and tonally consistent season that feels like a 10-hour movie. The sixth episode, “Two Storms,” highlights his biggest achievement, intercutting two stormy nights, one at Hill House in the past, the other in the funeral parlor the night before Nell’s funeral in the present. While the storm itself keeps the family restless in the past, it’s the family drama — the Crain children demand an explanation for their mother’s death from their father — that steals the spotlight in the present.
The episode consists of five lengthy takes, some of which last up to 20 minutes. Scenes such as adult Hugh (Timothy Hutton) wandering through the halls of the funeral parlor that then transform into the dark, eerie ones of Hill House, required specific sets to be connected, lighting queues to be programmed and set pieces to be moved around during a take.
By never focusing, or zooming in, on ghosts, but having them linger in the background of the scene, standing still like a statue, Flanagan exudes horror to great effect. So when the Crain family is assembled in the casket room and you suddenly see a blurry Bent-Neck Lady lurking behind everyone, it’s all the more spine-chilling.
That said, the crowning achievement of this episode, and this show overall, is the ability to incorporate a family drama, horror show and tragedy into one seamless fabric. Sadie Gennis (TV Guide) is mesmerized by how “Flanagan has taken Jackson’s original work, shattered it and then rearranged the pieces to create a completely original, but equally brilliant tale.” Melanie McFarland (Salon) says, “This incarnation of ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ is more than merely superb” and adds that “it could prove to be the defining horror series of this moment.“ And Brian Tallerico (RogerEbert.com) calls the show “one of the best TV shows of 2018” and praises it for “blending incredibly smart family drama with some of the most terrifying imagery you’ve seen in a very long time.”
The question is: Can it break into the limited series race at the Emmys? Compared to late-breaking shows, “Hill House” has had the chance to build up momentum and goodwill since its release. Despite underperforming at the guilds, its glowing reviews and zeitgeist moment could give the show the push it needs to climb its way into the five-series lineup. And while its genre may have once upon a time been a cause for worry, that may no longer be the case with the TV academy most recently embracing other genre shows like “Game of Thrones,” “Stranger Things” and “Westworld.”
Be sure to make your Emmy predictions today so that Hollywood insiders can see how their TV shows and performers are faring in our odds. You can keep changing your predictions as often as you like until just before nominations are announced on July 16. And join in the fun debate over the 2019 Emmy taking place right now with Hollywood insiders in our television forums. Read more Gold Derby entertainment news.