Wednesday, October 24, 2018

The Haunting of Hill House

I love horror, but the genre often makes me feel like a contrarian; the things that get held up as good examples of the form frequently fail to excite me. I want to like these things as much as everyone else, but in many cases I just don't see what everyone else is seeing. 

Maybe I expect more, maybe I expect something different.

Case in point: after reading the reviews and surveying the general sentiment, it feels like I'm the only one who didn't enjoy Netflix's adaptation of Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House

I wanted to like it. I was excited when I heard it was in production. I was willing to give it the benefit of the doubt even after seeing all the red flags in the trailer. Unfortunately, The Haunting of Hill House failed to hit the mark for me on all the important targets:

Adaptation. There's really no reason for this series to be tied to Shirley Jackson's novel, aside from banking on name recognition. The series suffers by comparison to Jackson's masterpiece. The elements shared between the series and the novel are neutered and listless in the former. For example, consider the fate of the "cup of stars." In Jackson's novel, the cup of stars is a powerfully written and subtle symbol found early in the book whose significance only grows in the context of the events that follow; in the show, the cup of stars is reduced to an Easter egg--a knowing nod to the audience, a name-check, a moment of cynical branding that possesses none of the original's punch.

Aesthetic. The Haunting of Hill House would have been more effective is it wasn't filmed in a style similar to that of A Series of Unfortunate Events. The house never really feels threatening or even old; it doesn't have a presence on the screen. The mold-like infection meant to symbolically relay the corruption at the heart of the story is rendered sterile and antiseptic. The supernatural moments look unreal, but not in the sense of invoking dream-like, phantasmagorical atmosphere; it's hard to suspend disbelief that the setting wasn't largely created in post-production. The make-up effects are particularly clownish; you know who the ghosts are because they have bluish or greenish faces that would be right at home in a Goosebumps adaptation.

Tone and theme. Horror as a way of exploring familial trauma is nothing new, but it can work exquisitely well. It doesn't work well in The Haunting of Hill House because the soap opera far outweighs any interesting insights into family dynamics, generational discord, or interpersonal connection. What we get instead is...well, the captioned dialog to the left speaks for itself. What's worse is that some of the family drama rings patently false; the drug addiction subplot, for example, references the relatively sanitized and banal tv version of drug addiction rather than the far more potent horrors of substance abuse in the real world. Ditto the mental health subplots.

Seriously: how tired is this imagery?
Unheimlich. Horror lives and dies on its ability to make us feel the power of the abject and uncanny. In its defense, The Haunting of Hill does have a  few moments of unsettling imagery, but these are few and far between. Instead, we get jump scares--the nadir of the genre--and many iterations of the tired image of a face, the eyes gone pupil-less, the mouth stretched wide to emit the same kind of shriek we use to signal hungry velociraptors and spectral incursions alike. 

Storytelling. Look, if you are surprised at the resolution of the bent-neck lady, you need to get out more and yet also find the time to read more. The plot is a study in obviousness and the ending is as unsatisfying as a Hang in There motivational poster.