Updated: Jan 11, 2020
Episode 1 - "Steven Sees a Ghost" expanded with optional commentary from creator Mike Flanagan. Little Nell Crain (Violet McGraw) is terrorized by the Bent-Neck Lady, who haunts her throughout her life. (2) Hill House lights up, welcoming Nell back home. (3) Young Hugh Crain (Henry Thomas) tries to comfort his daughter, telling her there's no such thing as ghosts.
“THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE: EXTENDED DIRECTOR’S CUT”
Blu-ray, DVD; 2018; TV-MA for frightening and intense scenes, drug use, and profanity; streaming via Netflix, FandangoNOW, Google Play, Vudu and YouTube – but none may have the director’s cut
Best extra: Extended episodes with commentary by Creator/Director Mike Flanagan
THERE HAVE never been so many ghosts on screen. Creator/writer/director Mike Flanagan adapted Shirley Jackson’s masterwork transforming it into a haunting – no pun intended – ten-part tale of spooky and real-life struggles. It sticks with you. And, like those who first saw it on Netflix, this series is one to watch again and again.
Most know Jackson as the author of “The Lottery,” with its shock-reveal of society’s dark side. “Hill House” is also steeped in emotional conflict, but crosses into paranormal frights. You don’t toss words like “seminal work” around over ghost stories, but that’s what “The Haunting of Hill House,” published in 1959, is. It’s influenced writers, filmmakers and readers. In “Danse Macabre,” Stephen King calls it one of the best horror novels ever written. Neil Gaiman says it’s the scariest book of fiction he’s ever read. 'The Legend of Hell House" (1973), written by Richard Matheson and directed by John Hough is an entertaining rip-off. Jackson's book about a group of amateur paranormal investigators has been made into two films, once in 1963 by Robert Wise, and in 1999 by Jan de Bont. The Wise adaptation sticks closest to the book. Both are fine attempts, yet the Netflix version is the best at capturing Jackson's intent.
Mike Flanagan of “Oculus” (2013); “Hush” (2016), and “Ouija: Origin of Evil” (2017), took it and ran with it. He also directed and wrote the screenplays for Stephen King’s “Gerald’s Game” and, most recently, “Doctor Sleep,” scheduled for release November 8. The Netflix project began with Amblin Entertainment and Steven Spielberg, another Jackson fan and the man behind the 1999 adaptation. This time, the plan was to make a series.
Episode 2 - "Open Casket," Steven Crain (Michiel Huisman) becomes a bestselling ghost story author beginning with his family's experiences at Hill House. (2) Theodora Crain (Kate Siegel) and her older sister Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser) share some of their mother's psychic gifts. (3) Caretaker Mr. Dudley (Robert Longstreet), young Shirley (Lulu Wilson) and Hugh find disturbing items, which include a box of abandoned, dying kittens, in a shed on the Hill House estate.
Stretching it to ten hours was a challenge, and by the time it was over, Flanagan, who wrote and directed all 10 episodes, was a wreck. He expanded the story to show how a family deals with the aftermath of living in a haunted house. Films like “Poltergeist” build to an escape, he says. In the “Hill House” series, escape takes place in the first episode. But could you ever leave events like this behind – do ghosts ever go away?
“We had nods to the source material and character traits. Hugh Crain was, of course, the big, bad villain. Our version is very different. Some characters are entirely invented … We have a character named ‘Shirley’ for the author herself. We have a character named ‘Steven’ named for Steven Spielberg, who at Amblin has always been a huge fan of this novel.” — Mike Flanagan
As in King’s “It,” there are two timelines; one takes place when the Crain family moves into Hill House; the second as adults dealing with the fallout. Original characters become siblings such as Nell (Victoria Pedretti) and Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) becoming twins, with Theodora (Kate Siegel) as their sister. Steven, named for Spielberg and played by Michiel Huisman of “Game of Thrones,” and Shirley, named for Jackson, played by Elizabeth Reaser (“Twilight” franchise, “The Handmaid’s Tale”) are the older brother and sister. Henry Thomas and Timothy Hutton play younger and older versions of the father, Hugh Crain. Carla Gugino (“San Andreas,) becomes troubled mother, Olivia Crain. Nearly all of the actors – and crew – have worked with Flanagan in earlier features, and will be in his future projects as well.
Performances are memorable throughout, including the young cast – Lulu Wilson (Shirley), McKenna Grace (Theo), Paxton Singleton (Steven), Julian Hilliard (Luke) and Violet McGraw (Nell) – and caretakers, Mr. and Mrs. Dudley played by Robert Longstreet and Annabeth Gish. Ghosts are everywhere, especially inside the house. Some are larger than life or take gruesome form like the Bent-Neck Lady that haunts little Nell though her adult years. It was part of Flanagan’s pitch to Amblin and Paramount.
Episode 3 - (1 & 2) "Touch," Psychologist Theodora Crain uses her abilities to discover the secrets behind a child's anxieties.
Then there are the hidden ghosts, shadows in the background that characters never see, only the audience – like a clawed hand beneath a piano. Flanagan says they had “ghost” extras standing by every day, usually hanging out at craft services, waiting for their moment. There’s a cameo of the Oculus mirror, which has also appeared in “Gerald’s Game” and “Ouija.”
“This was something that was part of the original pitch for the series, this idea that we would hide ghosts in plain sight in every episode. And we do – we have dozens of them in every episode.” — Mike Flanagan
But what about those extended scenes? Yes – definitely worth the purchase. Three episodes have restored footage: Episode 1, “Steven Sees a Ghost; Episode 5, “The Bent-Neck Lady”; and Episode 10, “Silence Lay Steadily.” Flanagan provides commentary on each one along with Episode 6, “Two Storms.” Having watched the series three times on Netflix, I can say the extra footage blends in perfectly and adds to story and characterization, especially in the pilot when Hugh (Thomas) returns to bed with his wife after comforting his children. They talk about parenthood and what they hope to accomplish – they’ve purchased Hill House to renovate and flip, providing income to build their own house and secure their future. As we know, this doesn’t go as planned.
Russ Tamblyn, who played Luke Sanderson in the Wise adaptation, came out of retirement to play Dr. Montague, Nell’s therapist. His footage is also restored.
“I anticipated from the beginning that Jackson fans would have mixed feelings about it, but I hope that, at the very least, to honor her source material in a way that still did something different with it. I’ve heard it described as more an ‘echo’ of the novel … a remodel, a remix. All of that is correct.” — Mike Flanagan
Episodes 4 & 5 - "The Twin Thing" & "The Bent-Net Lady," expanded with commentary. (1) Young Luke (Julian Hilliard) meets and plays with Abigail (Olive Elise Abercrombie) on the Hill House estate. (2) Young Steven (Paxton Singleton) and Theo await their father's return to the motel, where he's taken them after tragedy strikes at the house. (3) Nell experiences visions of her father, Hugh Crain (Timothy Hutton), her sisters, and mother Olivia (Carla Gugino) upon her return to the now-abandoned Hill House.
Paramount’s 1080p release (1.78:1 aspect ratio) is a gem. Digitally shot, color is deliberately desaturated. Blues and grays, with deep, inky shadows and soft highlights dominate, delivering spooky atmosphere throughout. Ghosts blend into the background, sharpen, and then fade – or not. Even in well-lit scenes, like the wedding, color remains muted, while blacks remain solid. Character complexions look authentic in a variety of skin tones. Detail and texture, however, is very sharp in faces, clothing, sets and locations. “Hill House” was shot in Georgia and the Bridge Studios in British Columbia.
Flanagan talks about the opening scene in the pilot where a woman played by Saidah Arrika Ekulona tells the adult Steven about her dead husband’s ghost. We discover Steven writes about paranormal events; his first bestseller was about his family’s experiences in Hill House. Most of his family hates it, especially sister Shirley. “My brother raped the family,” she says.
Flanagan never shot a cut-away of Steven’s face although he eventually introduced footage of Steven’s hand on the recorder. He explains how he planned the scenes as an homage to his favorite film, “Casablanca,” and its introduction to Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine.
Episodes 6 & 7 - "Two Storms" (with commentary) & "Eulogy." (1) The Crain siblings gather at the funeral home after Nell's suicide. (2) Hugh reveals he's been talking to Olivia's ghost. (3) A younger Hugh and Steven try to renovate Hill House, but keep running into problems - like a body buried behind a wall.
It’s too bad we don’t have a Dolby Atmos track; nothing creates more shivers than subtle creaking, moans and footsteps at ceiling level. But the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround soundtrack is very good, delivering extremely clear dialogue, effects and a score by the Newton Brothers, who have worked with Flanagan on other projects. Before filming began, Flanagan requested rights to use “If I Go, I’m Goin’” by Gregory Alan Isakov, and “Heavenly Day” by Patty Griffin be secured. He used to have dreams about Nell dancing to Griffin’s song.
In the commentary, Flanagan makes his feelings about ADR (Automated Dialog Replacement) very clear: “One of the stranger things about me as a filmmaker is that I have an intense allergy to ADR. I hate it. I hate it more than I hate most things in the world. It knocks me out every time I see it … You never get the same performance in ADR that you get in production … We managed to get it down to … where I believe in all 10 episodes there is one line of ADR. It’s an off-camera line where someone says, ‘Hey.’”
The only “bonus features” are the perfectly restored scenes and Flanagan’s excellent commentary. “Commentary tracks are really special to me," he says. "I grew up listening to them ... As streaming has become more popular and pervasive and physical media has kind of receded to some extent, it’s one of the things I miss the most, is being able to listen to filmmakers talk about making films.”
“This isn’t a horror story … Yes, horrific things happened, but this was a story of family and loss and regret, but also forgiveness and peace and being able to move on.” — Mike Flanagan
What works in Shirley Jackson’s novel still works in Flanagan’s adaptation. That blend of human psychological and paranormal fear – and it's better than anything we’ve seen to date including “American Horror Story” and “Penny Dreadful.” Nice to know Flanagan, his actors and crew have been invited back for a second season. They will leave Hill House behind to focus on Henry James’ classic, “The Turn of the Screw.”
It ought to be another winner. Meanwhile, don’t let yourself miss “The Haunting of Hill House.” It’s a best-of for Halloween or any time of year!
— Kay Reynolds
Episodes 8 & 9 - "Witness Marks" & "Screaming Meemies." (1) Theo and Shirley wait for information after Luke runs away. (2) Young Steve makes a gift for his mother, hoping to cheer her up. (3) Olivia encounters the evil ghost of Poppy Hill (Catherine Parker).
Episode 10 - "Silence Lay Steadily," expanded with commentary. (1) The Crains meet Nell's ghost outside the door of the Red Room. (2) Ghosts torment Theo over her fear of isolation.