‘The Haunting at Hill House’ better than a movie night

By Chic DiCiccio

Photo courtesy of Amblin Television
Lulu Wilson, Julian Hilliard (right) and Violet McGraw in “The Haunting of Hill House.”

At one point in one of the 10 episodes of “The Haunting of Hill House,” simultaneous shrieks reverberated off the walls of this house. It was a jump scare so unexpected and jarring that you’ll easily glaze over and forget that it interrupted some truly gut-wrenching, smart dialogue. It is so damn frightening that it could potentially be the scariest two seconds ever put to film.

Normally, movie reviews are in this space, but “The Haunting of Hill House” accomplishes so much while touching on so many themes that it’s easily some of the best entertainment of 2018. It’s definitely more of a commitment to complete than spending two hours in a movie theater, but this horror-family drama mashup is well worth the time.

While it’s being sold as a classic haunted house-horror series, this is a psychological family drama with layers upon layers of smart storytelling. Each episode is loaded with scares and general unease, but what makes this series unique is how it’s more interested in what happens after surviving a haunted house. So, the question is this: How do adults handle supernatural trauma from their childhood?

Based on the lives of the Crain family, the answer to that question is “not well.” Seemingly nothing goes right from the second that pre-HGTV house flipper pros Hugh and Olivia (Henry Thomas and Carla Gugino) move their five children into the Hill House.

While they are busy fixing up the mansion that clearly is screaming “get out of here ASAP,” their kiddos take the brunt of paranormal activity and Olivia eventually meets a mysterious demise.

Olivia’s 1992 death remains a mystery to the present-day adult Crain kids as Hugh (now played by Timothy Hutton) refuses to tell them what actually happened. Their lives have varying levels of success with the oldest, Steven (Michiel Huisman), becoming a successful horror novelist that based his first book on their lives in Hill House. Eldest daughter Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser) owns a failing funeral home and the middle kid, Theodora (Kate Siegel), lives in Shirley’s guest house as a child psychologist by day and an almost-closeted gay woman by night.

The youngest kids, Luke and Nell (Oliver Jackson-Cohen and Victoria Pedretti), are twins with a strong bond that was only made stronger after they took on most of the ghastly creeps as kids. Luke is definitely the worse off of the bunch as he’s spent the majority of his life in and out of drug rehab. Tragedy strikes the family again and that’s when ghosts from the past begin popping up for them.

And those ghosts are absolutely terrifying. There are times when you can tell it’s coming, and it doesn’t matter. It’s as haunting that anything captured on film can be and there are legitimate times when looking away from the screen seems like an option. If you think those moments are something, pay attention to the background of Hill House. There are seemingly dozens of “ghosts” just hanging out in corners, standing there behind the Crains without their knowledge. They stay completely still, which somehow becomes more ominous than when they actually interact with the living.

The scares do take a backseat to the mental strife that all the Crains have dealt with after leaving the house. They bicker, lie, distrust and are overall jerks to their siblings. Some of the arguments will be easily identifiable to many families, but these get ramped up to unbearable levels when interrupted by dead people.

Television has become the hip place for great storytelling and “The Haunting of Hill House” continues that trend. It’s a great series that is self-contained without a hint of “franchise” in it. The frights and drama make it a great reason to stay home at night.