THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE
An Appreciation by Horror Author, Kyle M. Scott
“We’re like an unfinished meal.”
Be assured, Mike Flanagan’s epic, ten-hour adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s seminal ghost story, is not an easy watch.
The title alone will surely bring in the Halloween crowds, eagerly looking for a thrilling, ghostly, seasonal scare. Those things are there in abundance – the work is full of genuinely unnerving moments that deal with the supernatural and an unquantifiable evil, and there are even some jump-scares in there – but those scares are secondary. What Flanagan has accomplished with his magnum opus rises beyond the confines of mainstream fare to become a truly potent portrait of the most terrifying thing we all face in the mirror each morning – ourselves. Yes, an old dark house features heavily, (and who doesn’t love an old dark house?) and the prerequisite ghastly apparitions are present and fantastically realised, but the strength of the piece isn’t in what we fear may lurk in the shadowed corners of the titular manor, but that which nestles in the darkest regions of our own hearts and minds.
This is a deep-dive into anguish, existentialism and fractured familial bonds wherein every twist and turn not only startles but disturbs.
Like a roadside pile-up, you’re horrified, but looking away is never an option. Not to those of us who’re drawn to the darkness. HOHH draws you in, wraps you in its cold and merciless embrace and squeezes tight.
“We’re like an unfinished meal.”
What does that line – that wonderfully morbid, dreadful line, allude to? On the surface it alludes to a supernatural evil, something unknowable that seeks to claim the houses inhabitants as its own, but like everything going on in Flanagan’s time-hopping, existentialist nightmare, there’s meat beneath the skin, bloodied and raw. For one character, it represents addiction – the endless, gnawing need that simultaneously sooths us while it eats us alive. For another, it’s the persistence of time and the inescapable fact that, when all is said and done in this life, we can’t save anyone. Our loved ones are doomed to rot and ruin, just like us, and all the love and care in the world won’t make a blind bit of difference. For another, it represents destiny, inescapable neither through love, time or space – the horrifying truth that we, ourselves, are the harbingers of our own hell.
For each member of the Crain family, the thing that stalks them is deeply multi-faceted. If this is a ghost story, then we’re the ones haunting ourselves.
The performances, across the board, from children to adults, are fantastic. Great care has been taken to bring these lost souls to life. They can be harsh, they can be loving, they can be infuriating, and they can be full-tilt assholes. They’re fully formed, living breathing people, cursed with complexity, driven by the need to find meaning in both their past and their present, spiralling haplessly, unwillingly into oblivion. You’re with them, because they’re you. You care for them because, in them, you see yourself and those you love, warts and all.
Further illuminating Flanagan’s desire to make this hellish story one that is as overwhelmingly authentic as any horror story out there is his casting choices. Much like his movie, Oculus, he plays with time, both in nature and in the context of the story. This, of course, means that the characters are cast twice – once as children and once as adults. The similarities between the adult Crains and their younger counterparts is uncanny. Every adult looks just like you’d imagine the child would look after a life of fear, denial and pain. The performances match this. How Flanagan managed to tease such intricate portraits from his childhood cast, and have their ticks, mannerisms and inflections match the adults so perfectly is beyond me. You’ll believe these are the same people. It adds yet another level of believability to Flanagan’s already crushingly honest, realistic world.
From a technical standpoint, HOHH is every bit as mind-bending as its story. With regards to the writing, some chapters elicit genuine awe as the carefully plotted, time-twisting strands of the story come together in crushingly disturbing ways. There are great lines of dialogue everywhere, but they never stand out or pull you from the experience. There are moments of real heartbreak and sorrow, pulled as though from thin air when they should have been obvious all along and, in the hands of a less talented director and his co-writers, they would have been. Here, every new reveal is organic, heartfelt, wholly of the story. There’s little to no fat here, despite this being, essentially, a ten-hour long horror movie.
Complimenting the stellar acting and writing is Flanagan’s direction. He goes all out here to create an experience that’s almost as disorienting for the viewer as it is for the cast. He fills the frame with wide, lingering shots, where every shadow may or may not hold secrets. Often, a scene will play out wherein a disquiet lies over the viewer, only to realise at the last second that, yes, there is something there. It’s not your imagination. Or is it? Did that statue really move? Is that painting of a stormy sky really something else, something insidious? That glimpse of a spectral face you’re sure you saw while an otherwise quiet scene played out, was that really there? Some of the most chilling moments of HOHH come from unheralded, half-glimpsed visuals. This story is teeming with ghosts, even when you’re unaware of them, and it adds a massive dose of immersion, forcing the viewer into an almost participatory role in the horrors onscreen.
In one startlingly well-conceived chapter, shots seem to last for up to twenty minutes, following characters not only through locations but through time and space. Were it simply style for style’s sake, it would remain a feat of editing prowess and ingenuity almost unparalleled, but in the context of the story, it drives the narrative and engulfs the viewer to such a degree that is near overwhelming.
There’s more to HOHH. So much more. But to say anything in greater detail would be to spoil the misery, and who the hell am I to spare you such pain? I recommend you strap in, dim the lights, and allow this dark masterpiece to cast its unrelenting spell. It’ll hurt, it’ll disturb, it’ll perhaps even depress, but it’ll stay with you. This is horror in its purest form, an example of the genre done justice, with love and care, depth and heart. It’s not much fun, that’s for sure, but they don’t call our most beloved genre ‘horror’ for nothing.
HOHH is many things – it’s a family drama spanning decades, it’s a ghost story of the highest calibre, it’s a rumination on life and death and what they mean to us as individuals, it’s about addiction, regret, loss, mental illness, and the bonds of love. And it’s the finest representation of the horror genre I can think of in many, many years. We’re entering a new golden-age for the genre, and with artists like Flanagan at the forefront of the charge, we’re in very good hands.
Kyle M. Scott
Kyle M. Scott is a critically acclaimed author of five novels and three collections, all within the horror genre. He lives in Glasgow, Scotland, with his long-suffering partner, an arrogant cat, and an over-active imagination.
He enjoys chatting with his readers, and can regularly be found on social media, despite his somewhat tenuous grasp on technology.
They’ve abducted the wrong kid…
Jess and her friends need money. They need it bad. And with the walls closing in and time running out, they’ve crossed a line from which they can never come back. They’ve kidnapped the daughter of a powerful politician with the intention of holding her to ransom. The plan is solid, the pieces are all in place, and the time is right to reach out and demand what they need in order to secure a better life. In a matter of minutes they’ll reach their hideout, an abandoned homestead nestled deep within the Mojave wilds.
But there’s one thing they haven’t counted on. Something they could never have planned for. Something they can’t possibly comprehend.
A darkness travels with them; ancient, infinite and merciless. It thrives on pain, it feasts on souls, and it’s growing ravenous.
Soon, night will fall, evil will hunt, and all their sins will come home to roost…
“Now start sawing…”
With his loyal band of maniacs by his side, he’s living the dream – torturing, raping and slaughtering his way across the sunshine state. Depravity, debasement and death are his mantras.
Meet The Girl.
Abducted by Jason’s freewheeling gang of murderers, she’s found herself trapped in an unending nightmare of atrocity and torment. The charismatic Jason is a psychopath with a sense of purpose – to bring his victims down to his level – and The Girl is his new favourite project.
But his prisoner has plans of her own…
With a statewide manhunt closing in fast on Jason, he and his gang are running out of time. Their killing spree and their lives are in danger of coming to a bloody end.
Sanctuary is their only hope…
And they’re about to find a place…a secret place, known to only a very select, esteemed few. A place that never closes its doors. A place that welcomes all, regardless of their sins.
Soon The Girl, Jason and all his devoted followers will come to learn that once you’ve walked the hallowed, ornate halls of The Club, there’s only one way out.
And it’ll be hell to pay…
Welcome to Blackhaven, October 31st, 1984…
It’s the era of drive-ins, home computers, board games and, of course, the video nasty.
In this small, sleepy town, cut off from the hardships and the horrors of the modern world, the people have enjoyed a fruitful, peaceful history for all of the 300 years since its founding.
That’s all about to change…
Something is coming. Something unspeakable. Something evil.
300 years ago to the day, the founders of Blackhaven made a deal with an outside force in order to secure their comfort and safety. A deal that now, centuries later – as the innocent townsfolk celebrate Allhallow’s Eve with slasher screenings, trick or treating and fire-lit woodland parties – finally requires payment. A deal that will see the streets run red, and the fires rise. The people of Blackhaven are about to learn the true cost of sacrifice, and the true meaning of the witching season.
Hell is coming to claim what’s owed.
And the Devil will have his day….
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