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The Haunting of Hill House - Season One - Review - "Always Our Forever Home"

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"This is just a summer, just a few weeks' visit...When the summer is over, we go back...
Hill House is not forever, you know."


The Crain family had no plans to stay at Hill House. It was just their latest fixer upper; in fact, it was supposed to be their last one. Olivia Crain told her oldest daughter Shirley that their next property would be the house they built for themselves: their forever home. Shirley later builds a model of the family home Olivia designed. The Crains never build the real thing, because their family didn't survive the summer spent in Hill House. Neither did Olivia. But the dream of a forever house is carried on by Hill House itself, twisted into a dangerous nightmare that reaches out to the Crain family survivors with open arms.

In its very first episode, "Steven Sees a Ghost," Haunting reveals that two horrible things happen to the Crain family. The youngest child Nell returns to Hill House in present day and dies there, the episode ending with eldest child Steven seeing her ghost. In the past, Hugh Crain fled Hill House with his children, waking Steven from his bed in the middle of the night and telling him to keep his eyes shut. Steven didn't keep his eyes shut, though, and we see flashes of something disturbing walking quickly towards them. The other children are already out in the car, crying hysterically and calling for their mother. Steven insists that he saw their mom in the house. We find out later she wasn't supposed to be home. Hugh pauses only for a second and says that wasn't her. Steven is the only one who looks back and sees the woman standing in the upstairs window. It's a very upsetting beginning to a very unnerving story. Right away, with that first episode, we know that Hill House somehow consumed Nell and Olivia, and every flashback adds another coat of sorrowful dread as the adult Crain siblings once again face ghosts.

"I had my eyes shut the whole time."

The title of that first episode is important, because Steven appears to be the least affected of all the children. He has even written a book sensationalizing what happened to their family that kickstarted an entire series of sequel ideas on haunted places. What is gradually revealed to us is that Steven has been desperate to get answers. He has told himself that his mother was insane and that his siblings (and himself) are possibly crazy too. His last memory of Olivia, his last clear image of her, is her kissing him goodbye the day she supposedly left for Aunt Janet's. He didn't see "her" in the kitchen that night. He wasn't at the fatal tea party in the Red Room. He wasn't able to witness her fate secondhand like Theo did. Steven's only remembrance of anything unusual was Olivia lashing out and smashing the mirror. In the scene where Young Steven (Paxton Singleton) looks at the tabloids, his faith in Hugh visibly weakens. Immediately afterwards, when they are in the car, he asks his dad about losing custody of them. Hugh reassures him that won't happen, but Steven doesn't seem to believe him. Hugh does lose custody of the kids, but he lost Steven before that. It makes the later scene where Steven blurts out to his father that he decided to not have children of his own that much more painful. Michiel Huisman's performance as adult Steven mixes brisk authority with forlorn wistfulness. He is the most untouched by Hill House, which should give him an advantage in protecting his siblings if it weren't for the fact that it gives him more room for denial.

"Kittens are supposed to be with their mommies." 

This isn't a "heroes and villains" story, but Hill House is clearly the antagonist. And the protagonist of the past storyline is Olivia, and the true horror is watching how Hill House chips away at her sanity, poisoning her, and twisting her love for her family into something insidious. The only thing more horrible for a loving parent than not being able to protect their child is being the one to hurt them. Olivia's sensitivities make her more vulnerable to attack, but it's also implied that the House especially hates her for standing between the House and her children. Every action she takes to comfort her children or boost their courage seems to anger the House even more than Hugh attempting to fix its blemishes. Hill House is a living character, with beauties and terrors and quirks and secrets. It's deceitful, but sometimes it provides security. And it molds Olivia into its own image. It would take several paragraphs to properly break down Carla Gugino's powerful, intricate performance.

One scene in particular that I couldn't shake was in episode two when Olivia sits down with Shirley, helping her deal with the death of the kittens. A truly gruesome and heartbreaking bit of foreshadowing by the way. When Shirley asks about the surviving kitten, Olivia lies and says they found it a new home. Shirley sees though the lie right away, and Olivia falls apart, first trying to reinforce the lie then becoming defensive then angry. Then the migraine strikes. But it's not the same as the ones we're told Olivia usually has. In that scene with Shirley, we see Olivia's confidence flake away, just a bit at first, then all of a sudden it's all gone and she's in pain. It's only a couple minutes, but it's more foreshadowing.

"There was no color at all. It was pitch black. Like fireworks but black." 

Death is a mood in Hill House, even without the ghosts that are sprinkled into the background for your subconscious to file away for future nightmares. Almost every inch of the house that isn't dark wood or a crusty statue screams funeral home carpet, with the kitchen being the main exception. Shirley runs her own funeral home as an adult, living near the property with her husband and two children. Her sister Theo lives in the guest house. "Fear and guilt are sisters," or so the quote goes. And Shirley is the latter sister. Elizabeth Reaser, who plays grown Shirley, is a marvel and perfectly cast. It's impossible to watch her and not see both Lulu Wilson (who plays her young counterpart) and Carla Gugino. Shirley strongly resents that Steven wrote a book about what happened to their family. She is calmly constantly unhappy and determined to put things in order. Like her father, Shirley's confidence comes from fixing things. When something is broken because of her actions, it gnaws at Shirley, and we learn very gradually what her biggest regret is. And it's not directly tied to her childhood. More than anyone else in the family, Shirley wants to pretend that the events at Hill House didn't unfold the way she remembers. She comes across as overly critical and uncaring at times, but Reaser always reminds us of the pain she carries. It's there just under her skin. Shirley hasn't buried her family tragedies out of sight; she's wrapped herself in them. She's the strongest of the Crains, which makes it very effective when something happens that does scare her. The funeral home spooking is perhaps the most suspenseful scene of the season. And that epilogue moment where Shirley confesses to her husband and tells him "I'm going to ask you to love me hard for the next few minutes, and it might be the hardest you've ever had to love me" is so beautiful it hurts.

"I believe you."

If Shirley's kryptonite is guilt, Theodora's is fear. But maybe no one has more just cause to be afraid than Theo. Her story is also the most uneven, which is a pity because she's a fascinating character.
Young Theo, played by McKenna Grace, discovers that she has special abilities. By touching things and people, she sees and feels things, such is what they are thinking, what happened to them, what they are hiding, etc. In one startling moment, Theo touches her mother's hand and sees an image of her disfigured with half her head smashed in. (We're not shown a close-up of Olivia after Hugh finds her body, but in Theo's vision she's wearing the same bathrobe/nightgown she dies in.) Theo also knows what really happened that night, because Hugh grabbed her arm as they were fleeing the house. Her present day story, however, focuses on her sometimes tense relationship with Shirley, which to be sure results in some electric scenes. Her career field allows her to help children process their own trauma and shows us how empathetic and strong Theo is. Kate Siegel is luminescent in this role. You feel every spark of Theo's courage, even as she carries immense burdens. But her relationships to her other siblings, besides Shirley, weren't explored. And her revelation that she chose to stay with Shirley so her older sister wouldn't be alone could have used some backstory. There were no flashbacks to the younger in-between years, such as what life was like at Aunt Janet's, and those might have helped to better flesh out the siblings' present day relationships. That being said, if The Haunting of Hill House gets some sort of sequel exploring a different set of haunted places and people, Theo is most certainly a character it would be wonderful to see more of.

"Would you wake us up from a dream like that?"

Nell and Luke, the twins, are at the epicenter of everything that happens. Two more adorable children have never existed. We immediately feel protective and proud of them. The show proceeds to torture us by making us watch them be tormented by the House. Setting aside that they look like baby angels (so much!), they are compelling individuals in their own right. 

Luke has a boundless supply of love to give. He wants to protect Nell. He wants to befriend the shy little girl in the woods. He wants his big brother to play with him. Julian Hilliard is a very talented actor. His wonder is so vivid, as is his fear. In the dumbwaiter scene, I started yelling for them to save him. And Violet McCraw as Little Nell! It's almost too traumatizing to discuss, but some part of Little Nell recognizes the Bent-Neck Lady. There is a constant shadow over her demeanor, a sadness that never ever lifts, and even before we know the exact truth....even before we know Nell has died, it's impossible to think that Little Nell is going to be okay. Victoria Pedretti and Oliver Jackson-Cohen take over playing the twins as adults. Neither twin is able to shake Hill House, with Nell stricken with sleep paralysis over and over and Luke becoming an addict. Their bond isn't broken by Nell's death. The way Luke grows cold as her body across the country grows cold is devastating. And it is Nell's ghost that resists the House and pushes Luke back to life. 
I often wondered watching the show if there were complications with Nell and Luke's birth. Olivia was especially worried for them and carried their pictures in her locket and no one else's. It's a very common thread in movies and TV that characters who try to prevent something awful end up causing it. But that didn't make the moment Olivia kills Nell any less agonizing and awful. (The way Carla Gugino transformed in that scene!) Pedretti smoothly incorporates McCraw's expressions into her own performance. And her scene in the finale when Nell talks to her siblings and reveals the truth about the Red Room is so poignant. She's not haunted anymore, and there are no more scary moments in the house after that conversation.

"Think of me when it rains."

The reunion of the Crain siblings at the end of the season comes in a hopeful montage. It's so hopeful that some horror fans might feel underwhelmed. Steve commits to rebuilding his marriage and starting a family. Shirley comes clean about her infidelity. And Theo moves out, discarding her gloves, to live with her girlfriend. Luke celebrates his second year of sobriety with his family. After the heartbreak and anger and terrors they have endured, this "happy ending" for the siblings has been earned. It's easy watching that montage to forget the horrors. That Olivia was driven mad and accidentally murdered an innocent little girl, that she ran after her family and threw herself to her death because she thought the whole thing was a bad dream, that she died alone and afraid and that losing her children was her last memory. That the Dudleys must remain at the house forever, in this life and the next, in order to be with the ghosts of their children. And that Hugh kills himself to set his surviving children free, after living for years with nothing but his own grief and guilt to keep him company. After all of that, they've earned some birthday cake. And so have we!

Mike Flanagan is a genius in this genre, and the way he builds the suspense and slowly unveils the scares makes this the perfect show to watch alone in the dark, if you want to die of fright. But he doesn't shy away from constructing well-rounded characters that you can love. There is a lack of emotional manipulation here. He said that having characters the audience could care about was the most important part, because it would make us more afraid for them. He succeeded on both counts. And the cinematography, especially in "Two Storms," just reaches out and grabs your eyeballs. The season finale focuses on the characters, as the only mysteries left are their fates, instead of the scares. But the Crain sibings and the audience aren't about to sweep any part of it under the rug. The ghosts that haunt every episode, sometimes lingering in the smallest corner shadow, gather en masse to watch the surviving Crains leave for the last time.  Steve might not look back at the ghosts when he leaves Hill House, but he and we will always know they are there. 

"I won't let anything happen to them."
"It's not that simple."

So time for some group therapy!

What made you cry?
Did you scream?
Have your plans to buy a fixer upper been altered by this show?
How often did you want to hug a character on this show?
Should characters from this show be in a sequel set somewhere else?
Also, am I the only one who lost consciousness with the jump scare in the car?
Carla Gugino is spellbinding, am I right?! 

The most horrific part for me was when Olivia briefly regained her sanity and tried to go after Hugh and the kids. Her last moments of clarity were spent trying to reunite with her family.

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