It looks like Netflix has another hit on its hands. Premiering just in time for Peak Spooky Season, the newest iteration of Shirley Jackson’s classic 1959 novel tells the story of a family and its fraught, twisted psychological relationship with each other and a creepy old mansion - and so far, people are loving it. The story itself is heavily reworked, so it would be more accurate to say that it draws inspiration from Jackson’s novel rather than being a straightforward adaptation, which may have bugged purists, but is something I actually like. This piece of literature has been adapted many times, so it’s nice to see a bit of originality in the way its approached this time, taking the themes and the setting from the original and giving them new legs.
The show is about the Crain family, and their shared trauma from a brief summer spent in Hill House, a creepy old mansion that Mr. Crain and his wife purchased and lived in with their young family in 1992 in order to flip it. The youngest Crain children are terrorized by visions and ghosts, and something terrible happens in the house resulting in the death of their mother. The truth of this terrible thing is withheld until the finale, of course, with most of the plot driven by little driblets and hints of what it might be doled out in measured doses. The show spends most of its time dealing with the lasting impact that terrible thing has had on the five Crain children and their father over the years. It flashes back and forth, rather effortlessly, between the Past and the Present, using different color schemes to drive home the time shifts. The Past is bright and sepia-toned; the Present dark, washed out and dreary.
Each of the first five episodes introduces and tells the story of each of the Crain children, now in adulthood, and their strained relationships with each other and with their dad and the various ways they have chosen to deal with their shared trauma. It is basically like a supernatural family drama, and it works because the acting and the casting are superb, so the family and its dramas feel real and compelling. Sure, the fact that their trauma may or may not be of a supernatural nature helps make it more interesting than your typical bullshit family spats over dinner, but fundamentally there is a dynamic at play in a work like this that you couldn’t pull off if the characters didn’t feel like a real family, with all the strains and bullshit and secrets and petty jealousies and tiny triumphs and love that go one between real family members. And this family has a real texture and feel in the way they relate to one another, so it works. It’s like Bloodline. But with ghosts.
Structurally, the narrative takes a bit of a Rashomon-style approach, viewing those summer months in Hill House through the subjective perceptions of each character. The younger kids had the closest run-ins with whatever supernatural presence was haunting Hill House, while the older kids were spared the worst visions and have thus grown up being highly skeptical of the supernatural roots of their trauma. Instead, they chalk everything up to mental illness and poor Mr. Crain, (played as a young man by Eliot from ET!), gets blamed as a basket-case. So the narrative adds layers, and reveals mysteries, as we see how each family member experienced those terrible months differently.
Stylistically, the show is well-made. There are jump-scares, and creepy-crawlies. There is a virtuoso sequence the night before a funeral that features extended single-take tracking shots, and reads almost like a stage play in the way the camera explores the space and the characters confront one another, dredge up secrets, and bicker over old grievances. The 1990s scenes set in Hill House are very good at hitting just the right notes of longing and nostalgia, using bright and warm colors to make those idyllic days before these terrible things happened seem especially haunting and innocent and inaccessible now. Depictions of an idealized past should be like that, because even when there are no ghosts involved, you can never go back again.
But the show commits a cardinal sin - it burns its best idea midway through. Episode 5 deals with Nell, the youngest Crain child, as she struggles with an apparition known as The Bent-Neck Lady. This was something the show invented, not taken from the novel, and the ending of this episode was flat-out great. I won’t spoil it, but it’s just a great and terrifying sequence that is also a real gut-punch and is one of the best ghost story twists I’ve ever seen. The problem is, this leaves the plot running on fumes for the next 5 episodes as it tries to top that showstopper. And unfortunately, it can’t. All the secrets that it holds back about the terrible tragedy the family experienced at Hill House are finally revealed in the finale, and it falls totally flat and cannot come anywhere close to that Episode 5 shocker. In fact, I truly hated the final episode, and felt cheated because the build-up is not just not satisfying but its very poorly executed, opening with these really stupid fantasy sequences.
And when we finally do have all the secrets laid bare, it’s just kind of disappointing. All that build-up… and that was the best they could come up with? Show-runner Mike Flanagan should have structured the narrative so that Episode 5 was the finale, because that is clearly the best episode he had in his arsenal. By burning it midway through, it really put the show at a disadvantage from which it could never quite recover. A shame, really, but the show is still mostly enjoyable as a family drama revolving around supernatural mysteries. Just wish it could have finished on the high note it deserved.