When I first heard the premise for this show, I was skeptical. Why invoke a classic book if you’re only going to use it as a jumping-off point for a completely new storyline? That’s a first, as far as I know — even The Leftovers, though it eventually went off to do its own thing, stuck with Tom Perrotta’s novel through its first season. But The Haunting of Hill House really comes into its own with episode three, and I’m starting to see the genius in how director Mike Flanagan has made a modern family drama out of Shirley Jackson’s original material. The show has more in common with the first few seasons of Lost, with its in-depth character studies and whiffs of a monstrous force beyond our understanding, than with any horror movie I’ve seen.
That said, the origins of Theo’s special power turn out to be a little cheesy. Finally, we’re given the novel’s famous “Whose hand was I holding?” scene (here’s the version in the Robert Wise film), except it’s Theo holding the ghostly hand, which she thinks is her sister Nell’s. Afterwards, she’s able to have intuitions about things — and people — by laying her hands on them, like a plain wooden box that, to her parents’ delight, turns out to contain a vintage bottle of wine. We’re getting more and more of a sense of what domestic life in Hill House looks like, and some of it is pretty normal — as it needs to be, for the horror to take maximum effect. Mckenna Grace (young Tonya in I, Tonya), with her crooked smile and defiant shrug, is perfect at conveying Theo’s tough-kid exterior. But the whirl of impressions gets to be a bit much, and Theo is relieved when her mother presents her with a pair of gloves to block them out. It turns out the women in the family tend to be “sensitive.” (Some people do actually believe that migraines and psychic ability are related. Then again, some people believe in psychic ability.)
The first episode centered mainly on Steve; the second gave us a closer look at Shirley. Now we see the adult Theo (Kate Siegel, Flanagan’s wife, who had the starring role in his film, Hush, which she co-wrote, and a major part in his Ouija: Origin of Evil, a movie that shares a ridiculous number of actors with this show) at work as a child psychologist, which is a deeply altruistic way to use her powers. The little girl she’s counseling is so guarded that Theo can’t see into her mind. But when she pays a surprise visit to the girl’s foster parents, their basement couch yields the secret to her behavioral problems. We’re starting to see a pattern: There may be a mundane explanation for things that sound supernatural, like the creepy man the girl calls “Mr. Smiley,” but the truth is actually more disturbing.
The foster family lives in a handsome red-brick colonial that looks perfectly respectable from the outside. Even Hill House looks almost pretty in the sunlight, and it has some cool features, like the old-fashioned intercom, shaped like a trumpet, that connects one of the bedrooms to the kitchen. Too bad the dumbwaiter goes in only one direction. But if a house is like a human being — an idea Olivia introduced in the last episode, and one that comes straight from Shirley Jackson — it’s just as good as we are at concealing what’s inside.
In contrast to her sisters, adult-Theo wears a thick mask of makeup and projects an attitude of invulnerability. It’s a surprise when she opens up to the woman she picked up at the bar, whom she booty-calls in the wake of her grief over Nell. (The best line of the whole series so far was in the first episode, when Shirley teased her about the “pussy parade” to and from her bedroom.) The video she dances to, as a child, in an empty room at Hill House is Paula Abdul’s “Cold Hearted” (which, incidentally, puts us in the late 1980s), and in the first couple of episodes she might have earned that description, but not anymore. The moment when she bravely lays her hands on her sister’s corpse, ready to see what happened to her, might have been played for cheap thrills, but Flanagan wisely chooses not to. Theo’s screams and sobs, alone in the room, aren’t just frightening — they’re also heartbreaking.
• The house’s cold spot finally shows up: It seems to be in the ballroom. At least, it’s somewhere on the first floor. It would help to have a better sense of the house’s layout, assuming the labyrinth in the opening credits isn’t meant to be literal.
• There’s a reference to James Randi, a Canadian magician who’s made a career out of debunking the paranormal. The organization he founded used to offer a $1 million reward for anyone who could provide demonstrable evidence of the supernatural. No one ever won it.
• It’s the summer, so that explains why the kids have nothing to do but hang around the house, but won’t they need to start school in the fall? I’m a parent — I can’t help thinking about this stuff.
• There’s a less sinister explanation for Mr. Harris’s checkbook. (It’s fitting that the royalties from Steven’s book about Hill House are a plot point — Jackson supported her family with her earnings.) Maybe his name will turn out to be a red herring. Still, I’m worried.
• The name of Luke’s imaginary friend is Abigail. Considering what took place in the basement during this episode, I’m guessing we’ll hear more from him in the next one.
• In the novel, a “book of secrets” is discovered, but it isn’t a bootlegging ledger. It’s a moralistic book Hugh Crain makes for his daughter with creepy illustrations of the seven deadly sins and other religious ideas, signed in Crain’s blood.
Fear Factor (1: The Mummy - 5: The Ring): 4