The Haunting of Hill House
The first sound we hear, in the first episode of The Haunting of Hill House, is of a child crying. Steve gets out of bed to investigate; when he opens the door to Luke and Nell’s room, she’s sitting up in bed, having just seen the bent-neck lady. But we don’t actually see her crying, and the crying we heard didn’t sound like a 6-year-old. It sounded like a baby. Not knowing what to make of that little detail, my mind filed it away for later.
Now, in episode seven, we get a possible explanation for that sound — one that shows the complexity of what director Mike Flanagan is trying to pull off with this series. The good news is that he almost always succeeds. And when he really hits the mark, as he does with the backstory of the Dudleys and their baby, the story has a depth that’s very, very hard to achieve in this genre.
“This house is schizophrenic,” Olivia complains to Hugh. They’re talking about its mold problem, which, after the storm, is suddenly everywhere. For a moment there are shades of The Money Pit, as they try to assess the damage and tally up their losses. (“This could ruin us,” Hugh says, not realizing that the house already has.) It’s a nice touch that Hugh and Mr. Dudley mark the moldy walls with spray-painted X’s, as if there were a body behind each of them. As far as we know, that’s only true for one, as Hugh discovers after a brilliantly shot sequence in the basement that squeezes all the possible juice out of that particular scare. The scratching noises in the wall, the shadowy figure in the Polaroid, the various people who put their eyes and ears dangerously close to the hole, and the awful final unveiling — nothing’s held back! I drove myself a little crazy trying to figure out if Hugh’s shadow, as he whacks the bricks out of the wall, is entirely in sync with his actions; it seems to be just a little off, like everything else in the house. One complaint: It seems terribly unfair to poor Luke that the guy emerges in the scene with the dumbwaiter but stays bricked up in the wall for everyone else. On the other hand, if we didn’t already know what was in the wall, this episode wouldn’t be as scary.
Mr. Dudley makes a very effective case for Olivia needing a little time away from the house — it’s a shame Hugh’s too busy shooting him down to hear it. Mr. Dudley opens his speech with an apologetic, “Maybe it’s not my place, but … ” To which Hugh retorts, “You’re right, it’s not your place” — one of the double entendres this series does so well. Indeed, Hill House isn’t Mr. Dudley’s place. The story he tells — a brilliant elaboration on the only thing we know about the Dudleys in the novel, which is that they don’t stay at the house after dark — demonstrates both how uncongenial the house is to him and, if one is inclined to think this way, how brilliant the house is at sniffing out the particular vulnerabilities of each person who enters it. But it is Hugh’s place, literally. He owns it. And right now, he’s worried that his family will be stuck there forever — for financial reasons, obviously.
Olivia is still maddeningly mysterious. I’ve been hoping for some more backstory on the Crains’ marriage, but time is starting to run out on that. We don’t know anything about them — where they’re from, how they met, why they decided to have so many kids … In episode two, Olivia talked (the ideas come straight from Shirley Jackson, though the words don’t) about how a house is like a person’s body: “The walls are like bones, the pipes are veins. It needs to breathe, it needs light … and it all works together to keep us safe and healthy inside.” Now, the thing that tips Hugh off that she’s losing it — though it takes her holding a screwdriver to his throat to convince him — is the design she’s drawn all over the blueprints of Hill House that she’s putting together. It’s the outline of the house that’s supposed to be their “forever house,” which she’s designing for him to build. Later, Shirley will have her own model of a forever house in her office. Even before we saw it get trashed in this episode, it seemed safe to assume she wouldn’t get to live in it, either.
In the novel, it’s Eleanor who finally becomes one with the house, communicating with it as if it were a person, feeling it come alive all around her. In the show, Nell and Olivia are the characters most closely in tune with each other, as even their apparitions reflect. Note the difference, in the funeral scenes, between Olivia’s ghost as “coping mechanism” (in the words of the older Hugh) and her appearances as the bent-neck lady. In the first, she’s a fantasy in every way: not only glowing with love and kindness, but also swanning around in a slinky blue-green evening gown. With spaghetti straps and a cut-out beneath her cleavage, it’s more appropriate for a wedding in South Beach than for her daughter’s funeral. The poem Shirley reads at the funeral — which includes the lines “She’s not dead, she’s just away” — feels just a little too on-point.
I started to feel sorry for older Hugh in this episode. Timothy Hutton’s face — looking back at pictures of him from Ordinary People, he actually does look a little like Henry Thomas — looks weathered, exhausted, just beaten down by life. (In that movie, too, he struggles to cope with the death of a loved one.) It’s too bad he still has such a gift for saying the wrong thing — although here it’s more an issue of not saying the right thing. It’s painful to see him come face-to-face with each of his children and repeatedly fail to speak the words each of them wants to hear: “I’m sorry.” (And painful to hear Luke spit his own line back at him: “Big boys know the difference between what’s real and imaginary — isn’t that right, dad?”) Olivia’s ghost, for him, isn’t just a coping mechanism. It’s a way for him to avoid confronting what he lacks as a parent.
• There are a few traits the Shirley character shares with the actual Shirley Jackson. Chewing out the florist, as she does in the beginning of this episode, is exactly the kind of thing Jackson did to service people who let her down. There’s a very funny instance of this in her memoir Raising Demons, in which she berates the head of the moving company who has failed to deliver her furniture. (Shirley’s love of cats is another of these traits — Jackson’s cats were famous for their litters of kittens.)
• This episode again gives us reason to think that Luke, true to his namesake, is a liar and a thief. I’m going to continue to believe the best of him until proved otherwise. Although if the graveside vision he had wasn’t enough to push him back into addiction, I don’t know what would. Still, maybe there’s another explanation, like a call from Joey?
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