Despite eight enjoyably grandiose seasons of American Horror Story, TV still only rarely dips its toes into the classic horror genre. So credit to writer/director Mike Flanagan, for attempting this ambitious, ten-hour update of a classic novel that previously spawned two films of wildly varying quality. Thankfully, the mood of this re-telling is more akin to the slow-burn intensity of Robert Wise’s 1963 monochrome The Haunting, than the effects-driven mess that was the 1999 version.
Flanagan’s revamp focuses on the Crane family of troubled siblings brought up in the grim mansion of the title, cutting between their childhood with their disparate present-day lives. Flanagan establishes a richly creepy, off-kilter atmosphere from the start, exploiting the Gothic setting of Hill House to the full. Every beautifully-lit shot draws us in to this bleakly inhospitable setting, where shadowy figures roam, but possibly only in the minds of its inhabitants.
The show makes us care deeply about the characters and worry intensely about them.
Much of the credit for the show’s acute level of creepiness goes to the cast, with charismatic child actors matched perfectly to their adult incarnations, of which Brit Oliver Jackson-Cohen is the standout, playing the youngest and most brooding of the family. The siblings’ weirdo dad is played in the flashback scenes by Henry Thomas, and in the current timeline by Timothy Hutton. Both are eerily perfect.
Flanagan’s expansion of the original story into multiple timelines takes some getting used to, especially when he suddenly cuts to, say, a no-holds-barred sex scene and you’re not quite sure who is getting off with whom. Yet despite the over-riding tone of impending doom, there are flashes of humour. Hence the appearance of a basket of absurdly fluffy kittens. Most of the time, though, the show makes us care deeply about the characters and worry intensely about what’s going to happen to them.