When I heard Netflix had done a series based on The Haunting of Hill House, I was happy. Hill House is undoubtedly a high watermark in horror. Some would say one of the highest and I wouldn’t argue with that assessment.
Usually, I’m the person who watches things ten years after everyone else does, but for whatever reason I jumped on the bandwagon with this one. I watched. And I got hooked. And I fell in love. And then it all slipped away. And then I got angry because it was happening again.
Hill House, that venerable grand dame of the horror genre, had just been re-imagined.
The first time I became aware of re-imaginings was with Battlestar Galactica. I’d barely seen the original but for some reason I decided to try the new one. I got through two seasons before I lost interest. I remember thinking that it was nothing like the original. Then I got annoyed when the realization set in: These writers had had their own original ideas, slapped “Galactica,” “Cyclon,” and “Starbuck” on it and manipulated the existing fan base for their own profit.
Call me an artiste (who barely gets published and has to work minimum wage jobs, I admit), but that seems skeezy. Why wouldn’t you have enough faith in your own ideas to give them their own name?
Remakes are one thing. At their core their makers aren’t trying anything new. They may be expanding on the concepts or highlighting different aspects of the story (or running the story in the ground for profit). Franchises are another thing. Different stories within the same world can be fun (though some franchises need to stop at a certain point). But neither of these strategies pretends the work is something it isn’t.
Penny Dreadful was where I noticed it next. Except that the makers of Penny Dreadful stole from several authors. I didn’t make it past the second episode. Why did Dracula have to be in that show? Why not another vampire? Your own vampire? Why did Frankenstein have to be your science guy? You couldn’t have made him any scientific rivals?
As I said, I didn’t get past the second episode, so I can’t tell if the writers actually kept those characters as the original writers had created them – which means they were lazy and couldn’t be bothered to populate the world they had created – or they put the names on their own creations for the recognition. Either way, I’m not a fan.
I actually think what bugs me even more is that if someone bases their characters too closely off the likes of Dracula or Frankenstein but call them something else, they get written off as derivative. Turns out if you use the name, you can do whatever you want! It makes me think of The Black Lizard, the villain of Edogawa Rampo’s novel of the same name. There’s a great line where she talks about how, if you want to get away with something, you do it in broad daylight with your head held high, then everyone will believe you’re supposed to be doing it and let you.
But we’re here to talk about The Haunting of Hill House.
I’m a fan of both Absentia and Oculus so I had faith in Mike Flanagan’s abilities. And the show started with that line of lines “whatever walks in that house walked alone.” I thought I’d be able to forgive it anything from there.
Turns out, I couldn’t.
The group of investigators of the novel becomes a family led by real estate dealer parents that moves into Hill House intending to flip it. They share names with the characters in the book and a few perfunctory traits. Nell is frail and the house focuses on her. Luke is the bad boy. Theo has some psychic abilities. What unfolds is a lovely story about a dysfunctional family unable to face a shared trauma and nearly destroyed by grief.
It has some good things going for it. It’s the type of story I would expect Flanagan to tell and tell well. There’s a lot to be mined here and it almost works (Flanagan and crew probably shouldn’t have been given ten episodes. Forcing them to keep it more compact probably would have helped the proceedings a lot).
The end of episode 6, where Nell as the Broken Neck Lady is standing next to her own coffin after watching her family argue all night, and the voice of herself as a child says over and over, “I was right here the whole time and you couldn’t see me” left me a sobbing wreck for about 20 minutes.
I’m not against family drama in horror. What I am against is claiming Hill House destroyed these people’s lives and then have largely nothing to do with the building. In her novel, Jackson is extremely careful not to reveal whether what the investigator’s experience is caused by the house or by the mental state of the people in it. Flanagan seems almost to be trying to do this and maybe that’s why they stayed away from the house so much. There’s just one little problem with them taking that avenue: This Hill House is haunted beyond a shadow of a doubt.
Now, for my part, I don’t think the Hill House of the novel is haunted. I think the house is sentient. But it can be interpreted as haunted and I don’t mind someone running with that at all. The Hill House of the show is haunted. By a shit ton of ghosts. I’m okay with this for two reasons. First, my natural inclination. Yay ghosts! MORE GHOSTS!!! Second, the sheer number of ghosts they put in the house fits nicely into my belief that Hill House is one of the best, most calculating and dangerous baddies the horror genre has ever produced.
The problem comes in when you realize that they’ve created all these beautiful ghosts (who really are magnificently designed) and we never find out who they are or why they are. As far as I’m concerned, that is a crime. Ghosts are as much characters as anyone else in your story. They deserve development and attention as much as any living character does.
Episode 9 actually bugged me a little. It was amazing! I love Poppy! And that seduction and the mental breaking of Olivia is what the book was all about! But why didn’t it happen six or seven episodes ago?
Then I watched episode 10 and the whole house of cards came crashing down and I realized I let this suck me in. This is my own fault. I saw this for the re-imagining it was from the beginning but I allowed it in instead of flipping it the finger and walking away like I should have.
I can’t compare this show to the novel because it has nothing to do with the novel and it never did. This is a story that Mike Flanagan wanted to tell but somewhere along the way, someone decided to slap the name “Hill House” on it to make it easier to market.
Remember, writers, your idea is useless unless you can shoehorn it into something that has already been extensively marketed!
I can judge the show on its own merits and it falls in line with the rest of the re-imaginings: a few bright spots in an otherwise sloppy, half-assed, manipulative and melodramatic pile of trash that almost manages to convince you it’s something it’s not.
I have to admit, I can’t quite be as high and mighty about this as I’m being. I enjoyed the hell out of Sleepy Hollow and the Resident Evil franchise. But while Sleepy Hollow is a re-imagining, it was also a great screaming train wreck that the creators never took seriously and they basically stood and pointed the whole time going, “look what we did to American history! Isn’t this stupid?!” The Resident Evil Franchise likewise didn’t aim very high, but it also had zombies with rocket launchers and chainsaws. I really will forgive anything if you have zombies with rocket launchers and chainsaws. If The Haunting of Hill House had had zombies with rocket launchers and chainsaws, this would be a very different post.
There’s nothing wrong with being inspired by great works. I’d be the first to admit that about 3/4 of everything I write is inspired by Ju-On. There’s nothing wrong with that (I mean, besides the fact that I could think of something else every once in awhile). But I also don’t call everything I write Ju-On and expect Shimizu fans to support me because they supported him.
So here’s to the day when writers will no longer be expected to ride the coat tails of those who came before. They’ll be allowed to believe in their work and let it shine on its own.
Until that time…