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Review: "The Haunting of Hill House " is a paragon of paranormal storytelling

Netflix
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Netflix

Do you hear that sound? It's millions of people opening their Netflix applications to watch the horror series "The Haunting of Hill House," a masterpiece of modern storytelling that only gets better as each eerie episode unfolds. 

Netflix has come a long way since it originally made subscribers repackage their own DVDs and send them back to shipping facilities themselves, and "Hill House" now solidifies their elite status among the snobbier networks such as the cerebral HBO and the edgy FX.

They have also found their chef-d'oeuvre in director Mike Flanagan who like Ryan Murphy for FX, has given the brand a polish that sets it above other entertainment services artistically. But whereas Murphy is able to graft new strains of pop culture while cultivating its past, Flanagan who is relatively new to mainstream entertainment explores the moodier side of humanity, putting people in peril for relatable reasons. Last year's "Gerald's Game" which he also helmed for Netflix had only one lead for the majority of the film, and she was tied to a bedpost. That's the talent we are dealing with in "Hill House" but on a much grander scale. 

Already a critical hit and praised by perhaps the harshest critics; the audience, "The Haunting of Hill House" is a 10 episode tapestry that contains so much skill and brilliance you would think Flanagan is coming to the end of his career rather than just beginning it. That gets me excited to see what else he has in store. 

Based in some way, shape, or form on the 1959 gothic novel by Shirley Jackson, "Hill House" follows the Crain family led by mom Olivia (Carla Gugino) and dad Hugh (Henry Thomas) as they move into a majestic but modest mansion they plan on flipping for millions in 1992. But the house has other ideas, none of them good, as it tries to solve the mysteries of its occupants both past and present. And once it does, it begins to claim the delusional victims one-by-one.

The Crains have five children: Steven, Shirley, Theodora (Theo), and twins Luke and Eleanor (Nell). Hill House wants to swallow them all while its ghostly occupants snoop out their new houseguests frightening them in the process. The ghouls hide in the shadows of an unseen maze in the floorplans and only come forward if provoked or curious. 

Not soon after they arrive, tragedy strikes and Hugh must flee with most of his family in the middle of the night, only he knows why they must escape. His son Steven has suspicions.

Twenty-six years later, Steven, who has never had a paranormal encounter, is now an infamous writer who uses his family's experiences at Hill House against them in a tell-all book which basically dismisses their supernatural childhood experiences, calling them emotional coping mechanisms they've held onto through years out of guilt, pain. It becomes clear the house still has remote sway over the family and the fight has been ongoing. 

Another tragedy strikes the Crains, bringing them all together (Hugh now portrayed by Timothy Hutton) each having matured but haunted by normal life events stockpiled with those that happened in Hill House years ago. To go into each character's story arc and personality would take too much time here and ruin the experience of this character-driven slow burn that unwinds like an endlessly crackling Jacob's Ladder. 

All of the performances are award-worthy starting with the younger Crains portrayed by some of the most talented youngsters I've ever seen. Julian Hilliard as the young Luke has a maturity in his craft that demands attention. And Violet McGraw as young Nell is so haunting she may overshadow her adult counterpart. But not by much.

Kate Siegel as the adult Theo is a woman so tormented with natural and supernatural internal conflict she literally can't feel anything but simultaneously feels everything. Siegal stood out to me because she connects with Theo on a molecular level and her performance is robust as a powerful woman unable to focus on the things that truly matter, but possess the gifts to profoundly do so.

Oliver Jackson-Cohen as older Luke is a little underutilized on screen and Elizabeth Reaser as older Shirley shows some true power as a woman so angry she's blind to accountability. 

The beautiful Carla Gugino as mom and Henry Thomas as her husband exude true chemistry as parents suffering through some lean years. 

But the real character here is Hill House itself. It knows that the living hold on to their insecurities and in that conflict, it can divide and conquer. Once it figures out what will do the most damage it begins an insidious plan of human destruction, gathering its victims and imprisoning them to a life of loneliness unless they can manipulate others to join them. It's a spider web within a spider web. 

The film overall feels like "This is Us" if Stephen King had written it. That makes the drama aspect a little heavy-handed but is offset by some truly terrifying scenes soaked in savory suspense. 

The underscored main story is zippered into the teeth of flashbacks which transition in and out at any given time by visual or auditory segues. 

"The Legend of Hill House" doesn't rely on shock-scares to tell its story. That trend is thankfully utilized at a minimum, the fear festers organically. But that doesn't mean it's not scary. Hidden ghosts that roam the halls, an ethereal puppetmaster who seems to be the architect of this evil lot which works hard to use love as a weapon is a grim reminder that in this divisive day and age, the real monster may be ourselves or at least the greed we need for a verified ego.

That ego, if nurtured, separates us from safety in numbers; in that weakness, evil has the boost it needs to prevail especially if we are in the throes of mental illness. The film gets scarier still when it transcends the screen and you realize you are also in the grips of Hill House's manipulations because one of its many characters is actually you. 

What "Hill House" says is if evil is made of the very thing that is supposed to shelter us then what failsafe is in place to protect us from that? The answer, Flanagan proposes, is family and community. The terror comes when both of those things abandon you. 

"The Haunting of Hill House" is now streaming on Netflix.