“Whose hand was I holding?”
Theo’s last words of the cold open of “Touch” are lifted directly from Shirley Jackson’s novel, and from Robert Wise’s 1963 adaptation. Nothing else in this scene, or this episode, is. It’s just another in a series of allusions and quotations that spur me to wonder why this is an adaptation at all.
Mike Flanagan’s The Haunting Of Hill House is a perfectly competent piece of scary storytelling, a slightly dreary but highly watchable collection of characters and stories straining to fill up the towering framework of a classic of American literature. But in addition to its legendary literary status, The Haunting is also a classic horror film, which adds another dimension to this reimagining. It’s as if someone remade The Shining but put the cast of Cabin In The Woods (and their childhood counterparts) in The Overlook Hotel, assigning the Torrances’ names willy-nilly to the unusually attractive characters. (I picked this example nearly at random, but the near-joke doesn’t fill me with excitement to see Mike Flanagan’s adaptation of Doctor Sleep, which he says will pay homage both to Stephen King’s novel and Stanley Kubrick’s film.)
The Shining is an apt comparison, since audiences have long battled over the value of an adaptation that uses its source material as a jumping-off point, not an outline. But whatever you think of Kubrick’s The Shining, when it strips away the content and context of the horrors visited upon the Torrance family by The Overlook (and the ones they bring into their snowbound sojourn themselves), the film replaces the novel’s elaborate build of daily tensions and ghostly visitations with a powerful sense of dislocation (in time, in space), with a nearly unspoken loathing (on Jack’s part) and brittle, faux-cheerful fear (on Wendy’s). It finds its own ways to covey Danny’s silent, creeping dread of things seen and unseen. 1980's The Shining takes away the overheated, explosive fever of King’s novel and replaces it with the creeping cold of Kubrick’s vision.
The Haunting Of Hill House does none of that. Instead, it takes the efficient, occasionally stunning style of Mike Flanagan and the overstuffed family drama of this reimagined Crain family and stretches it out over 10+ hours. Even by this third episode, their conflicts begin to feel more like bickering than compelling drama, and the glimpses into their individual experiences of Hill House’s horrors, jolting though they are, do little to deepen the tension, earthbound or unearthly.
In “Touch,” Kate Siegel (star and co-writer of Flanagan’s outstanding Hush) takes her starring turn as Theodora Crain. As a child (played by Mckenna Grace), Theo demonstrates the ability, Johnny Smith-style, to divine secrets about people or objects by laying her hands on them. As an adult, Theo protects herself by donning gloves and by putting up barriers. In the premiere, she describes those barriers as “boundaries,” a suitable word for the child psychologist she has become. For Theo, those boundaries are literal layers of protection between the world her knowing hands. But like Shirley, Theo carries more scars from her childhood than she acknowledges, and like Shirley, she reveals the unhealthy depth of her preoccupations in conversation with a child client.
When Kelsey (Charli Slaughter) tells Theo about visits from “Mr. Smiley,” she congratulates the child on her toughness, on her ability to shield herself from the things that scare her. “You’re a lot like me,” Theo says, building a metaphor of toughness as “a brick wall” that they construct piece by piece, forever stacking them thicker and taller “so no one ever gets in.” “It’s okay, it’s good,” she reassures her patient, commending this vulnerable child for shutting down any ability to connect to another person at the very time when she should learning to bond.
Theo values toughness over tenderness, and with good reason. When Olivia notices her middle daughter’s insights, she reveals that being “sensitive” runs in the family. Olivia has moments of psychic insight, and she’s spotted similar traits in all her daughters. Theo’s first pair of gloves—her armor again other people’s secrets—are a gift from her mother. Given the timing, they’re likely one of the last gifts Olivia will give her, as well as the most important. And her mother’s praise seems destined to resonate as well. “I really really don’t like that you went down there by yourself,” Olivia says after Theo finds the hidden bootleggers’ cellar. “But I love that you’re so brave.” Spoken months or weeks before her mother’s death, those words loom larger than her mother could have predicted.
In her private life, Theo shuns connection, browsing the crowd at her favorite bar for a fun pick-up, kicking her out the moment they’re done. It’s not just other people Theo protects herself from; she wants nothing to do with her own history, as demonstrated by her refusal to read (or to admit she’s read) Steven’s manuscript of the childhood haunting they all shared. She’s brave. She’s tough. She doesn’t get sad, she gets angry. And she defends people who can’t defend themselves, whether it’s Luke wailing that no one believes him about the cellar or the (apparently many) children she’s rescued from predatory parents.
Even in Theo’s spotlight episode, it’s Luke who sees the worst horrors of Hill House—and those horrors, once seen, lose a lot of their nightmarish force. When Theo helps him take the dumbwaiter down to that secret cellar, the potent, claustrophobic fear of a child trapped in an unknown darkness quickly devolves into haunted-house nonsense as a gruesome, rotting figure crawls from the dark to claw at the screaming boy. The first glimpse of its lax limb creeping out from behind a barrel is chilling, thrilling. The continued shots showing its crawling form, its ribcage, its distorted face show us too much, leave too little to haunt the imagination.
Mike Flanagan knows that the greatest tool in a horror creator’s toolbox is restraint. In his own words:
When it comes to horror, I strongly believe two things to be true:
1) What you don’t see is always scarier than what you do, and
2) The explanation is never as satisfying as the question.
Yet over and over again, The Haunting Of Hill House drafts new outlandish horrors—some seemingly connected only by their proximity within Hill House, many of them entirely unconnected from the larger narrative—and makes both characters and viewers take long looks at them. The Bent-Neck Lady, the cellar crawler, Mr. Smiley. Are they briefly scary? Okay, sure. Are they meaningful in any way, to the characters or to us? Not yet. And with a narrative designed to be watched in episodes, not yet matters.
“Touch” has its strengths, and none of them would be possible without Siegel’s level, intent performance, which is only emphasized by moments where she pretends a breezy ease, as she does taking her leave of Kelsey’s foster dad.
There are some thematic repetions here, too. The bootlegger’s cellar of Hill House, the perfectly normal basement of Kelsey’s new home, the workroom underneath Harris Funeral Home: Theo isn’t afraid to descend to the depth to find what she must. Or she is afraid, but she does it anyway, which is real courage. And in the scene where she prepares to touch her sister’s body, to delve into Nell’s secrets, the camera cleverly put its focus on her hands, not her face, which is half out of frame.
As A.A. Dowd put it in his review of Flanagan’s Oculus, “fear is as subjective as humor,” and the checklist of jump-scares and stock figures Hill House has trotted out no doubt satisfy plenty of viewers, especially when they’re surrounded by truly insightful touches like those. And Flanagan always knows where to place the camera to good effect. If you’re looking for a well-acted, lavishly produced horror series to churn through in the run-up to Halloween, you could hardly do better.
But it’s nothing singular, nothing substantial, nothing significant. It’s nothing that deserves the association with Shirley Jackson’s name that the show repeatedly reminds us of. The Haunting Of Hill House has removed all the complicated, spiky, challenging ambiguity that is the heart of the original story and replaced it with lumbering (if sometimes touching) family drama and unblinking stares at things that would be scarier half-seen or hinted at.
Three episodes in, The Haunting Of Hill House is a serviceable collection of horror clichés executed with attention to detail. Like Theo’s hands, at times it’s quite deft. If its creator aspires to more, the series still has time to pull itself back from the edge of just fine, as Castle Rock did. But that would be a challenge, and so far this adaptation has not shown itself to be a fan of challenges. Instead, it delivers excellent performances of emotionally empty arguments, workmanlike scares, and a weary feeling of dissipation. And it takes us by the hand to walk us through as if this were far more challenging fare. I don’t know about you, but I don’t need my hand held through a boilerplate scary story. I’d rather walk through Hill House alone.
- In Shirley’s spotlight episode, Olivia gives her a velvet-lined jewelry box to bury her kitten in. In Theo’s, Olivia gives her an elegant glove box. Will each chapter of Hill House show Olivia giving each child a meaningful box?
- It’s no surprise that Kelsey’s monster, the smiling man who creeps into her room, the man she tells Theo about while she moves the daddy figure around a dollhouse, is revealed to be her new father figure. That doesn’t make it less horrific, and it doesn’t make Theo’s slow, dogged discovery less awful to see.
- “We didn’t know you were into…” “Bridesmaids?” The laughter that breaks out in the wake of this exchange is one of the most genuine moments of family feeling in the series so far.