Needless to say, after all of the hype The Haunting of Hill House has been getting, I needed to get through the entire series right before Halloween arrived. With so many people interested in and raving about this show, I thought it was necessary that I write a little film analysis just to add some extra emphasis on how awesome this show really is. Also, I thought I should put my film degree to good use.
With using only a few common horror film/series conventions and even then, using them in a relatively fresh and unique way, I'm excited to delve into what The Haunting of Hill House really does in order to set the bar for new horror/thrillers coming down the pipe, and why it's especially appealing to millennial audiences! Here we go!
Just to have a bit of a preamble about what common tropes I'm going off of...
Horror film/series common conventions
These are the things we know and love that are always almost bound to happen in any film or show that we watch that is classified as a specific genre. When it comes to horror, these are the things we can pretty much depend on being a part of our chilling experience:
Most commonly, horror films take place in a secluded, secret, or abandoned areas - and more often than not, in the woods where help cannot easily be found. Think of your haunted mansions, abandoned hospitals or asylums, houses in the middle of the woods, desert, or cornfields, or even the castles hidden behind mirrors or walls. Anywhere where hopes of your characters surviving is long gone, and when they do get help - no one will believe them. In horror-esque movies like Zombieland or lets say The Walking Dead, where the horror is widespread and the probability of dying is even greater - anything can happen at anytime - which was an approach to the genre, I think, with The Night of the Living Dead.
THEME/ PLOT LINE:
Obviously this will vary and is what makes a horror movie or really any movie in general memorable, typically though, the plot line begins with a new chapter whether it be an adventure or a new place with loved ones with a set goal in mind. Along this adventure, our main character (usually the Hero Girl) is tested with her own demons and those of her family and friends to rise above adversity and get on with the next chapter of their lives with the new circumstances at hand. This is the usual theme of horror films and resonates with the unfortunate times in our lives and the many speed bumps we experience along the way to eventually get where we need to be - though hopefully our misfortunes aren't quite as grizzly as those in horror films. Going along with this, these films are a sort of coping mechanism and could ultimately give hope to those watching in perceiving that life really isn't that bad most times - resulting in horror lovers to be people with more of a positive outlook on life.
It does depend on the theme and the action of the horror, but usually the characters lack depth and backstory as most of the time their only goal is to survive until the end. This doesn't let go of the fact that most of the time there is a relationship involved and the idea of sex is in the picture - especially amongst teenagers. These are the ones that die first. Most of the monsters/terrorizers go after those less innocent and weak in hopes of proving the point of sinning and purging the world of further evil (thinking they are doing the world a service and/or their reasoning is connected to their backstory [which is usually the only one that's developed -Michael Meyers from Halloween]). Of course, there has to be a survivor (most times) - and this in most cases, this is known as The Hero Girl. This woman is typically tasteful and wholesome, yet realistically brave. This doesn't mean she doesn't have some sort of secret though. She is usually loyal, logical, and looking to avenge/protect her friends, family, or whatever the situation at hand may be. She survives for a reason - and usually uses this to drive her purpose in life.
Terrified. Breathing, gasping, running, screaming, staring, kissing - muah, muah, muah. Silence. Most acting in horror films are verbs because most of the acting is reacting. Of course, there is a little bit of dialogue to get you a taste of the characters, but when was the last time a monster talked your ear off and you wanted to stay and chat? That, or you saw Ghostface staring at you through your window and the lights went out. You're not going to want to do anything but scream, run, and cry wondering why this is happening to you and hoping to God you don't die. No time for verbiage, just verbs.
This of course depends on the director and their vision of the film, but typically horror films are shot relatively wide, with high contrast and low lighting. The tone is cool with blues and dark shades of purple - making it easier for the monsters to go unnoticed. This also goes to say that when a monster only comes out at night or at relative times, the main character's home or every day life is perceived as warm and inviting, then when the monster arrives - it's cold and dark. Another cinematic aspect of horror films is that there a numerable long tracking shots ( a shot that follows the action with the character - like someone running through the woods in one continuous shot - hand-held camera movement like in Blair Witch, or slow push-in/pull outs to reveal the monster, a jump scare, or even worse - a kill!
MIS EN SCENE:
Mis en Scene refers to everything in the scene - the props, set decoration, design - everything! This is what gives character to your setting and is a gigantic storyteller in itself. It's the texture and color of the wallpaper, the type of candlestick the main character holds, the size of the carpeting, the stains on the couch - whatever - mis en scene helps tell the intricate details and sometimes hidden clues of the story like economic status, whether the character is a messy or neat person, what they watch, what their interests are, what their priorities are, etc. By paying attention to the mis en scene, you'll gather a deeper understanding and appreciation for the film or series in itself - and it just might teach you something you would have never known otherwise. This is my favorite part of filmmaking most times. It adds so much meat to what you're watching that most people just don't pay attention to.
Timing is especially key in editing a horror film (as it really is in any film), but when it comes to building tension it needs to be exactly right - especially right before a scare or after the main character has seen the monster and it's slowly coming after them. Editing in horror films typically lingers with the main character when they've entered a sketchy situation until the monster or terrifying entity shows itself. These longer cuts typically make more of an impact when the scenes right before have a bit of a lighter tone to them - meaning they'll be cut more quickly. These quick cuts happen also whilst the monster or entity is physically or mentally actively terrorizing the characters. All in all, the editing in horror is crucial and ultimately depends on it regarding proper reveal, alternating pace, and tension - which brings me my next and less topic - sound.
Sound is necessary to build tension and suspense in horror. It goes hand in hand with editing and sometimes also acts as its own jump scare. When the monster slowly reveals itself from the shadows, a small sting picks up at a slow pace and when it's walking faster and faster towards our hero the music picks up with their pace, and just when the monster is right behind them they turn around and suddenly - the music stops - though your heart is still pounding. Sometimes the monster comes of nowhere too with a sting that's blasted so loud that it alone makes you jump out of your seat. Not to mention, themes like that of Halloween build suspense and add an eerie feel to them that especially sets the tone for the piece.
ANALYSIS ON THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE AND HOW IT'S DIFFERENT THAn TYPICAL HORROR SERIES
Okay, now that everything has been explained a bit, let's dive in to see how it all relates to The Haunting of Hill House and just how relative it is.
Like many other horror films/series, Hill House is located far out in rural land in the middle of the woods. This is pretty obvious. Something I find very interesting though, is that it takes place both in the past and present - or does it? Of course, the house poses as the main setting for the series, but it acts as the backstory to all of the characters as well and also works as a bookend to a new beginning. What I mean by this is that the setting changes between the house and the cities the characters live in today. The one common thread between the past and the present for this family is the horror that lies within their minds and the fear this house created that follows them every where because of this - or was this fear really something they were born with and the house just found the best ways to pull it out of them? Either way - regardless of physical location and setting in time, I find the true setting to be within the minds of the characters - which was really the point within the book "The Haunting of Hill House," that the series is based off of by Shirley Jackson in 1959. The setting is the lesson of how to face your fears.
Compared to typical horror settings, The Haunting of Hill House is more a state of mind compared to an actual place.
THEME / PLOT LINE
Moving forward with the setting of the series being the lesson of how to come face to face with your fears and move on, it's also the theme of the piece. The plot revolves around an estranged family whom are torn apart by how this house effected them years ago. Then throughout their lives, the fear that followed them from what they discovered while at Hill House and about themselves there forced them to push each other away and build walls between in order to try and leave that fear behind. This goes hand in hand with societal norms today and fearing being vulnerable and open to a situation which results in those becoming cold and having to create a facade on a daily basis.
During the title credits as well as throughout Hill House, there are statues that bear at first what seem to be stoic emotions but then transition into them slowly falling apart and becoming those of pain and agony behind the locked door of the house. One of the first lines summarized in the pilot comprises, "No one can survive sanely under conditions of absolute reality...whatever walked at Hill House walked alone," yet the house stood for at least a hundred years.
Hill House relates to at least our American society that has stood for hundreds of years with relatively the same standards of needing to be sober, faithful, beautiful, straight, fit, morally sound, a family-man, wealthy, kind, smart, successful, etc., Relatively so, us as humans stand as these statues trying to hold ourselves to these standards while concealing our thoughts and emotions compared to our fears - mainly rejection or failure. This goes to say that this horror story's theme is relative to mental illness within modern society and how facing your fears and opening up to being more vulnerable will help you move on. The ghosts being your fears, and understanding their stories or how they came to be ghosts in Hill House in the first place either keep you at the house or completely bound inside it forever.
Compared to most horror films being based off the lesson of a monster seeking revenge on sinners, The Haunting of Hill House is more of a PSA towards those who feel stuck in the situation of living - and to always be open and listen. Never. EVER bottle things up and try to be something you're not - even if it scares you.
Though the characters derived from the book are shifted around a bit, a few are created (such as a tribute to the author Shirley Jackson as Shirley's character), the main character Eleanor, or Nell, is still the driving force of the series. Though it seems like Nelly has lost touch with reality, she's the one most in tune with what's going on yet none of her own family members are willing to back her up. A driving force of her character and purpose of her's - ever since she was a little girl - was to be stronger than her mother and to bring the rest of her family home - meaning to bring them back to peace in their lives when all seemed to be lost. In terms of horror stereotypes, Nell is the hero girl, yet (spoiler alert) she is the one who dies so everyone else can be saved.
Regarding the other characters such as Luke, Theo, Steve, and Shirley, they all represent their own inner struggle/illness that relates to modern society today. Compared to typical horror movies where each character who dies has a certain unaddressed sin, the so called "sin" in this series would be personal struggle. With personal struggle of course comes depth and a necessary time taken to understand where they're coming from and how they got this way. This is why each episode runs non-linearly while describing the story and perspective of each of the kids, Hugh and Liv. This way, you're able to comprehend why everything happened the way it did, the journey each went through, and the power to overcome.
Near the end, each characters is forced to face their biggest fear and call it by name - then they are set free. Compared to most horror - at least main stream horror - characters are served with little to no backstory so when they are killed and killed ever so very often, it doesn't matter as much to the audience - because it's gore. In The Haunting of Hill House however, it's mental and its real, and quite honestly, the killing comes from within - which far too many people can relate to.
To add on to this already ridiculously long statement, do you remember when Shirley found those five kittens slowly dying of disease in that garden shed - then Nelly stated that there are five kittens just like there were five siblings. Soon after, the kittens all slowly died of disease, and the first that officially died was presumed alive until a black beetle crawled out of it. This represents that each of the kids had something eating away inside of them that needed to make its way out, but ended up killing the first before it could be helped. This foreshadows Nelly dying before her siblings, just as she said the kittens represented them. Then, like Liv tried to kill her children to keep them with her forever, she took the kittens away and buried them before Shirley could find out they were dying.
ACTING AND DIRECTION
This had to be a category all its own because I was blown away by the amount of time utilized within this series. Typically, the acting and direction are driven by hysterics, tears, and sheer terror. The Haunting of Hill House however thrives from stillness, from looking into the eyes of the characters and listening to what they have to say. So often, a shot stays on a single character while they're telling a story that either serves as emotional or plot based information - but all in all - it tells you more and more about the character - which is ultimately what the theme of the series is - to observe and listen to those who need to be heard, and everyone needs to be heard.
The acting hardly seems like acting at all. These characters are those we see every day who have gone through similar situations that those on screen have. We don't speak unless we have something to say, we aren't animated to entertain, we try to be sneaky when the time is right, and if we are scared - we feel like we're practically paralyzed - this is how the actors of this series carry themselves on screen - like real people. The conversations are realistic conversations, the reactions are realistic reactions, the moments are still and prolonged and take time - because no one always knows exactly what to say and when to say it. This is why this series is so effective - because it's real and the actors let it be real.
While the sounds and score to most horror films are more attacking and dependent on chases or jump scares to enhance, The Haunting of Hill House takes a different approach. Compared to horror, the series revolves around the aspect of terror, and with this comes silence or empty space. When there is no sound design to reveal a spectral shadow or clear figure in the background, it allows you to notice it in real time and space like the characters would - but chances are they're not going to see the man behind the window in the kitchen, you are. That's what makes it more terrifying - the lurking, the silence, the shadows. Why? Because that's exactly what it would be like in real life. There will be no stings to reveal a man behind the closet door coming at you with a knife. There will be no upbeat, percussive track below us while we stalk the halls looking for a loved one - it's just silence and the sound of our own heartbeat pumping through out ears. The true terror is the unknown. The quiet. They let the silence speak at Hill House.
When there is music though, or there is a chase scene - most of which are with Liv after she's passed away, it's solemn and heightened orchestral pieces, just as the opening titles possesses. With strings and woodwinds and tympani, it reveals a certain emotion to the scene. In this case, it's sadness, confusion, and terror.
The cinematography in this series was especially connected to human emotion and the psyche. Compared to other horror films where it's more commercially viable, the colors are relatively just warm or cool throughout, the shots wide, handheld, or tracking, and the lighting is low with high contrast - leaving shadows for the monsters to hide within, the Haunting of Hill House makes more of the medium than what meets the eye.
Of course, the series utilizes the tool of high contrast lighting where shadows are left to create room for the monsters to lurk. However, they use this trope relatively sparingly as the series goes on and your mind and heart continue to open. In terms of lighting, the scenes are emotionally manipulated first by color. The house is always blue and or is represented with cooler tones when inside, but mainly only at night. This cooler tone can also be found when each characters is within a realm of fear and facing what hurts them the most. This is relative to situations that hurt us in the past, whether they make us angry or scared, we associate them with negativity - painting them blue or black. On the other hand, when outside the house in the modern world, whether it be a normal day or time spent with a loved one, the space is warm, bright, and full of hope of moving forward, just as we should be approaching each day. Also, the light allows us to see the characters in the background when it's necessary to see them - especially if they're dead.
In terms of camera work for the series, I found it especially interesting. Most of the shots are relatively symmetrical, whether it be a character directly in the middle of the frame, a couple splitting the middle in bed or in conversation, a doorway, etc. I believe this is done so your attention is focused on the character and what they're saying and feeling, compared to what's going on around them - because all you need to know is said when you look into their eyes. Furthermore, there are often slight push-ins as one is delivering a longer message so you are absorbing what they are saying. Collectively though, many of the shots are still yet moving at the same time, just as if you're in the situation yourself at the moment it's happening, and they are emotionally driven, just as if we are the person listening to the conversation. It's a close up if it's an emotional understanding, wide-shot if it's someone on the outside looking in.
In the Haunting of Hill House, they also often use a rack focus. This is when the object, mainly a character we know and love is in the foreground of the frame, while there is another figure or character standing in the background. If you haven't noticed, which I'm sure you have if you watched the series, there are often figures of those who died in the house lurking in the background. Emotionally, these figures only pop up when one is scared or their flaws are showing - that's why they're there in the background -because they are unaware of their fear, or they are perfectly aware, but don't want to face it head on. For example, when Steve arrives back home after his paranormal visit and sees Luke at the top of his stairs trying to steal his camera and iPad, Steve only pays attention to the fact that Luke was trying to steal his things, and didn't even think about inviting Luke to stay with him because Steve knew he'd otherwise get into trouble. Nonetheless, he went back to his apartment without Luke and saw Nel standing there and she didn't say a thing. Shortly after, his dad calls saying that Nel died. During this phone call, Nel is blurred out in the background representing Steve's sin - being obscenely selfish and not caring about those in need (just like he didn't answer Nel's call earlier that afternoon). Things like this happen every episode, multiple times. Keep an eye out.
All in all, the cinematography in The Haunting on Hill House represents you as a fly on the wall in each conversation and allows you the opportunity to see each character for what they are and how they feel - it's just up to you to understand.
mis en scene
Like we said up above, Mis en Scene is everything that is a part of the scene in terms of set decoration, production design, use of props, costumes, etc.. In The Haunting of Hill House, like most of the other film aspects it's made up of, the Mis en Scene is very emotionally driven and gives context to each of the characters as we pass through their versions of the stories. For example, each of the five siblings were especially young when their mother died, and each of them have something that they have, a prop, that reminds them of and brings them back to the memory of their mother. For Shirley, it's the forever house that her mom designed for their family that Liv told her about when she was young - it's also the fact that she's a mortician and that was inspired by the fact that the man who worked on her mom made her beautiful again - restoring Shirley's memory of her. Theo still wears gloves like the ones that her mother gave her when she found that she had this telekinetic ability to feel other people's feelings, and Nelly had the locket with the picture of her and Luke. These all represent the connection and fear to their mother who still resides at Hill House attempting to wake them up from this life of fear - though Nelly brings them back to do what their mother never could, because she was never strong enough.
Within Hill house, everything is so intricate and divine, though never too decorated - only in statues. This represents that this place is empty and dark and only truly holds the souls of those unable to leave who are so completely devastated and broken. This also goes back to the figures that linger in the background - feeding on the love and joy of those living to take it away from them and create and even darker force within the house.
The Red Room on the other hand, like Liv said, represents the heart of the house, and was really always the room that was a safe haven for everyone in the house. This is why no one could open the door if accompanied by another or if the person inside didn't want the company of the person on the other side. These were the walls that were built early on to keep others out.
If you go through the series again, or really, when you watch anything, be sure to take in what the character's apartment looks like, what they hold dear, the posters on their walls, the type of car they have - the color of the bathroom - whatever it may be - it will tell you a little something deeper about what the character is going through and how it adds to the story.
Most horror is told in a linear fashion - it goes from A to B. In Hill House though, it's cut non-linearly. This means it goes from past to present, from character to character, and goes through the entire story, seven different times, but from seven different perspectives. This allows the audience to understand each character, allows more questions to be asked and answered in an impactful and effective way, and gives context to the world each of the characters are living in within the theme. Also, most horror films aren't cut so gracefully.
In the Haunting of Hill House, they thrive on match cuts in both a physical and mental way. Physically, a match cut is when you're going through an action in one scene, and continuing it in another. For example, if Theo grabs an apple out of the fridge at Shirley's house in the present, then it transitions to her grabbing a boxed bottle of wine from her father to put in a garage sale pile in the past, this is a physical match cut. A mental match cut would be her feeling this boxed bottle of wine and understanding it's very rare and that they should keep it due to her abilities, then her father opens it and asks how she knew that it was so valuable - then this would cut into her possibly putting her gloves back on so she didn't have to feel again.
They also utilize L and J cuts with audio in the editing. A L cut would mean that they bring a conversation that's currently happening to the picture of the next scene while continuing the conversation from the previous. Sometimes the conversations are repeated from the past and are brought to the present as a memory in the siblings lives. The same thing happens with J cuts, which takes a conversation or line from the following scene and connects it to the current one.
Last but not least when analyzing the editing of this series, I realized that the cuts are especially elongated and allowed to breathe. Compared to most movies even nowadays, its uncommon to hold on a shot for more than multiple seconds a time, in Hill House though, we stay on characters sometimes for minutes which is such a special thing. This allows you to listen to the character and pay attention to only them. It only matters how you react and feel to what the character is saying, because the character they're talking to, might feel differently after the one speaking is finished. This is a very clever way to emotionally manipulate an audience, and ultimately why I believe that this series was a hit to so many - especially within the millennial generation.
conclusion and audience response
Overall, this series relates to mental stability within societal standards and truly realizing the ability to face your fears and your flaws head on and create something new out of them to move on. After living in the house for the summer, Liv's main goal was to be able to wake up her children from the worst possible nightmare they could imagine. This nightmare is relating to reality and waking them up would be helping them realize they need each other and need to be open in order to "wake up," or move forward. In the terms of the house and it taking the souls who can't see the light, it was killing her, and she thought the only way to help her children were to be able to kill them too so they didn't have to deal with the pain of reality anymore. Then, Nell, the one who saw this all happening before her eyes since she was a little girl knew what she had to do when her family was falling apart and her love and joy was lost. She sacrificed herself to help her family wake up - not by killing them, but bringing them back to the house to bring them together again to realize what drove them apart in the first place - them building walls that didn't let one another in and living with characteristics that were the bricks to the facade they had been putting on their entire lives. This is why I believe this series resonates so well with those in their early twenties to mid-30s.
We live in a world where social media dominates the front of our minds and standards are so high that we slowly kill ourselves trying to be something we're not. We become so cold by building up barricades to prevent us from feeling pain, rejection, or really any feeling at all - because we know it will be judged and we're afraid we'll be judged. In the end we are friendless, broken, and hurting so much inside because we're not allowing ourselves to come to terms with it all and make a change. This is why this series is so powerful. Not only is it an amazing piece of work, its also relatable. It's real. It's something each of us go through every day and its stimulating in the fact that the pain we aren't willing to admit or let out - is true terror.
If you haven't seen the series, I truly hope you didn't read through all of this, because boy - it was spoiler central, but really, this show is necessary in order to put things into perspective in a new and unique way. I'm not surprised that people are being impacted by it in such a high degree - it's something that actually means something - which in the industry today - is so difficult to find.
Thank you Netflix, the executive producers, the writers, Mike Flanagan and the cast for making this possible - from the work of Shirley Jackson back in 1959.
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