Very few shows actually manage to capture my attention enough to make me want to invest the time into it. And even if they do I usually check out halfway through the series. No, I’m more of a movie guy.
But. The Haunting of Hill House is a rare exception. From the get-go this show brings you in and never wants to let you go, much like the titular “Hill House.” The basics are all there: broken characters that you want to root for, a creepy house, a mysterious past and death in the family, a dark tone, horror, terror, stellar cinematography, and great match-cuts that bring together the past and present timelines.
The overall structure of the show is focused around each family member, how they were in the past and how they are getting along in the present. Each one had different experiences as children in the house that led to them having some sort of serious character issue later on in life. Nellie is the youngest and most broken quickly turning into the inciting incident that puts all of the cogs into motion for everyone else. You only see glimpses of her on the periphery until the fourth episode when it all comes together.
The episode I’d like to talk about, though, is number six dubbed “Two Storms.” From here on out there will be SPOILERS so if you have not seen the show or this episode then proceed at your own risk.
Two Storms is a simple enough plot. The family in the past is experiencing a storm unlike any other that seems to be centralized over just the house, and the family in the present is at Nellie’s funeral where an equally aggressive storm is happening. A power outage occurs in both timelines and young Nellie disappears, while the ghost of Nellie – now revealed to be the Bent Neck Lady – appears and disappears as the family argues. This is the first time that all of the family members are in one room together and director Mike Flanagan pulls out all of the stops with a cinematic flair that we haven’t seen on the show up to this point.
The cinematography of the show is very specific. The camera is usually still or if it moves it does so slowly on a crane, dolly, or simply pans. It’s very cinematic and slow. The editing is mostly standard although the match-cuts really are well thought out. There are no hand-held shots and there are no Steadicam shots. In fact there are very few actual long takes in the series. Although the camera may be slow the editing is a bit faster especially considering there is so much shot-reverse-shot dialogue happening in every episode.
Two Storms throws that all out the window. We open up with a Steadicam shot that at first makes you wonder why but then how long is this going to go for? Well the answer is 15 minutes. The first shot of this episode that brings all of the principal characters together goes for 15 minutes entirely unbroken. A shot as ambitious as this one is hard to come by in films let alone television shows, but Flanagan is so slick about where he decided to incorporate this technique that it immediately fits into the flow of the show. It’s reminiscent of the famous long take in season one of True Detective.
The flow into the past is both seamless and elegantly done causing us to wonder about the actual reality of Hill House. The camera tracks Hugh – the patriarch – as he wanders looking for the bathroom, but as he takes a turn into a hallway from the funeral parlor he actually goes right into the old house. The effect is startling to say the least. He doesn’t seem too surprised, however, even when he sees his younger self come down the stairs and we find ourselves in the past.
Again the family all comes together but from different parts of the house as this storm rages outside. I was immediately impressed by the young actors’ ability to execute such complex blocking and timing. Long takes require so much of even seasoned actors so to see this family hit their marks as the camera floats around them is truly impressive.
Soon we cut back to the present day where the tensions are growing higher and higher. We’re digging deeper than ever with the Crain family, descending further and further into their madness. But even though we cut into the present Flanagan keeps pushing and delivers another dazzling long take.
As with the construction of most films as you progress to the climax things tend to move faster and harder. And so with Hill House as we approach the climax the camera moves faster, the sequences are shorter, and finally we come back to the more standard cinematography of the show with regular editing and a pinned down camera, but by this point I felt like it made sense. We finally end on a beautiful shot of the dead Nell and her Bent Neck ghost form as the voice of her younger self echoes in our ears.
This episode of an already phenomenal show will cement it as one of the greats in television history. This episode was so good in fact that I couldn’t help but feel almost disappointed by the following one. No doubt it was good but it was completely overshadowed by the goliath that is Two Storms.
I’d love to hear your thoughts! Feel free to leave a comment down below.