For weeks I’ve been trying to watch The Haunting of Hill House, the newish Netflix series based on the classic Shirley Jackson novel – but only under optimal conditions. Namely, during the day and with a lot of people around.
The first movie version of Jackson’s novel, called simply The Haunting, is by far the scariest movie I ever saw. As a kid, it was one of the films they were always playing on channel 11, but the first time I saw it, at a very impressionable age, it scared me so much that I threw up, and many parts of it still show up in my dreams…and nightmares. That spiral staircase, the throbbing doors and window, the general sinister appearance of the house, “Whatever walks in Hill House walks alone….” and most of all that last shot where Claire Bloom jumps in front of Julie Harris’s car…I think that’s where I puked from fear. Directot Robert Wise did something very rare: he made a movie about fear itself. There was no need to see monsters; our imaginations did all the terrorizing, and mine certainly did.
I’ve watched it a few times as an adult, and it still has the visceral power to scare me. Thus, when I heard there was a very scary reimagination on Netflix I was curious to see it. But that would be no easy task. I attempted to watch it when I was visiting my family last week, but no one could remember the Netflix password, the phone kept ringing, and people (me) wanted to watch the World Series. We tried to watch the first episode, but literally made it three minutes in. It just couldn’t happen!
Once home, I put on my big girl pants, and decided I could watch it by myself, no problem. Only my brand new modem wouldn’t communicate with my ancient tv/PS3 rig, as I discovered after endless password juggling and the ultimate horror: calling Spectrum tech support to find out what the eff was going on. It turned out it involved an ethernet cable, and I wanted no part of that.
Just an aside here: when I first tried to connect that PS3 to my wifi, long ago, it was perhaps the most frustrating task of my life. After hours of fruitless, investigative Googling, it turned out you had to have a hexidecimal password for the WEP-16 network and blah blah blah. It took a week of trying and crying to figure it out.
Flash forward to Halloween night 2018: once again, I’m determined to be frightened! Figuring it was time to join the ‘Teens, I went out to get a Roku at Best Buy, a trip which also served as a preview of the early Halloween goings on near the famed Village parade route. I must say, a subdued Halloween this year. Real life horror has people very distracted, I think.
Once I got home and plugged in the Roku…it still wouldn’t work! Another call to Spectrum!!!! It turned out my neighborhood had JUST THAT MOMENT had an internet outage! By this time it was clear that sinister forces were gathering to keep me from watching this show. A case for Zak Bagans! One bowl of chips and salsa later, I gave it another try and…by the Grace of God, it worked!
After ALL THAT BORING PREAMBLE, here I am to review the first episode of The Haunting of Hill House!
THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE (2018)
Okay I made it about 30 minutes in to this and had to turn it off. The part where the water starts dripping on the guy. There were so many callbacks to the novel and movie – the spiral staircase and the general appearance of the house – that I got the heebie jeebies again. Plus everything was shot in slow, something-awful-is-gonna-happen panning shots. Cheap but effective.
The story, as far as I got into it, involves flashbacks to the Crains, a family with FIVE children that moves into Hill House to renovate it, hoping to flip it. In the present day, the five kids have gone on to various troubled adulthoods after the terrors of what befell them at Hill House. One investigates paranormal activity and writes best sellers about it. One is an undertaker. One is a drug addict. One is a sex addict (and wears rubber gloves after trysts – I wasn’t in a hurry to find out why that is) and one is just troubled and still sees ghosts. The dad is also haunted by what happened. The mom? Well she didn’t make it out of Hill House.
As far as I could make out, this show is as much about family trauma as it is about ghosts and so on. But it is also about ghosts. Some people have pooh poohed how scary it is, but I am not a pooh pooher this day.
Sometime when I am not so overwrought over wifi problems, I may return to this. Maybe when it is daylight. I can’t say whether this new version is that good, or I was just traumatized so much by The Haunting, but it turned out I coudn’t take it.
BUT, determined to have some spooky Halloween streaming, I turned to the new Chilling Adventures of Sabrina also on Netflix. Would this be the win I so desperately needed?
CHILLING ADVENTURES OF SABRINA (2018)
I like Riverdale although I never got past the first season, but I’m a firm believer in showrunner Roberto Aguire Sacasa’s ability to take the tropes of Archie Comics’ Riverdale/Greenwood and showcase its lurid underpinings and teenage perversity.
Given that he originated the very spooky updated comics version of Sabrina, all the way back in 2004, the show seemed to be on good hands, and I was well up for this.
So first off, the credits are awesome, based on Robert Hack’s covers and interiors for the comic. I hope he got some credit for this!
— See What's Next (@seewhatsnext) October 24, 2018
The story was just as lurid yet pretty as I was expecting, and immediately I felt a wave of reassurance that I would be disturbed but not have my pants scared off, as with Hill House.
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina finds almost 16-year-old Sabrina Spellman about to have her “dark baptism” on her 16th birthday – which is also Halloween and an eclipse. We start on Monday of the week – Halloween is Friday – and see Sabrina goofing with her pals, smooching with her boyfriend Harvey (Ross Lynch, seen as Jeffrey Dahmer in My Friend Dahmer), and sparring with her aunties, (deliciously played by Miranda Otto and Lucy Davis); and her pansexual cousin Ambrose (Chance Perdomo.) Immediately we learn that Greenwood has a dark history with witchcraft, one that is very much in the present as Miss Wardell (Michelle Gomez), Sabrina’s favorite teacher, is overcome by another witch, Madame Satan, who has dark plans for Sabrina.
Most of the episode is taken up with Sabrina (Kiernan Shipka) trying to decide which part of her heritage she’s going to honor. Her father was a high ranking warlock; her mother a human. Her aunties are all about her prepping to pledge her loyalty to the Dark Lord Satan. Sabrina likes her human friends, and gets caught up in starting a female empowerment group to help her non-binary friend Susie with bullying. Decisions decisions! What’s a busy little half witch with a good heart to do?
This is a bit like Harry Potter if Hogwarts were run by Satan. (Real life Satanists are reportedly upset about some of the aspects of the show.) There is a lot of world-building and colorful details about the magical world that give this a real fantasy spin. Sabrina has some mean girl witches from her new school to overcome, and a mean principal in her human one, and a cutr black cat who does not talk this time out, as a familiar.
I thought Shipka was just right in this role, vulnerable and emotive, but also fierce when she has to be. And her conflicted feelings are real. Although instinctively we don’t want Sabrina to go over to Satan – and even from the first episode it’s obvious that the witches are part of an oppressively patriarchal system – it’s also cool to cast spells and do magic. I have avoided spoilers about the remaining 9 episode, but clearly, Sabrina isn’t going to give up on her human side that easily.
The show has some good contemporary touches – Susie is played by Lachlan Watson, a non-binary actor in real life, and dealing with the gender evolutions of classmates is a very real part of high school life these days – and some fun retro gore. And as noted, it’s great watching a bunch of veterans like Otto, Davis and Gomez chew scenery while being fabulous. (Shades of American Horror Story: Coven though.) The one weak spot was the occasional CGI which is…TV level.
Still all in all, this was just what I needed on this Halloween night, and wifi willing, I’ll binge the rest of the show at some point.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.