Disappointing ending to the Haunting of Hill House

I just finished watching season one and am sharing my feelings about it. There are spoilers here, and I assume if you read on, you watched the show already. So if you don’t want to read spoilers, stop. Seriously, the very next paragraph starts with a spoiler, so if you don’t want spoilers, it’s high time to fuck off. I didn’t like the last episode, for various reasons…

It ended happily for everybody concerned

Liv, the mad matriarch didn’t get her way and have the whole family “wake up” to die and spend eternity as ghosts in the “forever house”, but did get her husband to sacrifice himself to save the surviving kids. But all three sides here, the living, the dead, and the house itself, ended up happy. The living escaped, the dead are ghosts but they’re happy where they are, and the house itself… is safe because Steve agrees to take over his father’s deal and not try to destroy the house.

No real scares in the last episode

Yes, the truth about the Red Room being whatever each character wants it to be, the tree house, the dance studio, the library, the games room… that was creepy. The playing around with time was cool, and tied up nicely with the way the story was told. The converging of multiple timelines coincided with the story itself presenting time as being interconnected. But the dreams given to the characters weren’t particularly traumatizing, except for Luke’s, which did not make sense. (See next point.)

The breaking of rules between dreams and reality

Luke did not relapse. He didn’t stop and buy heroin before entering the house. He only had a needle in his arm in a dream. So how was it there when he awoke? The rules for the ghosts affecting reality were made quite clear throughout… they can trick the living into killing themselves. Lure the mother into madness. But what the characters experience in their dreams or visions are hallucinations. Having his dream drug usage bleed into reality is a major plot hole. “A little spill”, Hugh’s words to Nell when she was a child, refers to them seeing things, but not the effect we see here because what they see is not really there. (I mention this because it is a theme and I assume would be used as the explanation for the heroin from Luke’s dream affecting reality.) This would be fine if the rules were undefined, but nothing quite like this happens at any time other than the last episode.

Nell, the bent neck lady or the happy hippie ghost?

After Nell’s death, we get to see that time is not a single one-way thread in this narrative, and she becomes the “bent neck lady”. It turns out she was always the bent neck lady, and trapped in that form in death, she must suffer forever as she suffered during sleep paralysis, sent back in time as the ghost that accidentally terrorizes her younger self. It’s implied that she is trapped like that, a terrifying figure with a broken neck, to be misunderstood by all who see her, for the rest of time. And that is how she should have remained. Except she didn’t. She also gets to be cheerful, and save all her siblings in the nick of time when they dream the hallucinatory dreams that the house gives them.

Who is the antagonist?

The Red Room is the heart of the house, so it would seem that the house itself is the antagonist.

But the characters are sent off to slumber and dream the dreams that the house supplies, by Poppy. So is Poppy an agent of the house? Well, Liv gets to dismiss her from terrorizing her husband, so that she can do so herself. So again, who is the antagonist? Is it the house, Poppy, or Liv? Is Poppy an agent for the house, or is Liv? The events do not make sense, and the ghosts’ behaviour is inconsistent. Sometimes they have free will, and sometimes they are carrying out the “wishes” of the house. Sometimes they’re just there for decoration. (This sort of poor writing is commonplace in lower class horror. You get plot elements just for the effect at the time, such as jump scares involving ghosts that remain trapped inside a place showing up in the greater world, and when the various narrative threads are woven together at the end, things don’t add up. I didn’t expect such obvious plot holes in this series.)

Furthermore, the toasting man who haunts Shirley is not a ghost at all, but a memory of her infidelity and guilt, used by the house to taunt her. That’s a problem though, because it again raises the problem of who the antagonist is. A house is just a house, and this lack of a clearly defined idea of an antagonist, even a supernatural force but one properly defined, comes apart in the last episode.

Here’s the thing… If the house can haunt Shirley without needing an actual ghost, none of the ghosts need to be fully fledged characters. The threat to the living is then death. They can be seen as zombie like husks of their former selves after death, without fleshing them out or even defining if the ghosts are really former living people at all. Maybe they are, or maybe they are mere projections of the souls captured and swallowed by the house. Keep it ambiguous and it remains scary.

The tone is all wrong in the last episode

Everybody is happy, the living and the dead. Dying and being trapped as a ghost in the house is not a threat if you’ll be happy there. This is a paradox in horror, especially in ghost stories. The mere existence of an afterlife is required for ghosts to exist, but that also means that death is not the end, which casts doubt on what there is to fear.

Normally you’d miss this, because you are only presented with the threat of death, and the ghosts are never fully formed but remain mysterious. Cross that blurry line and show us tangible ghosts, and take away their suffering but make them happy, and horror is no longer horrifying.

In conclusion

For me it all went wrong in that last episode. I enjoyed the series until then, and thought it was well crafted supernatural horror up to that point. I didn’t see the Red Room twist coming, which was a pleasant surprise. I did see the Abigail twist coming, and thought that was mildly predictable, but still something I know most viewers would not have guessed. I also liked what they did with time, especially after showing Nell’s death from her point of view. They should have left her trapped in the form of the bent neck lady after death. That would have been perfect.

But that happy ending! It was too much. Plus their breaking of their own rules, the inconsistent treatment of ghosts, and the failure to decide whether the house or the ghosts were the antagonist. In my opinion, they went way too far in the wrong direction. The ghosts should have been manifestations created by the house, with the house itself an evil, intelligent entity. Thus the threat is existential, the characters face death and nothingness, their souls swallowed and devoured, their effigies then presented to living occupants as soulless husks, animated cadaverous carcasses of the former occupants taken by the house.

Instead we got happy ghosts, some of them delusional, but happy and content. That’s not how you end a horror. If the monster gives you eternal life and happiness, it isn’t much of a monster at all. Right through, my son watched it while reaching in terror for my hand, his tether to reality, but he didn’t need that for the last episode, and commented to me about how happy everyone was.


Update: I missed the ambiguity of the final scene. Luke’s two years clean cake is blood red, a hint that maybe they’re in the Red Room and in fact never left. But this just creates a bigger, more messy plot hole. The deal struck with Steve, the knowledge that the caretakers begged his father not to destroy the house (and that he now takes that role) because the ghost of their dead daughter was there, and the woman’s return there to die and be young again with her husband shows us the plot where they escape really happened. The house let him leave. So what we have is two narratives that contradict one another. This is not clever; it’s merely poor writing and shoddy directing. It also alows them to guage the viewer response to the series, and decide after the fact which story to follow for season two.

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A surprisingly good horror movie – It follows

Forenote: The introduction is longer than intended. Excuse me. Maybe I’m getting verbose as I get older, but I like it as written so I won’t redact any of it… I hope you enjoy this review as well as my introduction that explains why I love horror movies.

I’m always on the lookout for good horror movies. My fascination with them began many years ago… I had nightmares as a child and believed that I lived in a haunted house, so I was interested in all things supernatural as well as fantasy and magic. I started with horror comics, and read hundreds of them. I used to look at the pictures before I was old enough to read the words. I started reading books early too, as soon as I was able to do so, and children’s books soon gave way to horror as part of my staple reading diet. When I was eight years old, my school teacher read Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree stories to the class, so I naturally started with Enid Blyton. (Fantasy and magic was what I wanted, but I was disappointed by her other books.) At nine years old I’d read all Blyton’s Secret Seven and Famous Five books, and moved onto Franklin W. Dixon’s The Hardy Boys. But those books soon bored me and I never finished them. After reading a few classics (which was difficult for a child), I discovered Roald Dahl. By age eleven I’d found his darker stories and loved them. At age twelve I moved onto Stephen King, starting with Carrie and never really stopping. He’s still my favourite writer.

Good horror movies remind me of my childhood fears. Both good quality horror and fantasy movies bring back the magic, the sense of wonder I felt as an eight-year old child when the teacher read The Faraway Tree. They allow me to escape and take me to a faraway place of enchantment and sometimes horror. I think that’s where my love for the horror (and fantasy) genres is rooted, although it’s not something I think about so much as I simply love good horror. My introduction to horror movies came early as well. An older cousin had hundreds of them, so I got into horror movies before my teen years thanks to parents who allowed me to watch such movies in spite of the age restriction, and did a great job of explaining that it’s not real to both my brother and myself – I think many parents don’t do this adequately. By the age of sixteen I was well past any kind of fear while watching those movies. I’d invite friends over to watch them and laugh at their reactions.

This means that the bar needs to be set a little higher for me to enjoy a horror movie, because I don’t feel any fear, but do still love the atmosphere in well-crafted horror. This past weekend I found one that was far better than I expected it to be: It Follows. Here’s the trailer:

 

I found a torrent and downloaded it from here. (I use uTorrent for all my movie and music downloads.) It’s great quality, only 1.44GB at a resolution of 1920×800.

It’s a slow moving movie, but a good kind of slow, in that it builds up suspense and a sense of dread and despair way better than many higher-budget over-hyped movies. It plays on some of our primal fears, such that the protagonist is not safe anywhere because it follows. She has sex with a new boyfriend, then finds out that he chose her merely to pass it along. Call it an STD – sexually transmitted demon. It can look like anyone, and it walks towards you with single-minded determination… When it gets you, you die. Then it will return to everyone else up the chain, starting with the one who passed it to you.

What makes the movie great is the acting, and the overall atmosphere and tone achieved by the music, the lighting of the ordinary suburban town that somehow becomes a gloomy place of foreboding, the isolation of the characters and a sense of hopelessness and helplessness that comes across throughout the movie, as the monster slowly, steadily and relentlessly approaches its victim.

The movie has some problems, which I’ll mention briefly without saying enough for a spoiler, because I fucking hate spoilers and wouldn’t want to do that to anyone:

  1. Redundant scenes. There are two scenes that totally don’t belong in the movie. In the first few minutes, the protagonist is walking with her sister, who lights a cigarette. The conversation commences with “Mom knows you smoke”. She doesn’t smoke again for the rest of the movie, and it’s plain to see that the dialogue and cigarette were simply a narrative device used to state that this is her sister. What they should have done is either be consistent, and show her smoking again at other points where it would have made sense (like when the friends are lounging together at the beach), or remove the scene entirely. It really didn’t belong there because there’s some dialogue a few minutes later which reiterates that they are sisters. (Teen smoking is politically incorrect now anyway. Movie portrayal of smoking has become a movie trope that’s generally used to reinforce stereotypes, whether it be a badass good guy, a villain, or a promiscuous “bad” girl. Showing an innocent, good girl smoking, can confuse a viewer who subconsciously associates smoking in movies with the usual stereotypes. It’s like somebody didn’t get the memo.)
  2. The second redundant scene was most of the way through the movie. The protagonist has driven away from the monster, parked her car in front of the beach, and falls into an exhausted sleep on the bonnet. Then she wakes up in the morning, and as we see a boat with two strangers in it, she strips and goes for a swim. The scene sets up an expectation that goes nowhere. Why is she doing this? Does she want to commit suicide? What has the boat to do with anything? But then it cuts to something else. Sure, we know now she is a swimmer, but that scene was a waste of time. And it could have gone somewhere. The monster could have walked out from under the trees as she approached the water, or while she was in the water, or something along those lines to build suspense and further the sense of hopelessness in her plight.
  3. Here I will not go into any details… The movie narrative sets up some rules about the monster. It follows. It only follows; it’s not smart or fast but it is persistent and stares directly at you while walking towards you, always knowing where you are and never stopping but doggedly following you no matter where you go or what you do. It doesn’t do anything magical like disappear and then reappear somewhere else, and we wouldn’t expect it to get anywhere that isn’t in a direct line towards the victim. Then it breaks those rules a few times, in terms of the behaviour of the monster. Not too big a deal and those moments do improve the creepiness factor, but they really should have stuck to their own rules.
  4. Again, details would spoil too much so I will spare you… Even after you’ve passed it on, you can still see the monster. Towards the end of the movie when they try to deal with the monster in a group, where only she can see the monster, it would have made sense to ensure that she was not the only one to see it. Maybe… considering that this is not something you’d want to wish on your worst enemy, let alone someone you love. But maybe anyway. (I watched the movie with my mother, and she thought it was funny when I suggested to her that they have an orgy. One guy and three girls… If I were that guy, I would’ve at least tried my luck.)
  5. The plan they come up with to try dealing with the monster makes no sense. I won’t tell you what it is or how it turns out because I’m not including spoilers, but I know what I would’ve done: The monster is some sort of supernatural curse, sure, but it is also physical, though invisible to everyone besides the victims. So the monster can’t be stopped or killed, but surely it could be trapped? For example, a cemetery scene where the monster is trapped in a tomb or buried in a coffin? But that’s just my idea – it didn’t happen.

I found a review that quotes Quentin Tarantino, who watched the film, enjoyed it, and pointed out what he would’ve done differently. (He seems to agree with me, although he didn’t mention the unnecessary scenes.) Spoiler alert; don’t read that unless you have already watched the movie.

So it wasn’t exactly an instant classic, but it was more than just a good movie; unlike Tarantino I’d say that it is a great movie, and certainly the best horror movie I’ve seen in several years. In fact it’s hard to believe this is an indie movie. Director/writer David Robert Mitchell is someone we should watch closely for future projects. This was only his second movie and I predict great things to come.