Emmy spotlight: ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ director Mike Flanagan sets a new benchmark for TV horror

Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel “The Haunting of Hill House” has already been adapted twice for the big screen, in 1963 by Robert Wise and in 1999 by Jan de Bont under the title “The Haunting.” In October, Netflix premiered Mike Flanagan’s first “Haunting” anthology series installment, a reimagining of Jackson’s novel with the same name. Flanagan not only directed all 10 episodes but also wrote or co-wrote several of them. Will he haunt Emmy voters enough to crawl his way into the limited series/TV movie directing race?

The first season follows Hugh Crain (Henry Thomas) and his wife Olivia (Carla Gugino), as they move into Hill House with their five children in 1992 to renovate it, sell it, and use the money to build their own house as designed by Olivia. When unexpected repairs lengthen their stay, they start to experience paranormal activities, and a tragic loss forces them to escape the house and leave everything behind. Now, 26 years later, the Crain family reunites after yet another tragedy strikes and is inevitably confronted with the ghosts of the past.

While “Hill House” may mark Flanagan’s TV debut, he’s no stranger to the industry or horror. He’s helmed “Oculus” (2013), “Hush” (2014), “Ouija: Origin of Evil” (2016) and “Gerald’s Game” (2017), and his adaptation of Stephen King’s “Doctor Sleep” is also scheduled to open in theaters on Nov. 9. Though he’s never really received critical traction for his projects, his directional achievement in “Hill House” could finally catapult him into the conversation.

Often times horror series are plagued by conventional jump scares, gratuitous violence, or manipulative camera movements. Whether it was a ghost lingering in the background of a scene or a series of intricate long takes, Flanagan not only avoided these horror tropes but also set a new benchmark for the TV horror genre. The sixth episode, “Two Storms,” in particular, is a brilliant showcase for his directional achievement: The episode, a bit shorter than an hour, consists of just five uncut scenes. Despite these five long takes, he found a way to intercut past with present effortlessly, work with many big set pieces and special effects, while giving the episode the flow and breathing space it needed to create tension.

SEE 41 eye-rolling Golden Globes TV snubs: ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’ ‘Atlanta,’ ‘Haunting of Hill House’

Hence, it’s no surprise that Sadie Gennis (TV Guide) praises Flanagan’s direction for being “deliberate” and “unsettling,” and for using “long, extended panning shots to put the viewers directly into a character’s point of view, making you eerily aware of the limitations of an individual’s perception at any given moment.” Brian Tallerico (RogerEbert.com) says, “the structure alone would have killed most showrunners, but Flanagan finds a way to incorporate the past and present into one seamless fabric.“ And Dan Fienberg (The Hollywood Reporter) credits Flanagan for “hard scares carried by musical stings or the abrupt introduction of something disturbing into the frame“ being balanced with “well-executed gore-driven scares and moments grounded in primal fears of bugs or darkness or aloneness.“

The limited series/TV movie directing category often favors directors who directed the entire season — Lisa Cholodenko (“Olive Kitteridge,” 2015), Susanne Bier (“The Night Manager,” 2016), and Jean-Marc Vallée (“Big Little Lies,” 2017) are all recent winners — so that’s an advantage for Flanagan. And between “Game of Thrones,” “Stranger Things,” and “Westworld,” genre series seem to be on the rise at the Emmys, which could bolster his and the show’s chances of getting nominated.

However, come Emmy voting, “Hill House” will have aired nearly eight months ago and may not be in the zeitgeist as much as it was when it initially come out. Netflix will also have Cary Joji Fukunaga’s “Maniac” and Ava DuVernay’s “When They See Us” competing in the limited series categories. Fukunaga and DuVernay are previous Emmy winners and arguably bigger names who also directed their entire respective series. Therefore, much of “Hill House”‘s showing at the Emmys could depend on the campaign Netflix mounts for it.

Flanagan is currently working on the second installment of “The Haunting” series, titled “The Haunting of Bly Manor,” which is based on Henry James’ novel “The Turn of the Screw,” so if he comes up short at the Emmys for “Hill House,” voters could rectify that next year.

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