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'The Haunting of Hill House' gets at the heart of horror

"The Haunting of Hill House" is not a horror show. That's not to say it won't scare you, make your palms sweat and cause you to look twice at the dark corners of your apartment -- because it definitely will. But there's so much more to it than cheap thrills.

Created by Mike Flanagan, Netflix's newest limited series follows the Crain family as they are forced to confront their memories of the mysterious time they spent living at Hill House and the tragic events that transpired there.

At its heart, the series is a drama about familial love and connection, parenting and living despite darkness. Remove the supernatural and what's left is an emotional story of five siblings coping with loss, guilt, addiction and mental illness. The ghosts are appropriately sophisticated -- psychological, rather than gruesome -- and will keep you on the edge of your seat.

Instead of bringing them together, the trauma shared by the Crain family, along with their varied levels of belief in the supernatural, caused them to drift apart as they moved into adulthood. Throughout the 10 episode series, viewers discover the truth about Hill House along with them, how it shaped each of their lives and finally allows them to heal their relationships with one another.

The characters are well-written and aptly brought to life by pairs of actors representing both the young and adult versions of the characters. Theo (Mckenna Grace and Kate Siegal) has a strong exterior and enthralling intensity; Luke (Julian Hilliard and Oliver Jackson-Cohen) is lovable and innocent despite his flaws; and Hugh (Henry Thomas and Timothy Hutton) is the perfectly imperfect father. Not only are the child actors as talented as their adult counterparts, but the likeness between them, and the cast of actors as a whole, is unbelievable.

At a time when limited series and attempts at nonlinear storytelling have run amuck across the various streaming platforms, "The Haunting of Hill House" stands out among the crowd.

The dedication of entire episodes to the development of each sibling, jumping between their childhood at Hill House and their adult lives, is extremely effective. As we experience the same moments from their individual perspectives, we understand more, feel more -- and still cringe at every appearance of the Bent-Neck Lady or Tall Guy. We see each of the Crains not in isolation, but as the main focus before they're all brought together in the present.

Episode six, "Two Storms," brings the family tension to a head. Masterfully filmed in several long takes, it highlights Flanagan's creative prowess and the acting ability of the entire cast. The continuity -- following characters, and even moving seamlessly between past and present -- has the audience trying impossibly to peer around corners in heart-pounding anticipation, and makes the possibility of the deceased showing up even more unpredictable.

The nine other episodes are full of grandiose production design as well. The sprawling interior of Hill House is filled with dust-covered remnants of its past residents and creepy statues that create backgrounds ripe for the lurking ghosts we aren't musically cued to. This attention to detail is what gives "Hill House" an undeniable edge in the vast genre of horror.

After seeing the first half of the series, I was worried about how the show would end. A happy ending didn't seem to fit the dark story, but I was afraid of what the alternative might be. I won't ruin how it does end; I'll only say that it's done really well, turning the initial narration about Hill House on its head in a satisfying way.

Sure, some of the monologues are a bit in your face and not every character's storyline is a driving force in the narrative (I'm looking at you, Steve, despite my love for Michiel Huisman), but the series as a whole is a shining example of what happens when horror is done right.

Whether you want to appreciate cinematic storytelling or are simply looking for a good scare, "The Haunting of Hill House" will stick with you, lurking in the back of your mind long after you've finished watching, for better or worse.

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4/5 stars