Binge Review 7: The Haunting of Hill House

I have said on more than one occasion that good horror is in short supply. These days it is all jump-scares and cheap thrills devoid of creativity. Back then making a great horror movie took craft and effort that resulted in some of the greatest classics of all time. Only recently we seem to be on the verge of a genre renaissance as more studios realize the potential of quality horror. The good stuff is few and far between, but when something like The Haunting of Hill House comes along, it is worth your attention.

Haunted house movies saw a massive resurgence after James Won’s The Conjuring. Not only was the film economic, but also well put together, and actually scary without too jump-scares. Since then everyone has been trying to emulate its success, only to come up short. However, given the recent revival of good horror, more and more writers and directors are learning lessons from the past.

Hill House has a very heavy emphasis on gothic imagery without gore or elements that are overtly horrific in general. The house is a fantastic set littered with old statues, intricate wall moldings, and random antiques to supplement the atmosphere. The ghosts seen throughout the series carry a macabre aesthetic. One is a very tall man with a bowler hat and cane, another a flapper in a silk dress, and others are classically rotten with green and black skin.

The icing on the cake is the drama of the characters. Hill House is centered upon the Crains, the original inhabitants of the titular house. Each episode jumps between what happened in the family’s past to how they are now after their experiences in the house. The epicenter of the drama is the night the Crains had to leave and how their father dealt with the fallout. Furthermore, being a haunted location, each Crain child had personal dealings with the supernatural, informing how they turned out as adults.

This is where the series works best. The writing and acting when the young and old characters are interacting with the house are the best parts. There is such realism in their collective plight and how it defines them as people. The dad in particular, played by Henry Thomas and Timothy Hutton, has a compelling arc as a patriarch trying to protect his children from the past, even as they hate him.

The children characters are comparably compelling, but I would rather not give it away. In fact, that is all I am going to say about The Haunting of Hill House. It is one of those series that is so good I do not want to ruin it by explaining why it is good. I recommend it for everyone, even if you are not a fan of the genre. The series is more about the drama of the family with the gothic imagery and horror informing the characters. That is not to say it is not scary. Keep that in mind if you decide to stream it on Netflix.

Movie Review: San Andreas

As appealing as the prospect of seeing California swallowed by its own incompetence seemed, I did not want to see San Andreas (SA). To be entirely honest, disaster movies are more boring than entertaining. Maybe when I was younger I enjoyed watching a volcano suddenly appear in the middle of LA, but now that I am older, I find more satisfaction in personal disaster in the same vein as Jackass and action movies that feature a lot of violence and gore. However, I will admit I ironically enjoyed the large-scale destruction of Man of Steel, whereas others took it too seriously being a Superman movie. The only aspect of SA that made the inevitability of seeing it bearable was the addition of The Rock, an actor so charismatic and full of enthusiasm, he made Pain & Gain good. Does he save San Andreas from being CG drenched slog or can the film stand on its own?

Beyond the cast I knew nothing about SA going in. 30 minutes later, I thought I was watching one of Roland Emmerich’s annual popcorn schlock features. Even the font of the title cards matched his style. It was not until the end I discovered it was the work of Sam Peyton, a relatively unknown director. And therein lies the singular issue that brings the movie down. No matter how you look at it, no matter the excuses you could make, San Andreas is an unremarkable disaster movie, if not a copy of similar titles.

The Scorpion King plays Ray, a rescue-helicopter pilot in Los Angeles. When his estranged wife and daughter are caught in a cataclysmic earthquake along the San Andreas Fault, Ray uses his honed survival skills to save his family from an ever-worsening crisis across the state of California.

Roland Emmerich is a formulaic director. His adherence to the method of which he structures character and story makes Blake Snyder, author of Save the Cat, look like a good writer.

His characters are the most blatant thread throughout his filmography: male protagonist with relationship issues, estranged wife/girlfriend of protagonist, smart/eccentric daughter/son, rich minor character that dies or becomes humbled, scientist that nobody listens to, and miscellaneous supporting characters that are in some way related to the main cast.

The disaster or event involving the characters happens in an obvious sequence: family estrangement made clear, disaster start, destruction, characters caught in destruction, escape, save, escape, save, harrowing failure, feigned death, resurrection, and happy ending where the estrangement is resolved.

That is the Emmerich Formula and the foundation for which other disaster movies are built. Take every disaster movie you can imagine, line them up side-by-side, and they will match each other beat for beat. Sure, all movies are the same, but it is different when an entire sub-genre adheres to the same structure as if it were afraid to try something new. That is the problem with San Andreas and the only reason it fails.

To my surprise, Mathayus (you are cool if you get that reference) was not the focus of the film, a minor flaw that would have helped the movie. The real protagonist is Ray’s daughter Blake, played by Alexandra Daddario, an actress with eyes so blue I am convinced she is a Fremen from Dune. Blake endures the most, isolated in San Francisco where the brunt of the earthquake is being felt. She uses her wit and will to get to safety and wait for help in a very physical and emotional performance. I like Sarge, but Daddario made the character her own in an emerging line of new strong female characters.

Like The Age of Adaline, San Andreas is painfully average without the pain. It is not good and it is not bad. Those who have not seen a disaster movie will certainly enjoy it. But for everyone else, it is nothing special and will leave no lasting impression beyond Daddario’s performance. I recommend Tomorrowland or Mad Max: Fury Road if you must see something this weekend.