Taking a much-loved work of art like Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House and attempting to make it better than the original is a daring task. Succeeding is nothing short of a miracle.
Creator Mike Flanagan takes the basics of Jackson's novel and uses its foundation for the building blocks of a familiar tale that is more terrifying than its initial telling because he binds the characters together in a more meaningful way.
Instead of a team of scientists investigating paranormal activities, we're introduced to this Hill House when the Crain family moves in filling the haunted manse with love and hope only to see its utter destruction.
Hugh Crain (Henry Thomas/Timothy Hutton) and his wife, Olivia (Carla Gugino) have a dream that includes a lot of renovation on the way to their forever house. The restoration of Hill House, a sprawling estate with a questionable history, is the last restoration before their dreams come true.
They inhabit the place with full hearts and a healthy brood of kids. Steven (Paxton Singleton/Michiel Huisman), sweet and eager to please, and Shirley (Lulu Wilson/Elizabeth Reaser), cynical and apt to take on the duties of Steven, are their eldest.
Theodora (Mckenna Grace/Kate Siegel) a kind, willful girl with a preternatural side, and rambunctious twins Eleanor aka Nell (Violet McGraw/Victoria Pedretti), and Luke (Julian Hilliard/Oliver Jackson-Cohen), whose shenanigans seem to expose them to paranormal activity, are the sensitive ones in the family.
Every performance contributes to the family dynamic and helps to build anxiety throughout the series. What the children witness while living at Hill House greatly affects their lives and relationship as adults not only within the family but out in the world.
Some of them would be unrecognizable if not for their quirks and the fact that as viewers we jog between them as children and adults frequently, giving us a fuller picture of the family as the details of their experience at Hill House is slowly, agonizingly revealed over the course of ten episodes.
Hill House caretakers, Mr. and Mrs. Dudley (Robert Longstreet and Annabeth Gish) also dole out parcels of the mystery in fits of either delightful or disturbing detail depending on which Crain family member they might be chatting with at the time, and it always seems like they're withholding some crucial evidence.
The blending of the classic novel and the modern family twist work very well to update an already breathtaking fright fest. The yearning for acceptance and need to be loved within the family cannot be matched. It brings to life the character arcs in ways the scientific investigation never could.
When wee Nell is tortured by the Bent Neck Lady, Luke worries about dying in the woods, Theo sees anguish in everything she touches, or the other children want so badly to get into locked "red room" but cannot, it's hard to stand behind Hugh and his stubborn desire to finish the work at Hill House.
It's hard, as he carries on despite cries of help from Olivia, the once-loving mother who seems to be losing her mind for no reason other than the house is tearing her apart from the inside out.
What the family experiences is horrifying if not horrific, but it's easy to fall in love with the Crains while watching their tragic existence at Hill House.
And it's obvious that all of the actors are enjoying their time with the material.
Gugino is pitch perfect as the haunted Olivia living in a haunted house trying to protect her family but unable to be heard within its cavernous walls.
Grace is terrific as young Theo who is both protective and in need of protection because of her understood connection with mom, Olivia.
Huisman's Steve is a reminder of why the actor has been so welcomed on American television in such a wide variety of roles since he first appeared on Treme in 2010. Although the elder brother would prefer to be thought of as stiff and emotionally distant, Huisman's body language alone can move you to tears.
Hutton fares well as the elder patriarch struggling to right his wrongs as he recalls a past in which he failed to fully accept at face value the world at Hill House his children and wife painted for him.
As Nell, Pedretti is practically ethereal, and with Siegel's adult Theo (Flanagan's wife) lend a wave of authenticity to the adult Crain siblings because their resumes are so bare while their skills are so exceptional. Both actresses easily hold their own alongside seasoned veterans and tug at the heart.
There are emotions aplenty during the first six installments, but the final four rocket toward the finish, which packs an affecting punch for one of the most satisfying conclusions to a series in recent years.
Quite earnestly, The Haunting of Hill House offers abject terror that is rarely experienced these days. It is genuinely scary without the need for blood and gore.
If this is annoyingly vague for you, I'm not going to apologize. Something I don't take for granted is when I get to see great programming early before it is too spoiled to know all the plot points going into it. Experiencing it all on your own terms can't be beat.
If you're a fan of ghost stories and tales about family, look no further than this updated classic. It's a spectacular haunted house tale and a devastating story about love, loss, and mental illness that you cannot miss.
The Haunting of Hill House premieres on Netflix October 12, 2018.
Carissa Pavlica is the managing editor and a staff writer and critic for TV Fanatic. She's a member of the Critic's Choice Association, enjoys mentoring writers, conversing with cats, and passionately discussing the nuances of television and film with anyone who will listen. Follow her on Twitter and email her here at TV Fanatic.