Netflix’s ‘The Haunting of Bly Manor’ needs some decluttering: Review

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The Haunting of Bly Manor is more afraid of you than you are of it. 

Writer-director Mike Flanagan and his popular Haunting anthology returned to Netflix Oct. 9, almost two years to the day since darkened our queues in 2018. The Haunting of Bly Manor, partially based on Henry James’ 1898 novella , invites viewers to a regal English country home owned by the ill-fated Wingrave family and maintained by their equally unlucky house staff. 

‘The Haunting of Bly Manor’ is more afraid of you than you are of it. 

The ghostly premise seems like the perfect next step for the beloved horror series. And yet, the specters of Henry James, Hill House, and other successful genre anthologies haunt its execution. The result is an excellent idea weighed down by imitation and insecurity. It’s watchable, certainly — but not anywhere near the fearless, ethereal experience Flanagan fans have come to expect.

Narrated by returning cast member Carla Gugino in an as a wedding guest telling a tale to fellow partygoers, Bly Manor begins in London during the spring of 1987. 

American school teacher Dani Clayton (Hill House’s Victoria Pedretti) answers an ad for a live-in au pair position at Bly Manor. After a very Working Girl interview with Henry Wingrave (Hill House’s Henry Thomas), the spunky foreigner lands the job and sets off to tutor and care for Mr. Wingrave’s niece and nephew: 8-year-old Flora (Amelie Bea Smith) and 10-year-old Miles (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth). 

Victoria Pedretti, aka Bent Neck Lady, once again bends her neck.

Victoria Pedretti, aka Bent Neck Lady, once again bends her neck.

Image: EIKE SCHROTER/NETFLIX

With mist across the gardens and ivy covering the parapet, the Manor’s fairytale appearance promises an idyllic escape for Dani, who viewers learn is running from her own dark past. The warm presences of Hannah the housekeeper (T’Nia Miller), Owen the cook (Rahul Kohli), and Jamie the groundskeeper (Amelia Eve) are similarly inviting.

‘Bly Manor’ routinely buckles under the weight of its inspirations and predecessors.

But recent developments at Bly — including the deaths of Flora and Miles’ parents, a fraudulent scheme by former Wingrave employee Peter Quint (Hill House’s Oliver Jackson-Cohen), and the tragic drowning of the children’s last governess Mrs. Jessel (Tahirah Sharif) — foreshadow a far grimmer tale. 

Across nine episodes, Bly Manor tells an otherworldly yet fundamentally human narrative more tragic than it is terrifying. To call it a “love story” first and a “ghost story” second is accurate, as explicitly stated by Gugino’s character in the series. Still, Bly Manor struggles to commit to the bold change in tone, routinely buckling under the weight of its inspirations and predecessors.

Amelie Smith and Tahirah Sharif sit by what turns out to be a *very* dangerous lake.

Amelie Smith and Tahirah Sharif sit by what turns out to be a *very* dangerous lake.

Image: EIKE SCHROTER/NETFLIX

The Turn of the Screw is a tremendously difficult text to serialize, to be fair.

According to HowLongToRead.com, James’ novella should take the average reader to complete. For comparison, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House takes . The simplistic story, considered a staple in horror literature, has been adapted many times before, but never across an eight-and-a-half-hour runtime.

What follows isn’t so much an intricate spider’s web as the innards of a freshly carved jack-o’-lantern.

With so much extra real estate to fill, Bly Manor pulls from James’ other works — namely, his 1868 short story — as well as numerous horror tropes to fashion a world complex enough for the serialized format. What follows, however, isn’t so much an intricate spider’s web of mystery and terror, as it is the innards of a freshly carved jack-o’-lantern left out for seed sifting. 

Nothing Flanagan includes in Bly Manor is thematically incongruous with Turn of the Screw or the season’s overarching romantic tone. But many of the narrative hoops this story requires its characters, and consequently the audience, to go through are too mechanically heavy for the pacing and mood. In addition to keeping track of what’s happening with Gugino’s character at this wedding and what’s happening with the people of Bly in 1987, viewers are routinely required to learn and accept new rules of the Manor.

Subplots are abandoned, details are never explained, the threat of a plot hole lurks behind every corner. Even the cast’s generally triumphant performances struggle to not be undermined by the jagged framing. (Pedretti has an especially good showing considering the emotional rollercoaster her character gets strapped into.)

T'Nia Miller and Amelia Eve absolutely dazzle as Hannah and Jamie.

T’Nia Miller and Amelia Eve absolutely dazzle as Hannah and Jamie.

Image: EIKE SCHROTER/NETFLIX

The issue is further compounded by Bly Manor’s abundant self-consciousness. Though Flanagan said at the time of the show’s renewal that he had no intention of directly following up the events of Hill House in Bly Manor, it’s clear the pressures of establishing an anthology format negatively impacted this story. 

By adapting another piece of gothic fiction centered around another haunted location, Bly Manor threads a very specific, very limiting needle. Theoretically, Flanagan could have terrified Hill House fans with anything he wanted to. Instead, he so closely mirrors what they liked in 2018 that Bly Manor can’t help but fall short of expectations.  

Whether these missteps originated with Flanagan or Netflix is hard to suss out. But additional copy-cat moves (reusing actors à la American Horror Story, returning to the 1980s à la WAY too many series in the post-Stranger Things era, etc.) make that shoehorning even more difficult to ignore.

Rahul Kohli is extremely handsome, extremely talented, and should be in everything. Thank you.

Rahul Kohli is extremely handsome, extremely talented, and should be in everything. Thank you.

Image: EIKE SCHROTER/NETFLIX

The shorthand consensus around Bly Manor seems to be that it’s “a less scary Hill House.” I’m still not convinced the decrease in terror was deliberate. Sure, Flanagan didn’t swing for as many jump scares this time, but the new season does present at least one hair-raising sentiment. 

“To truly love another person is to accept the work of loving them is worth the pain of losing them.” 

Bly Manor‘s central thesis, stated in one of its first scenes by a supporting character, addresses Hill House’s themes of grief and trauma with remarkable wisdom and compassion, but no less dread.

“To truly love another person is to accept the work of loving them is worth the pain of losing them,” a supporting character says during a rather dark wedding toast. “And if that scares you as much as it scares me, then I say run.”

This profound and heartbreaking sentiment is genuinely scary — and, as best I can tell, was authored by Flanagan and not James, Jackson, or some other horror auteur of the past. If Flanagan’s anthology continues at Netflix (which I sincerely hope it does), then it should be his voice celebrated in Season 3. The best parts of Bly Manor are the ones most characteristic of Flanagan’s style and sensibilities. Yes, he’s great at adaptions: Gerald’s Game, Doctor Sleep, and Hill House are all excellent. But his original tales, like Hush, Oculus, and Before I Wake, are even better.

Suffice to say, Bly Manor is not all good and it’s not all bad. This sprawling story, full of Flanagan genius but also the disappointments characteristic of sequels, is worth watching. Just do your best to assess it piece-by-piece, and when the credits roll, break out the sage. We don’t want Bly Manor hanging over whatever Haunting we get next.

The Haunting of Bly Manor is now streaming on Netflix.

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