by Andrew Wyatt on Oct 22, 2020

Note: This post contains minor spoilers for The Haunting of Bly Manor.

Many critical assessments of Mike Flanagan’s latest effort for Netflix, The Haunting of Bly Manor, have been unable to resist comparisons to the filmmaker’s previous limited-series adaptation for the streaming service. That would be The Haunting of Hill House, Flanagan’s acclaimed 2018 show that very loosely adapted Shirley Jackson’s immortal 1959 novel of the same name. In these comparisons, reviewers have often remarked that Bly Manor is “not as scary” as Hill House, which speaks to the challenges Netflix and Flanagan have faced in managing expectations for “the Haunting franchise” – an ongoing anthology of standalone miniseries, each one based on a classic gothic ghost story.

When it comes to 21st-century horror cinema, many filmgoers have come to expect a steady drip-feed of shrieking jump-scares. When a film fails to deliver, viewers can get a bit ... huffy. Looking at the past decade of higher-profile gothic cinema, popular reaction has tended to skew negative when the ghosts materialize too infrequently (or not at all). This phenomenon can be observed (albeit imperfectly) in the Rotten Tomatoes Audience Scores for films such as Crimson Peak (55%), I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House (24%), My Cousin Rachel (45%), and The Little Stranger (36%). Perhaps popular taste for the unabashedly gothic is at a low ebb – or perhaps a lot of marketing flacks simply think that this is so, and consistently misleading film trailers are the result.

Regardless, Flanagan and his collaborators seem to have taken a proactive approach during the promotional blitz for Bly Manor, repeating the phrase “gothic romance” like a mantra. Indeed, it’s clarifying to bear in mind that although the series is unquestionably a haunted-house tale, its overall tone owes a substantial debt to gothic-romance authors such as Charlotte and Emily Brontë, Eleanor Hibbert, Daphne Du Maurier, and Mary Stewart. While the series has its share of undead phantoms – a couple of them genuinely terrifying in aspect – Bly Manor is dense with more metaphorical kinds of hauntings: guilt, regret, dread, ambition, and, above all, love. As the show’s narrator knowingly observes when someone insists that her tale is a love story, not a ghost story: “Same thing, really.”

Of course, the most explicit influence on Bly Manor is American-British author Henry James: His indelible 1898 horror novella The Turn of the Screw serves as a narrative spine for the series. Such a literary pedigree would be intimidating enough without the long shadow of Jack Clayton’s 1961 film adaptation, The Innocents. That feature happens to be one of the great ghost-story films of the 20th century, in addition to boasting a captivating lead performance by no less an actress than Deborah Kerr. (The less said about Floria Sigismondi’s misbegotten adaptation The Turning – released in the sunny Before Times of January 2020 – the better.)

Hill House borrowed little from Shirley Jackson’s original novel other than a few names, situations, and a fascination with the inherent subjectivity of its characters' experiences. (If anything, Flanagan’s first series owes a bit more to Robert Wise’s seminal 1963 film adaptation, The Haunting.) In contrast, Bly Manor hews somewhat closer to James’ novella, although it still takes significant liberties with the story, transforming an ambiguous little gothic tale into something much more elaborate and ambitious.

Like James’ book, the new series begins with a frame story: In 2007, a woman (Carla Gugino) arrives at a lavish Northern California estate to attend a wedding, where her relationship to the bride and groom is unclear. Following the rehearsal dinner, the guests regale each other with tales of the property’s alleged hauntings, which prompts the woman to tell a ghost story of her own. In 1987 London, American au pair Dani Clayton (Victoria Pedretti) responds to a curious ad placed by wealthy solicitor Henry Wingrave (Henry Thomas). He is seeking a live-in nanny and schoolteacher for his young niece and nephew, Flora (Amelie Bea Smith) and Miles (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth). Flora and Miles’ parents – Henry’s brother, Dominic, and his wife, Charlotte – perished in an accident while overseas two years prior, and the children have since dwelled at the family’s Hampshire summer estate, Bly Manor. Oh, and one more thing: The children’s previous nanny, Rebecca Jessel (Tahirah Sharif), drowned herself in the manor’s lake.

It’s a properly creepy setup for what quickly expands into a rich ensemble story. Upon arriving at the opulent but remote Bly, Dani is introduced to the estate’s staff: the live-in housekeeper Mrs. Grose (T’Nia Miller); the cook, Owen (Rahul Kohli); and the groundskeeper, Jamie (Amelia Eve). They are all quite attached to the Wingrove children and seem to appreciate Dani’s caregiving approach, which is warm and relaxed but also firm handed. On the surface, Flora proves as charming and precocious as one would expect for a posh little English girl. (Absolutely everything is, in her estimation, “perfectly splendid.”) However, she is prone to talking to people who aren’t there, and she nurses several peculiar, secretive habits. Miles, meanwhile, is distinctly troubled, having recently been expelled from his Catholic boarding school with little explanation. He is mostly sullen and withdrawn, but he exhibits flashes of smirking hostility, creepily ogling and taunting Dani in a manner that belies his young age.

Mrs. Grose maintains that Rebecca Jessel’s unseemly demise has compounded the unsettled trauma that the children are still experiencing from their parents’ deaths. (Henry, for his part, never shows his face at Bly, to the staff’s disapproving exasperation.) Dani eventually learns that her predecessor became romantically involved with Henry’s shifty valet, Peter Quint (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), who lured the nanny into an embezzlement scheme with honeyed promises – before abruptly vanishing with the money. Both Peter’s disappearance and Rebecca’s subsequent suicide loom over Bly, but other mysteries abound as well. Why do Flora and Miles extract a promise from Dani not to leave her room at night? Who keeps moving Flora’s dolls around? Who is tracking muddy footprints through the halls? And what of the terrifying apparition that haunts the periphery of Dani’s vision, its huge eyes shining with pale fire?

Whereas Hill House was written and directed exclusively by Flanagan, here his duties are shared with a deep roster of horror and horror-adjacent talent, including Ciarán Foy (Sinister 2), Liam Gavin (A Dark Song), E.L. Katz (Cheap Thrills), and Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke (Cargo). Perhaps this is one explanation for the looser, more sprawling feel to Bly Manor, which lacks the tidy “one character per episode” structure that governed most of Hill House. Not that this proves to be much of a problem in practice. Bly Manor is still a vividly character-driven series, one that slowly unravels the story’s many mysteries by flitting back and forth through time, incrementally filling in backstories, personalities, and motivations. Some of the woe that befalls Bly can indeed be laid at the feet of the conniving Peter Quint – but other parties are blameworthy as well, and some of the estate’s evils are much, much older.

Bly Manor isn’t above funhouse theatrics, which include some simple but disturbing visual and makeup effects, as well as the murky “background ghosts” that were a staple of Hill House. However, grimacing phantasms are even less essential to this outing than they were in the first Haunting miniseries. That show and Flanagan’s supernatural-horror features (Oculus, Ouija: Origin of Evil, Doctor Sleep) have illustrated that adrenaline-fueled “BOO!” moments tend to be a sideshow for the filmmaker rather than the main attraction. Flanagan is a storyteller of characters first and foremost, one with an enduring and deep-seated interest in behavior that an outside observer might regard as absurd or abhorrent. He’s also an incurable sentimentalist who has steadily resisted contemporary horror’s taste for despair and nihilism, consistently preferring to highlight the value of human connections in the face of the abyss. (As the horrific death of Jacob Tremblay’s doomed Little Leaguer in Doctor Sleep establishes, this does not mean that Flanagan is timid about going very, very dark when necessary.)

It’s challenging to pick a best-in-show from Bly Manor’s estimable ensemble. Kohli is a scene-stealer, but he’s also blessed with a wonderful character in Owen, whose essential decency, dad-joke puns, and grandiose mustache have already earned him Internet Boyfriend status. Miller and Thomas are each permitted to shine in episodes where their characters are pushed to the forefront of the story, revealing hidden flaws, depths, and tragedies. Indeed, Miller’s breakthrough episode, “The Altar of the Dead,” seems destined for the same “great episodes of the decade” conversations as Hill House’s acclaimed “Two Storms” – a feat it achieves primarily through stellar acting and editing. Jackson-Cohen does excellent work as Peter, turning a character typically drawn as voracious brute into someone who is more coldly sinister and pitiable. Sharif, unfortunately, gets the short end of the stick: While solid enough as Rebecca, the show seems weirdly uninterested in fleshing out the former nanny to the same extent as other characters.

The heart of the show’s drama, however, is Dani and her halting, emergent relationship with Jamie the groundskeeper. While Pedretti and Eve never manage to outshine their co-stars individually, together they make for a terrifically compelling couple, with an undeniable on-screen chemistry and a facility for capturing the fumbling complexity of a semi-closeted queer relationship. (Indeed, the performers do a lot of the emotional heavy lifting that the teleplay seems reluctant to take up.) Dani’s low-key denial about her sexual identity is, it turns out, fiendishly entangled with unresolved guilt from her past – and with the bright-eyed shade that has seemingly followed her from America to Britain.

This particular subplot is loosely inspired by James’ short story “Sir Edmund Orme,” a tale about a broken engagement and a bitter, possessive ghost. Such homages are typical of Bly Manor, which finds ingenious ways to work elements from the author’s wider oeuvre into its expanded take on The Turn of the Screw. There are, naturally, online guides to these allusions, which include nods to “The Romance of Certain Old Clothes,” “The Great Good Place,” “The Jolly Corner,” and numerous other works. Beyond their potential appeal to a niche audience of literary geeks, however, these meta-James touches reveal a keen awareness of the recurring themes that run through the author’s bibliography. Far from feeling like attention-grabbing Easter eggs, they serve as fitting elaborations on the central ghost story, creating a multifaceted but cohesive saga about regret, remorse, and romantic longing. (Unintentionally or not, the penultimate episode – which involves a woman imprisoned in a timeless purgatory with her pretty possessions – also happens to hit pretty hard in the Year of Our Lord 2020.)

Although more uneven overall than Hill House in terms of both quality and pacing, Bly Manor manages something that Flanagan’s first series rather notoriously mishandled: an affecting, meaningful conclusion. The new series’ climax occurs with about 30 minutes left to go, and the story thereafter downshifts into a sweet, often elegiac epilogue that follows the characters’ lives over the ensuing years. What could have been a thoroughly unnecessary addendum becomes, in the hands of writer Julia Bicknell and director E.L. Katz, a deeply touching mini-narrative inspired by James’ sorrowful 1903 novella The Beast in the Jungle. Adding a delicate queer twist to the original book’s scenario, Bly Manor spends its final stretch ruminating poignantly on the challenges of living in the shadow of death, and on the importance of loving (and being loved) even when such connections ultimately make loss cut all the deeper. Despite the filmmaker’s step away from the sole auteur role in this latest series, it’s a distinctly Flanagan touch that such a mournful story should conclude on such a heartfelt and hopeful note.

Rating: B

Further Viewing: Rebecca (1940), The Uninvited (1944), Dragonwyck (1946), The Tomb of Ligeia (1964), Kill, Baby... Kill! (1966), Burnt Offerings (1976), The Changeling (1980), The Lady in White (1988), The Others (2001), Crimson Peak (2015).

The Haunting of Bly Manor is now available to stream from Netflix.