Mike Flanagans follows his surprise 2018 hit, The Haunting of Hill House, is anything but a ghost story.
The Haunting of Bly Manor debuted on Netflix earlier this month with a marketing campaign aimed at capturing the same sense of unease that permeated the 2018 hit that came before it. There are long shots of dark hallways, the same haunting banging sounds, and even a hit or two from a creepy ghost. It’s designed to look like the next big perfectly timed horror feature for the spooky October season. But don’t lie on your couch with a blanket to frighten your head at the first sight. It’s not that kind of story.
This nine-episode new entry in The Haunting of anthology is inspired by Henry James’ novel The Turn of the Screw. The story itself is over 100 years old, so anyone interested in phantom fiction already knows the basics of the plot. Luckily, Flanagan, just like he did with Shirley Jacksons, The Haunting of Hill House takes the basic plot elements, characters, and setting and makes them his own for these lavishly produced adaptations. There is very little here that looks like the original news, and a lot of the changes are actually improvements.
Hill House star Victoria Pedretti returns for this second anthology series as Dani, a young American who moved to London to seek employment after a tragic event at home. She responds to a job offer as a housekeeper for a couple of wealthy children in the country who lost their parents in a tragic accident two years ago. To make matters even more tragic, their previous housekeeper was found dead on the property. Dani sees this as an opportunity to start a new life for herself, even ignoring all of the weird circumstances surrounding the position.
When she arrives at Bly Manor, a sprawling summerhouse in the country, she meets two strange children, Miles, 10, and Flora, 8, who has an affinity for calling everything splendid. The remaining colorful cast of characters includes Owen, the leader; Mrs. Grose, the maid; and Jamie, the gardener, who have all become surrogate family members for the two children.
In the first few episodes, Bly Manor tries to build on its horror inspiration. Mysterious muddy footprints continue to appear in the house each night, making their way to a closed wing of the house where the parents once lived. Dark figures can be seen just blurry in the corners of rooms. Dolls that represent invisible figures often move on their own. And then there are visions from Danis of a man with shiny reflective glasses that she sees every time she looks in a reflection. It feels like the series is really developing on a major supernatural suspense that will leave your skin crawling.
And then he drops the fake five episodes and drops the ghosts, so to speak. The story goes from a haunting tale of suspense and fear to a melancholy, depressing tale of love and lost love. There are ghosts. But these are not the ghosts you would expect from Hill House. There is no real evil entity haunting these halls, these children or poor Dani. The story is not about fear, but rather relationships and how they are formed and how they are broken.
The sudden change in tone and plot can be a bit shocking. Episode five looks like it’s meant to be that pivotal moment in history where everything changes with a major reveal. It might work, if the reveal hadn’t been blatantly telegraphed from the start of the series so blatantly and obviously it’s hard to call the change a twist.
Bly Manor is so focused on trying to establish that atmosphere and expectations before subverting them that it wastes so much screen time on elements and storylines that just aren’t going anywhere. Flanagan crafted an expertly paced experience with Hill House, so it’s even more disappointing that his follow-up effort makes it seem like it’s about two to three episodes too long. There is so much here that could be scaled back and exorcised in favor of a much leaner show that would be nicer.
Flanagan also falls into the same trap he did with Hill House by explaining every aspect and rule of his phantom fiction. This emphasis on answering any possible question that arises leaves little to the imagination, which is an important aspect of any supernatural horror show. The show comes to a complete stop at the height of the climax to include an entire backstory episode that explains it all. While this is the most creative and enjoyable episode of the series, its placement is questionable at best.
The Haunting of Bly Manor isn’t a bad show far from it, actually. But as a sequel to The Haunting of Hill House, it’s a disappointment. He never reaches these heights, nor does he approach them. When it all comes together at the end and the final credits roll into the final episode, you walked away with a feeling of sadness and a bit of catharsis. He is especially successful in his intentions even if he sometimes feels a little overloaded. But this is not a ghost story, and in hindsight, was never meant to be a ghost story. Don’t make the mistake of starting a frenzy with these expectations.