Netflix’s THE HAUNTING OF BLY MANOR is often confusing and too long by at least two hours, but creator Mike Flanagan is one of the few horrormeisters working today who understands that dread is what drives horror, not violence. In this fascinating, if flawed series, the filmmaker creates an eerie sense of unease throughout, making for a wholly unsettling experience. Even if it’s not as good as its predecessor THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE, Flanagan’s latest still beats most frighteners by a country mile.
Following up HILL HOUSE was no easy task. The first season of Flanagan’s 2018 anthology horror series was not only a critical darling but it was an unexpected smash for Netflix. Knowing that that series’ plotline, loosely based upon the 1959 novel of the same name by Shirley Jackson, was self-contained meant that Flanagan would have to look elsewhere for its ‘sequel.’ He found it in Henry James’ 1898 novella THE TURN OF THE SCREW. Once again, Flanagan has taken liberties with the material, but he’s managed to faithfully keep the creeping sense of dread that James infused on every page of his classic work.
Flanagan’s series, like James’ prose, starts with a story within a story, using a narrator to tell its beckoning ghost tale. In THE HAUNTING OF BLY MANOR, Flanagan introduces Carla Gugino as a storytelling guest at a rehearsal dinner who keeps the wedding party in her rapt attention as she chronicles the horrors of the old British Bly Manor decades ago.
From there, storyteller Gugino, terrific as always and nailing a Welsh accent, details how a young governess named Dani (Victoria Pedretti) came to be hired by a stiff, upper-crust businessman named Henry Wingrave (Henry Thomas). Wingrave is reluctant to hire an American like Dani but soon acquiesces, realizing she’s shrewd beyond her years and can likely handle his eccentric nephew and niece. Miles (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) and Flora (Amelie Bea Smith) are 11 and 8, respectively, orphaned, and precocious. But soon enough, Dani will discover that they’re two very strange urchins, not far off the eerie child that was Damien in THE OMEN.
Miles is moody, sometimes acting the spoiled brat, other times like an oversexed teen, particularly when he catches Dani undressing. Is he just a boy caught in the no man’s land between toys and girls, or is there something more sinister going on in his head? He’s a bright student at school too, but soon he even loses favor with his nurturing parochial teacher (Jim Piddock) because of his mood swings. The boy gets expelled for frequent violent outbursts and returns home, where his behavior will only grow more erratic.
Dani suspects there may be something evil in the house affecting the boy, especially when she finds out that Rebecca (Tahirah Sharif), the previous au pair, committed suicide on the premises. Her suspicions aren’t helped by housekeeper Mrs. Grose (T’Nia Miller) or cook Owen (Rahul Kohli), who both try to gloss over the weird vibe in the house with their amiable personalities.
In many ways, cute as a bug-in-a-rug Flora is the most peculiar of anyone at home. She speaks very posh, far beyond her years, but spends oodles of time chatting up various ghosts on the premises. Are they the previous nanny and the legendary ‘lady in the lake’ supposedly haunting the pond? Things really get dicey when a third specter enters the fray, this time in the form of the missing Peter Quint (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), a shadowy business contemporary of Henry’s, as well as Rebecca’s secret lover.
Most of these characters can be found in James’ original prose, and Flanagan has adapted much of the author’s plotting as well. Some of it hasn’t aged particularly well, especially those tropes that have now become horror cliches. Ghosts appear in mirrors and various forms of standing water – surprise, surprise! Various villains turn out to be good guys and vice versa. And too many folks fail to realize they’re not amongst the living anymore. Such scenes could have been rendered completely laughable if it weren’t for Flanagan’s unerring sense of tonal consistency. Every character, every line of dialogue, every bit of action in this piece…they all come shrouded in inherent eeriness.
Ultimately, the story becomes more of a mystery than a jump-out-of-your-seat thriller. Is Miles possessed? What’s Mrs. Groce hiding? What’s behind this doorway or in that drawer? And why is Dani having such ghostly visions of a man wearing eyeglasses that gleam? That’s one of the better revelations in the show. Many of the other explanations are far too complicated and beget other questions. There are far too many flashbacks and origin stories, especially when the story is already mixing past right up against the present, dreams buttressed against waking life. Despite the over-extending, Flanagan manages to keep up the sense of dread. And when the monsters appear, THE HAUNTING OF BLY MANOR provides jump scares that Blumhouse would envy.
It helps that the actors, many whom Flanagan cast in the first year’s series, make all of the thrills and chills quite believable. Pedretti wears every emotion on her sleeve and we feel them right along with her. The two youngest performers are incredible actors already, handling the nuanced dialogue and range of emotions like thespians three times their age. Miller stands out amongst the supporting players, as does Amelia Eve as smart-alec gardener Jamie. And who knew that Thomas could do such a blustery Brit? He’s so good, you’ll wish he was in the show more.
I wish that the penultimate episode didn’t spend so much time on the backstory of previous owners from centuries ago. Such revelations probably should have come earlier, maybe even in the first 30 minutes when Henry Wingrave is explaining the ghostly downsides of the governess job to Dani. Additionally, the case could be made that Flanagan plays far too much with timelines, confusing time, and space exponentially more than necessary. Still, much of his mind games are intentional, just as they were in James’ story. Sometimes head-scratching comes with those hairs on the back of your neck standing on end.
Ultimately, what Flanagan is after here is the idea that one’s inner demons can be far more terrifying than any ghost or goblin. It’s hard to face the dreadful truths of our pasts, of our most salient fears, of our failures. For most of us, Bly Manor is not a geographical location but a state of being. Whether we chose to live in such a haunted place is up to us. A willingness to do so, that’s the most abject horror.