“One need not be a Chamber-to be Haunted- One need not be a House- The Brain has Corridors-surpassing Material Place-”
— Emily Dickinson
The Haunting Of Bly Manor, Netflix’s follow-up limited series to their adaptation of The Haunting Of Hill House, is much more interested in haunted people than a haunted house. Yes, Bly Manor, where the majority of the show’s action takes place, is suitably spooky, full of dark corners and ominous shadows, but the real terror in this show’s nine episodes comes from the people, living and dead, confined within the manor’s walls.
Early in the first episode, a minor character gives a statement that hints at the show’s ultimate theme: “To truly love another person is to accept that the work of loving them is worth the pain of losing them.” The story frequently mixes gothic horror with romance, representing its thesis regarding love and death: the former is all-conquering. The latter is unavoidable. Both of these statements in Bly Manor are true, which makes for a case of ‘unstoppable force meets immovable object’ when love and death overlap.
The show’s plot is a loose adaptation of Henry James’ 1898 novella The Turn of The Screw. Dani Clayton (Victoria Pedretti) is a young American freshly arrived in England, hired by the nervy, cagey Henry Wingrave (Henry Thomas) to take care of his young nephew Miles (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) and niece Flora (Amelie Bea Smith) at the Bly estate. Once there, Dani meets the two extremely precocious and erratic children, the rest of the house’s staff (each with their own particular hang-ups and quirks), and the mysterious presences lurking around the house.
As to what might be causing this vague and unsettling disturbance at Bly, there are a number of potential causes. Dani’s predecessor mysteriously killed herself, the Wingrave children’s parents had a similarly unfortunate end, and Uncle Henry has secrets of his own. The ultimate truths behind Bly Manor’s bumps in the night depart quite radically from The Turn of The Screw, using its characters and general plot to tell a much more expansive story about people being unable to let go of each other, even when death itself separates them.
The Haunting Of Bly Manor is, in its early episodes, an extremely slow-burn type of horror. As is common with Netflix originals, the structure of individual episodes is often less clear than the structural of the overall 9-hour story. While this does mean the pace starts to stall out in the middle batch of episodes, Bly Manor is a show that rewards viewers’ patience if they’re willing to stick around.
Fans of white-knuckle terror and Hill House’s ghoulish spirits might feel unfulfilled by Bly Manor’s more restrained approach. Blending gothic romance with gothic horror means that Bly Manor begins with less fanfare and less immediate thrills, but the much stronger characters and the depth of their relationships with each other grounds the eventual terror in human emotion, lending the story a deep, memorable sense of pain to every faceless monster looming in the shadows.
One way Bly Manor consistently builds its tension is through the murky, deceptive atmosphere. There are next to no jump scares anywhere in the show. Instead, The Haunting Of Bly Manor lets its eerie atmosphere quietly accumulate, building up until you realize something is very wrong here. Strange shadows will move in the background, out of focus and with no special attention called to them, only freaking you out if you notice them — and you will, thinking you’ve missed something dreadfully important. Shots are framed without a clear focal point, and sometimes the camera zooms on an empty corner of a room — all suggesting that there are key pieces of the picture that we aren’t seeing.
Discomfort also comes from subtler sources than ghosts, ghouls, and creepy kids: Bly Manor refuses to give us a clear sense of when it’s taking place. A few quick references place the story’s main action in 1987. However, the characters’ fashions do not adhere to any one time period: Dani’s outfits tend to ground us in the ‘80s, but other characters dress like ‘60s sitcom fare – British fashion undermining our mental image of where and when we are. The Wingrave kids seem to be dressed in the latest children’s fashion of the Victorian era. Often shots will have a glossy, vaseline-like filter over them, framing the action like a ‘90s soap opera. Sometimes contrast is cranked up, filling scenes with too-bright sunlight and too-dark shadows. All of this compounds into a difficult-to-place sense of disquiet while watching: What we’re seeing is inconsistent on purpose. The space itself is wrong, and there’s no way for us to pinpoint why or how, let alone for the characters to do the same.
The entire show is grounded by several extremely strong performances. Many actors from Hill House return here, like Pedretti, who delivers a fantastic performance as Dani, injecting needed nuance and urgency into the usual horror-story protagonist arc of growing slowly more scared. The child actors also walk a fine balance between endearing youth and off-putting strangeness that calls into question whether the kids are weird because of paranormal reasons, or just because they’re kids. Hill House alum Oliver Jackson-Cohen serves up a deeply likable, and then deeply unsettling, performance as former employee Peter Quint, involved in a doomed tryst with former caretaker Rebecca Jessel (Tahirah Sharif, delivering an equally compelling leading-role performance).
Quint and Jessel’s romance, as it is in the source material, is an example of how The Haunting Of Bly Manor leverages its heart to create its horror. Both of them are lower class workers hoping for a better life while suffering discrimination: Quint for being Scottish, Jessel for being Black. What starts as a bond forged by shared experiences curdles into a mix of possessiveness and resentment. This is all before ghosts even get involved. When things inevitably sour for Quint and Jessel, we fear for their lives because the horror they suffer from, and the horror they begin to cause, comes from their initial desire to be happy together – one example of Bly Manor spinning horror out of romance, and vice-versa.
Carla Gugino, credited only as The Storyteller, is our frame for the events, telling the ghost story years later in 2007 at the rehearsal dinner for an unnamed couple’s wedding. While there is of course more to this wedding, and this Storyteller, than it might first appear, these reveals ultimately add little to the story beyond giving an excuse for Gugino to narrate the action and give us insight that likely would have been conveyed through the show’s action and other performances. Gugino does an admirable job and her dulcet, guiding tones never over-do a moment, but it still feels like an unnecessary added element.
Bly Manor has a good number of unnecessary, or at least unwieldy, added elements. In addition to the arbitrary frame device of Gugino’s narrator, the later episodes begin depending heavily on flashbacks and nonlinear narratives, sometimes spending whole episodes in another character’s side of events. These diversions are never completely irrelevant, and the other perspectives on the hauntings going on at Bly are always grimly compelling, but they often run on too long, or drag their feet in connecting back to the events of the rest of the story.
The show’s sometimes meandering pace and these narrative detours hamper the show’s momentum before the conflict comes to an abrupt head in the penultimate episode. While the show does end on a strong note with a surprising amount of emotional resonance — much more effective and relatable than the somewhat trite conclusion of Hill House — it remains a shame that the entire journey wasn’t so consistently motivated and purposeful.
The Haunting Of Bly Manor is at its strongest when it sticks to the human side of its horror: how falling in love can drive one to do crazy things, how grief can render one unrecognizable, and how personal problems don’t go away just because we don’t acknowledge them. By zeroing in on these relatable aspects of its specters, Bly Manor crafts a very well-made haunted house.
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While a little longer than it needs to be and aimless in spots, The Haunting Of Bly Manor has serious staying power and a great story underneath all its scares.
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