Review: THE HAUNTING OF BLY MANOR, Must-Watch Series Rewards Patience

Benjamin Evan Ainsworth, Amelie Bea Smith, and Henry Thomas star in director Mike Flanagan's dramatic horror series, now streaming on Netflix.

Lead Critic; San Francisco, California
Review: THE HAUNTING OF BLY MANOR, Must-Watch Series Rewards Patience

It feels like two decades, but writer-director-producer Mike Flanagan’s adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s seminal horror novel, The Haunting of Hill House, premiered just two years ago on Netflix.

Flanagan’s free-associative, liberal adaptation of Jackson's 1959 novel mixed and matched key plot, character, and thematic elements from Jackson’s novel while expanding those same elements into wildly inventive and original directions. Both critics and, more importantly from Netflix’s perspective, audiences agreed, making the tragic story of the ill-fated Crain family a popular, pop-culture hit.

But The Haunting of Hill House was always meant as a closed, stand-alone story, leaving a followup likely only if Flanagan decided to follow uber-producer Ryan Murphy’s American Ghost Story anthology template: Different story, but similar plots, characters, and themes, along with the return of the first season’s cast, albeit in different roles. Going the anthology route certainly has its risks, especially since the unspoken contract between filmmaker and audience the second time around involves the promise of "the same, but different."

In addition to creating and executive producing The Haunting of Hill House, Flanagan directed the entire, 10-episode season and wrote or co-wrote four. For the follow-up, however, Flanagan only wrote and directed the first episode, producing the remainder. Flanagan obviously loves the horror genre too much ― evident in his prodigious output in the genre over the last decade ― to give viewers his second- or third-best effort, though. The result, The Haunting of Bly Manor, a loose, modernized adaptation of Henry James’ 1898 classic novella, The Turning of the Screw, remixed with elements borrowed from two other ghost stories written by James, The Jolly Corner and The Romance of Certain Old Clothes, doesn’t deliver anywhere near the same number or quality of jolts, shocks, or scares of its predecessor, but more than compensates for any shortfalls via emotionally resonant payoffs typically of more sophisticated entries in the horror genre.

The Haunting of Bly Manor centers primarily on Dani Clayton (Victoria Pedretti), an American ex-pat and one-time schoolteacher who relocated to London after the disastrous end of a romantic relationship. Like apparently everyone we meet during the second season, Dani has a life-altering, traumatized past she's trying to put in the rearview, a dark secret that manifests itself in Dani's case as a literal ghost, an attention-hungry, silhouetted specter in flaming spectacles.

Dani’s specter has the unfortunate habit of appearing in mirrors or reflective surfaces, making her jumpy or jittery whenever she goes near one. Hoping for a clean, fresh start to turn her life around, Dani assertively sells herself as a live-in au pair to Henry Wingrave (Henry Thomas), an alcoholic wealthy Londoner with an orphaned niece, Flora (Amelie Bea Smith), and nephew, Miles (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth), in his reluctant care.

Wingrave, however, wanting little day-to-day contact with his niece and nephew has left them in the faraway family manor. When Dani arrives at Bly Manor, courtesy of occasional driver, full-time cook, and pun aficionado Owen (Rahul Kohli), she’s greeted by a chirpy Flora and a semi-withdrawn Miles, Hannah Grose (T'Nia Miller), the soft-spoken, daydream-prone, live-in housekeeper, and later, Jamie (Amelia Eve), the surly, distant gardener who initially treats Dani as an interloper or intruder at the Wingrave family manor.

Over time, we learn that everyone at Bly Manor has not only a story or backstory of their own to tell, but a damaged past that both isolates and brings them together. For Hannah, it’s a broken marriage, periodic mental lapses, and occasional disappearances. For Owen, it’s an offscreen mother suffering from dementia. For Jamie, it’s a fractured family home. And for Flora and Miles, it’s the unfathomable trauma of losing their parents in an unspecified accident a year earlier and more recently, the suspicious drowning of Dani’s predecessor, Rebecca Jessel (Tahirah Sharif), and the mysterious disappearance of Rebecca’s lover, Henry's factotum, and toxic masculinity personified, Peter Quint (Oliver Jackson-Cohen).

As with The Haunting of Hill House, the ghosts in The Haunting of Bly Manor are figurative, metaphorical, and literal. Sometimes they’re the manifestation or projection of a character’s guilt-ridden past (as in Dani’s). Other times, they’re the lingering, unquiet dead who refuse to go peacefully into the good night (Rebecca). Even other times, they’re ghosts tied not to a specific individual, but to the centuries-old manor itself.

Whatever their origin or reason for existing, the ghosts tend to appear at the least opportune time for the characters onscreen. In a somewhat welcome repeat of its predecessor, The Haunting of Bly Manor works up the obligatory sense of dread by playing the 'ghosts hiding in plain sight' game, though to be fair, that’s an element lifted directly from James’ novella and the unsurpassed 1961 adaptation, The Innocents, directed by Jack Clayton (Dani’s surname obviously nods in his general direction).

Less like its predecessor and more like an average streaming series pushed to the 9- or 10-episode limit, The Haunting of Bly Manor suffers from a bit of middle episode bloat. After the exposition-heavy introductory episodes, The Haunting of Bly Manor tends to favor deliberate, decompressed storytelling over its more efficient, economical counterpart. The Haunting of Bly Manor could have been easily shorted by two or three episodes without losing any of its character depth or thematic exploration of trauma, loss, and grief, and how all three can leave deep, personality-warping scars, or how families, biological or non-biological, can ultimately save us (insert the usual bromides about the 'power of love' minus the Huey Lewis and the News power chords).

Still, for all of its unfortunate padding, The Haunting of Bly Manor takes a turn for the better with its Hannah-centric fifth episode, “The Altar of the Dead.” Shifting time and place with seemingly effortless ease using visual and sound cues, “The Altar of the Dead” comes as close to a tour-de-force episode to the first season’s justly celebrated single-shot “Two Rooms” episode.

More than just an exercise in style or storytelling, “The Altar of the Dead” gives Hannah and T'Nia Miller a much-needed spotlight episode without sacrificing the dramatic need to push the story forward even as it delves into Bly Manor’s recent past. Miller carries the episode with a nuanced, multi-layered performance, a standout in a season already filled with top-notch performances from a pitch-perfect cast.

From there, The Haunting of Bly Manor begins to really reward the patience of audience members, picking up the narrative pace considerably with long withheld twists, turns and revelations, ultimately culminating in a dramatically and emotionally satisfying conclusion that resolves all of the major and minor plot threads along with giving the central characters ― and by extension the audience ― exactly the kind of cathartic closure they didn’t know they wanted or needed. Only an overlong, overindulgent epilogue slightly dampens the emotional effects of that cathartic closure, but overall that’s a minor problem offset by all of the goodwill built up over the previous eight episodes of another must-watch season.

The Haunting of Bly Manor is now streaming on Netflix.

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Amelie Bea SmithBenjamin Evan AinsworthHenry ThomasMike FlanaganNetflixUS

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