‘The Haunting of Bly Manor’ Review: A Surprisingly Romantic, Emotionally Devastating Turn of the Screw

     October 10, 2020

The Haunting of Bly Manor, like the estate that gives it its name, is a gorgeous, sprawling wonder that I fear is going to upset a fair amount of people. Mike Flanagan‘s follow-up to the massive — and massively terrifying — hit The Haunting of Hill House is a lot of things, actually. A Gothic ghost story. A tragic romance. A rumination on the ways past traumas leave jagged scars on the present. But what The Haunting of Bly Manor is not… is scary. Nor, in the end, is it really trying to be. Hill House was also interested in grander themes, but it got to them by absolutely trashing your chance at a good night’s sleep, from its dread-filled Episode 1 escape scene to an Episode 8 jump scare that soiled pants across the globe. Meanwhile, Bly Manor is a far more subtle beast, spinning its plates for episodes at a time to set up a centuries-spanning narrative that hits like a ton of bricks when the finale finally brings it all crashing down. If you’re coming to Bly Manor looking primarily for Hill House‘s straight-up horror edges, you might be left cold. But if it was the human aspect of Hill House‘s haunts that appealed to you, well, how about another turn of the screw?

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Image via Netflix

Front and center this season is Victoria Pedretti as Dani Clayton, an American governess who takes on the job of caring for two children, Flora (Amelie Smith) and Miles (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth), at the sprawling Bly Manor after the tragic death of their parents. The children’s uncle, Henry Wingrave (Henry Thomas), expressly forbids Dani from bothering him with updates, leaving the au pair alone on the grounds with an affable cook (Rahul Kohli), an aloof gardener (Amelia Eve), and a gentle housekeeper (T’Nia Miller). As is the case in 100% of childcare jobs set in misty countryside mansions, something is immediately unsettling about Dani’s charges. Sweet-tempered Flora keeps a collection of unnerving dolls that sit ominously in a miniature recreation of Bly Manor, definitely not moving around of their own free will. Miles has just been permanently expelled from boarding school for mysterious reasons. Oh, and both children deny leaving those muddy footprints that appear in the main hall every night.

The Haunting of Bly Manor unspools its many, many threads deliberately, content to drop breadcrumbs instead of bombshells for at least a quarter of its nine episodes. The opening chapter, “The Great Good Place” — the only episode written by Flanagan — makes only passing references to Dani’s predecessor, Rebecca Jessel (Tahirah Sharif), or Henry Wingrave’s former business associate, Peter Quint (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), two characters who eventually collide and become integral to Bly Manor‘s sordid past. It’s a pace that’s occasionally frustrating; Bly Manor spends so much time in the past there are long stretches where it feels like we’ve forgotten the present. But it also heavily rewards a rewatch. As soon as the finale ended I fired up episodes 1 and 2 and the effect — like most stories this tightly-plotted — is like a magic trick. Tiny glances take on new meaning. Throwaway utterances actually reveal everything you need to know, without you knowing it.

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Image via Netflix

The disorientation is also largely the point, like it is in the season’s most prominent source material, The Turn of the Screw. Bly Manor plucks from several ghost stories by author Henry James — including a Henry Thomas-focused episode that adapts “The Jolly Corner” to mixed results and a shockingly devastating Episode 8 that makes clever use of “The Romance of Certain Old Clothes” — but the season is built on the bones of Turn of the Screw, a Gothic classic where the terror revolves around the question of whether or not the narrator is losing her marbles. For at least four episodes of Bly Manor, you will be asking that same question of yourself. There’s a real quality of feeling unmoored from reality throughout Bly Manor, even before you reach episode 5, director Liam Gavin‘s “The Altar of the Dead”, which (without giving too much away) begins the narrative trick of slipping through time uncontrollably, revisiting memories and moments with the momentum of a car crash. The Haunting of Bly Manor surprised me in a lot of ways, but occasionally low-key giving off the vibes of a Christopher Nolan movie might have been the most unexpected.

All that might make this story sound cold, but there’s a strong emotional core that becomes clearer with each passing revelation. Like Hill House, Bly Manor is interested in the metaphor of ghosts as regret; every phantom that’s haunting these characters is tied to some underlying remorse. The regret of staying with an abuser until it was too late. The regret of hurting a loved one, no matter how unintentional. The regret of loves not admitted in the first place. (The most obvious example is the shadowy, glowing-eyed ghoul who constantly appears to Dani in mirrors, which feels like this season’s answer to Hill House‘s Bent-Neck Lady.) But when the credits finally roll on the truly weep-worthy final episode, “The Beast in the Jungle” helmed by director E.L. Katz, it becomes clear that the overall message of Bly Manor is that even the most stubborn ghosts of regret can be exorcised, if only for a time.

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Image via Netflix

A good portion of that burden is carried by this incredible cast. Visually, aesthetically, and even tonally, Bly Manor is sometimes sorely missing the hyper-specific relationship between Flanagan and Hill House cinematographer Michael Fimognari, and you can feel the fact Flanagan declined to write and direct every episode. (A process he said basically almost killed him the first time around, so, you know, totally get it.) But the cast remains consistently solid as a rock top to bottom, led by Pedretti, who needs to be in the conversation about our best modern-day horror leads. Pedretti plays the part of Dani like she’s constantly one stiff breeze away from a panic attack, but in ways that make the character feel stronger. Anyone who actually suffers from anxiety could take one look at Pedretti’s performance and tell you she is capital-letter Going Through Some Shit. When the character’s romantic arc finally emerges it’s with more than a hint of tragedy because Pedretti’s physical tics tell you she doesn’t believe it’s deserved.

Again, that’s a whole lot, because The Haunting of Bly Manor is a whole lot, especially for a show in which a large part of the conversation is finding the ghosts hidden in the background. (That’s still a thing this season, and it’s still very unnerving!) But either way, you have to respect Flanagan and Co’s commitment to not making a Hill House clone. Bly Manor might not be scary but it certainly sticks in your brain long after it’s over because stories—like houses, like people—don’t have to horrify to be haunting.

Grade: A-

The Haunting of Bly Manor is now available to stream on Netflix. For more, here’s what’s new to Netflix in October.

Television