Review: The Haunting of Bly Manor (2020)

The Haunting of Bly Manor. Created by Mike Flanagan. Netflix, 2020.

Premiere Impressions

            There’s something so special about horror with heart. Mike Flanagan’s first entry in The Haunting anthology series, The Haunting of Hill House (2018), is a gorgeously eerie scare-fest with a powerful emotional center. The second season, The Haunting of Bly Manor (2020), now streaming on Netflix, has the same intentions, but puts a bit too much emphasis on the heart over the horror.

           The Haunting of Bly Manor is based on the works of Henry James, loosely structured around his most famous tale, The Turn of the Screw (1898). Luckily, Bly Manor is the year’s far superior adaptation of James’s tale (see my review of The Turning). In the series, an au pair, Dani (Netflix’s very own scream queen, Victoria Pedretti), is tasked with taking care of two orphans, Miles (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) and Flora (Amelie Bea Smith), who are as equally sweet as creepy. As Dani begins to notice eerie things that the housekeeper, Hannah (T’Nia Miller), the chef, Owen (Rahul Kohli), and the gardener, Jamie (Amelia Eve) have not seen before. As her time at Bly continues, she begins to question her sanity, the children, and the motives of Bly Manor itself.

            The most surprising thing about Bly Manor is just how sweet it is. As one of the characters says, “it’s not a ghost story, it’s a love story.” The various episodes explore the backstories of each of the characters during their time at Bly, and each one centers on love. Each of the characters discovers love during the series, whether familial or romantic. Each of the ghosts is a tied to Bly because of love. To sum up, love. There’s a lot of love here, just not enough ghosts. The first episodes introduce the show’s atmospheric creepiness and the way the show plays with dark space is tingling. There is a particular shot with a doll under a dresser that stopped my heart. Once the show moves into the later episodes, the eerie ness takes a back seat and really doesn’t reappear until the Lady of the Lake makes a grand and shocking entrance. I’m not opposed to atmospheric horror being a supporting device for romance, that’s the key of all gothic tales after all, but the well-executed love stories do not quite make up for the lack of chills. For example, Flora’s dollhouse of ghosts is interesting and deserves more exploration than Peter Quint’s (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) romantic manipulations.

            The first four episodes are particularly fabulous. They have just the right amount of spookiness and sweetness. Then we get to “The Altar of the Dead,” the standout episode of the season. Episode five focuses on Hannah’s time at Bly and unravels the show’s biggest mysteries. Miller gives a masterclass performance and the narrative devices used to communicate the absence of linear time at Bly are impressively constructed. Then, there are two completely unnecessary episodes. One seems like it was written exclusively to make sure Henry Thomas had more to do. The next spends a great deal of time explaining the “ghost state” that has already been inferred. Because of these episodes, the show’s tight run of nine episodes actually feels a little long. Thank goodness for “The Romance of Certain Old Clothes,” the eighth episode, a haunting and Gothically romantic flashback that is gorgeous and makes the case for some standalone episodes of The Haunting.

Post-Screening Snippets

  • It’s really nice to see a queer love story in the eighties that only has medium tragedy levels
  • I am loving Pedretti’s ascension to the Netflix scream queen – she plays Dani with such deep anxiety, that her discomfort can be felt through the screen.

The Final Tea

            There’s so much to love about Bly Manor: the performances, the atmosphere, the Lady of the Lake, Carla Gugino’s delivery of “she would sleep, she would wake, she would walk,” and they definitely outweigh the absence of scares as the show progresses.

GRADE: B+

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