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The Haunting of Bly Manor

Dept. of Heebie-Jeebies


Any list of the best ever Netflix originals (of which I am certain there are many) will undoubtedly feature The Haunting of Hill House; if not some place in the top three, then at least in the top five. Yes, it really is that good. In fact, I would even venture so far as to call it one of the best horror adaptations of all time. Taken from Shirley Jackson’s seminal novel, and rooted in the notion that every household has its fair share of ghosts, the series was an utterly heartbreaking look at the toll that secrets and lies can have on a family.

Needless to say, this follow up had a lot to live up to. Not just in avoiding that inevitable sophomore slump, but in trying to live up to the impossible standards the showrunners set for themselves the first time around.

How then does The Haunting of Bly Manor fare on that front? With mixed results.

Loosely based on the works of Henry James, primarily on his 1898 novella “The Turn of the Screw,” as well as a few of his other ghost stories, The Haunting of Bly Manor can best be described as an anthology within an anthology.

We begin in 2007, where a familiar American actor with a dodgy English accent, regales the guests at a wedding party with a ghost story from 1987. It takes place on a sprawling estate in a small countryside town. A cradle-to-grave type of town which, as described by one of the characters, is the kind of gravity well that’s impossible to escape.

Everyone at Bly is haunted in some way or other, and over the course of these 494 minutes, we bear witness to all of their stories. Through fireside voiceovers, whooshing flashbacks, and even a black and white detour, we discover the plight of each of these desperate individuals, each one caught in the grip of tremendous personal loss and trying to escape it. The au pair who’s running away from her past, the housekeeper who never seems to eat, the drunk uncle, the dodgy valet, and the two young children, 8 and 10 respectively, who have already experienced more death and sorrow than anyone their age should.

Like most ghost stories, all of the setups are familiar, and the burden of Bly Manor lies with whether or not it can fulfil the pledge it makes in its first hour.

Like Hill House before it, The Haunting of Bly Manor is spooky, and beautiful, and poetic. Unlike Hill House, however, it is also messy, and bloated, and ultimately anti-climactic.

Hill House was the story of a family, torn apart by both actual ghosts and ghosts of their own making. That series got almost everything right about the way it depicted familial ties – their end-of-the-world arguments. the cliquish alliances between brothers and sisters, the kind of contempt that you can only ever have for a sibling, as well as the intrinsic and abiding love that comes with the territory.

Now, the reason that Hill House worked so well was because of its focus. It didn’t matter that the series employed a fractured narrative structure, by jumping backwards and forwards in time, and constantly shifting its emphasis from character to character. Watching it, you knew that every moment, in every story arc, stemmed from one original trauma. There was one mystery that needed solving, one big question that needed answering, and everything that was laid out before you was building towards that one resolution.

The Haunting of Bly Manor is far more ambitious. And therein lies its biggest fault. By trying to tell us too many ghost stories, it unfortunately dilutes the impact of all of them. By splitting its focus over so many gothic romances – I counted seven – we aren’t given enough time to fall in love with any of them. This “found family” of the governess, the cook, the housekeeper, and the gardener, are far too caught up in their individual heartbreaks to make us believe that they are, in fact, in it together.

This is further compounded by an exposition dump late in the season that jarringly pulls us out of the action, only for it not to have any real or meaningful connection to any of the characters we’ve been following thus far. It is an unnecessary reveal, that comes far too late to have an emotional impact.

The other thing I missed was the involuted intricacy of Hill House, where every shot was so much more than just a painting. Where every little detail, noticed and otherwise, played a part in the story. Where ghosts littered the scenery, whether you knew it for not.

And while I am aware that both seasons are very different beasts that require very different approaches, I couldn’t help but feel that Hill House provided me with a darker, richer, sense of dread.

Now I’m not saying that The Haunting of Bly Manor doesn’t have its saving graces. There is plenty here to relish. The production is sumptuous. The set design is picture perfect. And the performances, barring one or two ropy accents, are really good.

Almost all of the original cast of Hill House are back in varying capacities. Lead by Victoria Pedretti (who is terrifically watchable in everything), all of them are as eerie and as sorrowful as they need to be. The standout, however, is new addition T’Nia Miller, as Bly Manor’s housekeeper Hannah Grose. Her standalone episode, a wonderfully engineered whodunnit, is the most daring take of the season, and also the most satisfying.

Rahul Kohli joins the cast of The Haunting of Bly Manor.

Too much of The Haunting of Bly Manor feels dispensable. It feels like a story that could have been told in less time, and with more of a focus. This is especially true once you get to the last episode of the season which serves as a reminder of just how moving and impactful this series can be at its best.

I think that was the most frustrating thing about Bly Manor. That there were these occasional moments of genius and beauty that kept getting buried under this overlong and overwrought narrative. So much so that the series becomes an unwitting testament to Netflix bloat.

In Hill House, basements, dark corners, and attics weren’t the source of our fear. It was our own memories and miseries, and the exacerbation of old wounds, that proved to be our biggest horrors. Bly Manor seems to mistake soap opera for gothic romance, and unfortunately finds itself trapped by the tropes of the former rather than the latter. The end result is a series that is neither all that haunting nor very romantic.

The Haunting of Bly Manor
Netflix, 9 episodes
Showrunner: Mike Flanagan
Directors: Mike Flanagan, Yolanda Ramke, Ben Howling, Ciarán Foy, Liam Gavin, and Axelle Carolyn
Writers: Mike Flanagan, James Flanagan, Diane Ademu-John, Laurie Penny, Angela LaManna, Rebecca Leigh Klingel, The Clarkson Twins, Leah Fong, and Julia Bicknell
Cast: Victoria Pedretti, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Henry Thomas, Amelia Eve, T’Nia Miller, Rahul Kohli, Tahirah Sharif, Amelie Bea Smith, and Benjamin Evan Ainsworth

All nine episodes of The Haunting of Bly Manor drop on Netflix on Friday, 9 October.

Uma has been reviewing things for most of his life: movies, television shows, books, video games, his mum's cooking, Bahir's fashion sense. He is a firm believer that the answer to most questions can be found within the cinematic canon. In fact, most of what he knows about life he learned from Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. He still hasn't forgiven Christopher Nolan for the travesties that are Interstellar and The Dark Knight Rises.

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