THE HAUNTING OF BLY MANOR Review
From the start, The Haunting of Hill House was a horror show. It was, and still is, an emotional and mature exploration of trauma, depression, addiction and forms of grief, through the lens of a ghost story. It would have been near impossible to top. Which is why, thankfully, Mike Flanagan didn't try to and moved away from the spooks for his follow up, The Haunting of Bly Manor. Don’t worry, there’s still things that go bump in the night in this manor.
The Haunting of Bly Manor is the second in Netflix’s anthology series, with Flanagan back as showrunner and cast members from Hill House back in new roles, along with new cast members. Bly Manor follows the story of Danielle Clayton, an American who backpacks around the UK before find work as an au pair (fancy nanny) at Bly Manor, looking after 2 young children who have experienced tremendous lose. There she meets the other members of staff and must confront the painful memories of the manor, and her own.
In interviews, Flanagan described this series as a “new way to tell a love story” which is what Bly Manor really is at its core. It is a love story and is framed as such from the opening, as a story being told around the fire place. Much like last series, this series is based on another author’s literary works, this time Henry James. The show feels more literary in its story like framing and the clashing period settings of an old house with 80s clothes, but also the intertwining love stories.
That “new way to tell a love story” isn’t just because now there are ghost hauntings involved in the heartfelt expressions of love, but because of how love is presented. Love can be everlasting, even after someone is gone, and with love there comes pain; the pain of loss. This series confronts those topics of loss, and grief and death in the same mature way as before. Combining the supernatural elements with richly defined, human stories makes for satisfying and powerful storytelling.
Now if you were disappointed that this wasn’t a clear-cut horror story, then the expert handling of the brief horror elements should make up for it. Instead of going for cheap jump scares, fake outs, or gallons of blood and gore to illicit an elevated heart rate in the audience, the show is more subtle and restrained. Even something that would have been a big monster reveal, in Episode 2, is a slow suspenseful build up that only pays off in a blink-and-you'll miss it shot. Look around the frame and you might notice the lone figures standing the darkness. Just, standing there. Never addressed and never noticed. Once you see it, you’ll start to get paranoid and peer into every corner of each shot, trying to spot that lingering, unnerving presence in the manor. Like last series, it makes the house feel alive and like a character in itself. It has a more lasting effect on you than that quick spike of adrenaline, which is the sign of a great horror.
Of course, it wouldn’t be scary if you didn’t care about the people involved. Bly Manor takes the time to flesh out these characters and make them relatable enough (wonky British accents aside), that when the ghosts come creeping out of the shadows, the audience is scared for them and with them. Something unique about this series, is how it presents ghosts and poltergeist through the eyes of children. Backed by great child performances by Amelie Bea Smith and Benjamin Evan Ainsworth, ghosts and death are seen as just a new journey.
This isn’t to say that Bly Manor is not without its cracks in the wall. As mentioned, this is more a character driven, romance that has ghosts in it. So anyone expecting another Hill House, should check their preconceptions at the door. While it delivers an emotional conclusion, it doesn’t have the same effect as Hill House did due to the fact that it is not as focused or structured as it could have been. Each character’s story is not connected enough that their stories feel disparate from one another and while enjoyable, it doesn’t deliver cohesively. Like with Hill, the series is non-linear, but unlike Hill, the stories are not all linked with the manor that the show deviates from the main story and gets distracted in subplots, especially the past of Dani Clayton, which doesn’t feel properly resolved.
While the show differs from Hill House, it is hard not to compare the two, especially when there are recurring elements. Beyond the haunted grand mansion, there are characters (Kate Siegel’s from Hill and Amelia Eve’s from Bly) who feel like an imitation. Storylines and depictions of ghosts like with Uncle Henry Wingrave’s personal trauma and addictions personified as a literal inner demon, feel derivative in how it is not as well executed and reminds you of similar stories in Hill House.
The series also reveals too much about the manor and the ghosts that it gives it a moral compass, beyond an ambivalent entity in Hill House. One ghost in particular has a sinister reveal/plan which clashes tonally with the show, feeling more like a villain reveal in a family/horror movie. And while the reveal of the history of the manor in Episode 7, was, personally, too much information, it makes sense when viewing the show as a romance/tragedy and leads into a closing storyline coded as a story about depression.
The Haunting of Bly Manor has the influences of Hill House but stands on its own, not as a ghost story but a love story. Much like Guillermo del Toro, who finds the beauty in monsters, Mike Flanagan finds the tragedy in ghosts. Initially, they are scary creatures but by the end they are sad figures who are stuck in an endless loop of agony. While it loses focus in the middle, Bly Manor’s eerie tone, fully realised characters and sophisticated themes make it a worthy successor and perfectly splendid.