Mike Flanagan’s followup to his surprise 2018 hit, “The Haunting of Hill House,” is anything but a ghost story.
“The Haunting of Bly Manor” debuted on Netflix earlier this month with a marketing campaign aimed at capturing that same feeling of uneasiness that permeated the 2018 hit which preceded it. There’s long shots of dark hallways, the same haunting knocking sounds and even a shot or two of a creepy ghost. It’s made to look like the next big horror feature — perfectly timed for the spooky season of October. But don’t stretch out on your couch with a blanket to pull over your head at the first sight of fright. This isn’t that type of story.
This new nine-episode entry in the “The Haunting of…” anthology takes inspiration from the Henry James novella, “The Turn of the Screw.” The story itself is more than 100 years old, so anyone who’s interested in ghost fiction already knows the basics of the plot. Thankfully, Flanagan — much like he did with Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House” — takes the basic plot elements, characters and setting and makes them his own for these lavishly-produced adaptations. There’s very little here that is like the original novella, and many changes are actually improvements.
“Hill House” breakout star Victoria Pedretti returns for this second anthology series as Dani, a young American woman who moved to London to look for a job after a tragic event back home. She answers a listing for a job as a governess of a pair of rich children in the country who lost their parents in a tragic accident two years prior. To make matters even more tragic, their previous governess was found dead on the property. Dani sees this as an opportunity to start a new life for herself, even ignoring all of the strange circumstances surrounding the position.
When she arrives at Bly Manor, a sprawling “summer home” in the country, she meets two strange children, 10 year-old Miles and 8 year-old Flora, who has an affinity for calling everything “splendid.” The remaining colorful cast of characters includes Owen, the chef; Mrs. Grose, the maid; and Jamie, the gardener, who have all become surrogate family members for the two children.
In the early episodes, “Bly Manor” tries to lean into its horror inspiration. Mysterious muddy footprints continue to appear in the home each night, tracking into a closed off wing of the house where the parents once lived. Shadowy figures can be seen just out of focus in corners of the rooms. Dolls that represent unseen characters often move on their own. And then there’s Dani’s visions of a man with bright reflective glasses that she sees every time she looks in a reflection. It feels like the show is really building up to some major supernatural suspense that will leave your skin crawling.
And then it drops the pretense five episodes in and gives up the ghosts, so to speak. The story transitions from being a haunting tale of suspense and fright to a depressing melancholic tale of love and love lost. There are ghosts. But these aren’t the ghosts one would expect from “Hill House.” There is no real malevolent entity haunting these halls, these children or poor Dani. The story isn’t about fear, but rather relationships and how they’re forged, and how they’re broken.
The sudden shift in tone and plot can be a bit jarring. Episode five feels like it’s supposed to be this pivotal moment in the story where everything shifts with a major revelation. It might work, if the revelation hadn’t been blatantly telegraphed from the start of the series so openly and obviously that it’s hard to call the shift a “twist.”
“Bly Manor” is so focused on trying to establish this atmosphere and these expectations before subverting them that it wastes so much screen time on elements and plot threads that simply go nowhere. Flanagan crafted an expertly paced experience with “Hill House,” so it’s even more disappointing that his follow-up effort feels like it runs about two to three episodes too long. There’s so much here that could be trimmed down and exorcised in favor of a much leaner show that would be more enjoyable.
Flanagan also falls into the same trap as he did with “Hill House” by explaining every single aspect and rule of his ghost fiction. This emphasis on answering any possible question that arises leaves little for the imagination, which is an important aspect of any supernatural horror show. The show comes to a complete stop at the height of the climax in order to include an entire episode of backstory that explains everything. While this is the most creative and enjoyable episode in the show, its placement is questionable, at best.
“The Haunting of Bly Manor” is not a bad show — far from it, actually. But as a follow up to “The Haunting of Hill House,” it’s a disappointment. It never reaches those highs, or ever comes close. When everything comes together at the end, and the final credits roll on the final episode, you’re left with a feeling of sadness and a bit of catharsis. It mostly succeeds in its intentions — even if it feels a bit overstuffed at times. But this is not a ghost story, and looking back, was never meant to be a ghost story. Don’t make the mistake of starting a binge with those expectations.