Let’s get this out of the way right at the outset: The Haunting of Bly Manor is not as good as The Haunting of Hill House. Mike Flanagan’s earlier series – a stylish, heartbreaking and terrifying update of Shirley Jackson’s novel of the same name – was a masterpiece, and one of the best pieces of horror we’ve ever seen on the small screen. And while his latest effort, a similarly revisionist take on a classic ghost story, is every bit as ambitious and bold, it never quite gels in the same way, lacking the cohesion and tightness of its predecessor.
That said, Bly Manor is still an excellent piece of television, once again using ghosts as a means of exploring trauma and grief in an endlessly inventive way, and packed with almost as many scares as Flanagan’s earlier project. It’s tremendously difficult to sustain an atmosphere of terror over a nine-episode stretch, and while this show doesn’t do it quite as successfully as Hill House, a chilling tension nonetheless pervades much of the series – with several genuinely horrifying figures seen inhabiting the manor and occasional moments that will undoubtedly cause viewers to audibly shriek.
The bulk of the narrative is based on Henry James’ 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw, which follows a young governess who becomes convinced that the grand country manor where she is looking after two children is haunted, and was labelled by The Independent on its release as “the most hopelessly evil story that we have ever read”. In this version, the tale revolves around American nanny Dani Clayton (played by The Haunting of Bly Manor cast member Victoria Pedretti) who arrives at the eponymous property in 1987 to care for Miles, a 10-year-old who has recently been expelled from his school, and the rather annoying Flora, an eight-year-old who describes literally everything as “perfectly splendid.”
It quickly becomes clear that the manor is haunted – both by the new nanny’s predecessor as was the case in the original novella, but also by more ancient spectres. Meanwhile Dani clearly has ghosts in her own past, and she’s not alone – several of the episodes in the series middle section explore the gloomy pasts of the protagonist, the children in her care and many supporting characters, both dead and alive. Meanwhile, as Flanagan has alluded to, the series also turns into a love story – with Dani becoming romantically attached to one of the staff members at the manor with significant consequences.
We won’t give any more plot details away here for fear of spoilers, but rest assured that it is a slow and complex narrative, which can at times, perhaps by design, be a little difficult to follow. One episode towards the end of the series is an interesting departure from the tone of the rest of the series, taking the form of a more traditionally Jamesian ghost story, a slightly modified version of 1868 short story The Romance of Certain Clothes. This would work well enough as a standalone tale, but it is also crucial for the series as a whole, sketching in much of the backstory of Bly Manor in a compelling and eerie fashion.
Pedretti, who burst onto the scene as Nell in Hill House, is exceptional once again in the lead role, and many of the supporting performances – notably those by Amelia Eve as Jamie and T’Nia Miller as Hannah Grose – are also terrific, although the less said about Oliver Jackson-Cohen’s Scottish accent in the role of Peter Quint the better. Meanwhile the series is also bookended by a narrator, who frequently chimes in to move the story forward and whose identity becomes increasingly apparent as the show progresses. The intent here is clearly to create the effect of a storyteller regaling listeners with a ghost story late at night, and while it works to some degree, there are moments where it feels slightly overdone, and where the narration does little to add to the series.
With both Hill House and his earlier Stephen King film adaptation Gerald’s Game, Flanagan has firmly established himself as Netflix’s go-to man for horror, and this series will only serve to enhance that reputation. Yes, it’s not quite Hill House – but in reality this was never going to be: it is still an ambitious, gripping, moving and most importantly terrifying piece of television.