Published Oct 07, 2020The Haunting of Bly Manor continues the legacy of "smart, yet spooky haunted house shows" first launched in last year's The Haunting of Hill House, an atmospherically and visually terrifying story about a family coping with loss and a really, really haunted house. While Bly Manor is a different story told in a quieter, less outwardly frightening way, both seasons in this anthology series explore the concept of biological and chosen families, spirits as a manifestation of grief and betrayal, and a house imbued with ghostly memory.
Based loosely on the novella The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, Bly Manor begins similarly as its source material. A mysterious woman (Carla Gugino) tells a long, chilling story by the fire about an au pair, Dani (Victoria Pedretti), who is hired by wealthy alcoholic Henry Wingrave (Henry Thomas) in 1987 to care for his orphaned niece Flora (Amelie Bea Smith) and nephew Miles (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth, swapping between adorably charming and disturbing with impressive ease), who has just been sent home from boarding school for an ominious reason. Dani soon learns from housekeeper Mrs. Grose (T'Nia Miller) that the previous au pair, Miss Jessel (Tahirah Sharif), had a tumultuous relationship with Henry's roguish assistant Peter Quint (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), and eventually drowned herself in Bly's creepy lake when Quint took off for parts unknown. Unsettled by this story and Miles' strangely adult behaviour, Dani becomes increasingly paranoid that Quint is stalking the manor and that her own tragic past will come back to torment her.
Bly Manor isn't as viscerally scary as Hill House, with its tense monologues and violent hallucinations. The spirits of Bly aren't really meant to terrify the way Hill House's do. Rather they serve as eerie embodiments of the unprocessed grief, shame and loneliness that haunt the central characters. That's not to say there aren't moments of sheer terror in Bly Manor, but there are far more moments of gut-punch dread when we learn, along with the characters, that life at Bly isn't what they trusted it to be. Rather, the series leans heavily into gothic horror, localized almost entirely within the Manor and its brooding, foggy grounds, candlelit halls and ghostly figures in billowing nightgowns. There's also more than a touch of gothic romance, and many of Bly Manor's interconnected storylines revolve around the despair and longing that come from unrequited love. But there's a hopefulness that comes with the idea of lost souls choosing their own family, no matter how much grief has come before.
Bly Manor stumbles in its execution of some paranormal concepts; these are the source of some of the show's most chilling moments, but occasionally, the way they work is unclear. In its defence, Bly Manor features an even more ambitious timeline than Hill House, spanning a handful of decades and weaving their stories together in a compelling, satisfying way (not to mention the fantastic production design and costuming that bring these decades to life). Flanagan's usual roster of talented actors like Jackson-Cohen, Thomas and Pendretti occasionally struggle with some non-native accents, but all three bring their tremendous talents to portraying nuanced characters who are sympathetic despite their many flaws. T'Nia Miller is an obvious standout, and brings a tragic sensibility to Mrs. Grose that makes her one of the strongest characters in Bly Manor.
While it may be too drama-centrc for viewers who watched Hill House for its tense scares, The Haunting of Bly Manor is another testament to Mike Flanagan's immense talents for telling epic ghost stories with genuine human emotions. (Netflix) Laura Di Girolamo (Netflix)