The follow-up to Mike Flanagan’s The Haunting of Hill House has recently been released on Netflix, providing a golden opportunity for a pre-Halloween scare. The Haunting anthology continues in name alone, with The Haunting of Bly Manor standing apart in narrative from its predecessor. The differences do not end there either, because, unlike Hill House, Bly Manor is not remotely scary, despite the ongoing pretence that there is something to fear.
The TV series adaption of Henry James’ horror novella The Turn of the Screw follows Danielle ‘Dani’ Clayton (Victoria Pedretti), a newly hired governess sent to look after the orphaned problem-children of Bly Manor. We quickly become aware that the estate is haunted by multiple apparitions that seem to be tenuously connected to the children. Amelie Bea Smith plays the saccharine Flora Wingrave, an enthusiastic little girl who skirts the line between endearing and irritating. Her precocious older brother Miles is played by Benjamin Evan Ainsworth; a troublesome child who presents a conundrum to the audience. He displays clear affection towards his sister whereas he is completely inappropriate when interacting with others.
The others in this case are represented by the estate chef Owen (Rahul Kohli), the sarcastic gardener Jamie (Amelia Eve) and the distracted housekeeper Hannah (T’Nia Miller). Together, these characters form the ‘living’ presence of Bly Manor; a comforting array of surprisingly normal people. Pedretti leads the cast but is not the only Hill House alum to grace this entry in the series. Henry Thomas, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Kate Siegel and Carla Gugino are all back in some capacity with new names and accents, presumably to entice audiences into nostalgic denial as we delve further into Bly’s vapid plot.
The first couple of episodes are solid. They vividly depict the Manor and its grounds, allowing the audience to gain some spatial awareness. Core characters are also introduced succinctly and effectively, setting the stage for further development. The ‘haunting’ aspects are minimal, but as a follow up to Hill House, the audience is ever vigilant to catch a background ghoul within wide interior shots of the house. ‘Where’s the wraith?’ is an amusing start-up project for the viewer and provides satisfying continuity, but as the episodes pile up, and the lack of outright scares becomes strikingly noticeable, these background spirits ironically only serve to highlight the dispiriting narrative.
Despite the introduction of Bly Manor and the audience’s eagerness to dive deeper, we are repeatedly drawn away from the grounds throughout the middle of the series. During an episode about Dani and her troubled past, we follow her life prior to employment. Previously, she was haunted by an unknown spectacled figure, appearing in the mirrors surrounding her. There is no issue with giving Dani a more holistic background, but the discoveries associated with this episode are in no way relevant to the overall plot. A great deal of time has been spent on what is, essentially, an inconsequential event in the context of Bly Manor.
This is similar to Henry Thomas’ subplot; the estranged Uncle Wingrave to the orphaned children. We spend long periods in his executive office in London, away from Bly Manor, building a narrative that is both unalarming and distracting from the premise. This is unfortunately true with the majority of the adult characters, with each given disproportionate levels of airtime overflowing with superficial, anecdotal development. These become nauseous as they are accompanied by a soft-piano score and serve to further detract from the haunting we are supposed to be experiencing. This culminates in the penultimate episode where the audience is spoon-fed all the answers regarding the spectral presences, in a heavily voiced-over sequence that feels far more like a copout than any meaningful reveal.
As we are immersed further into Bly’s history, we are informed of the demise of the late governess Rebecca, under mysterious circumstances. The plot then begins to focus more on the romance that developed between her and Jackson-Cohen’s character, Peter Quint. Typically, this would be a favourable accompaniment to an ongoing horror story; one which opens several plot doors. However, the relationship is as unconvincing as Jackson-Cohen’s grating Scottish accent. The poor accents do not end there either; Henry Thomas’ English attempt is comical and Carla Gugino’s ongoing narration switches between Brummy, Somerset and Surrey at a rate which is almost impressive.
The saving grace of the show is undoubtedly the children. Both actors shine in their creepy, insidious roles. Flora’s schizophrenic glances over Dani’s shoulder are spine-chilling, and Miles’ outbursts are consistent with a troubled child. Evan Ainsworth’s acting is typified by a monologue mid-series in which he pretends to be a puppet liberated from his strings before his oppressive master returns. When the child actors thrive, there is a winning formula for a successful horror. However, in this iteration the adults cannot keep up, and whether poorly written or poorly delivered, come across as out of place in the genre.
After the consistently frightful Hill House, Bly Manor is undeniably disappointing. The frights are sporadic, the characters uncomplicated and the accents disappointing. Over the course of the series, we are drawn in to at least 5 different romances, with the audience forced to decide which one is the least unbearable. The plot, although intriguing in segments, ultimately lacks conviction and leaves fans of the series stranded on an island waiting desperately for a jump scare. This edition to The Haunting collection really is consistent in name alone. Perhaps the Mildly Unnerving Melodrama of Bly Manor would have been less misleading and truer to its soap-opera subject matter.
Creator: Mike Flanagan
Cast: Victoria Pedretti, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Amelia Eve, T’Nia Miller, Rahul Kohli, Tahitah Sharif, Amelia Bea Smith, Benjamin Evan Ainsworth, Henry Thomas, Carla Gugino
Prd: Kathy Gilroy, Leah Fong
DOP: James Kniest, Maxime Alexandre
Runtime: 9 episodes