We are, each of us, haunted. Not by ghosts necessarily, but by our pasts and the choices that we’ve made and circumstances, we have endured. We are not all haunted all the time, and sometimes we are the ones doing the haunting. Memories of us cling to the people we love and who loved us and can drag us down as much as raise us up.
The Haunting of Bly Manor is a story about being haunted, but as with the best of gothic romance, it is not a ghost story as much as it is a story with ghosts in it. Each of the characters is dealing with their own ghost. Whether it is an ex-fiance or bad choices, none is immune. Even the house itself, which is haunted more literally, is haunted because its past cannot let go of it. Each of them gains a way out because The Haunting of Bly Manor is a story about love.
The series starts with Dani (Victoria Pedretti), a young American schoolteacher travelling in England. She has come to the office of Henry Wingrave (Henry Thomas) to apply for a job as a nanny to his orphaned niece and nephew. “What’s the catch?” he asks; she has been in the country for six months without a job. “What is the catch?” she asks back; she has seen the job posting every week for six months. This conversation, followed by a drink together, is how she comes to be employed at Bly Manor.
She joins the Bly household, which includes the two children, Flora (Amelie Bea Smith) and Miles (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth), as well as the housekeeper Mrs Grose (T’Nia Miller), the cook, Owen (Rahul Kohli) and the groundskeeper, Jamie (Amelia Eve).
Through the course of nine episodes, these characters learn everything about each other. Through that learning, each begins to learn to move past whatever they are haunted by. You see, The Haunting of Bly Manor is a love story, but it is not a story about anyone kind of love. Yes, there is romantic love, but there is also familial love, platonic love, and toxic love.
The children, which Dani is there to take charge of, behave strangely. This behaviour is assumed to be from losing their parents in a tragic accident. However, it quickly becomes apparent that there is more to it than that: they can see the ghosts in the house and, it’s worth noting up front, that so can we.
On a technical level, this is where showrunner Mike Flanagan shines for me. The series makes excellent use of dark hallways, misty woods and lakes, and absurdly dramatic lighting, and Flanagan and his team are experts at hiding incredibly creepy things in plain sight. You may not even notice them at first, but trust me when I say you will be rewarded –or maybe not rewarded, exactly– if you find yourself checking the background of otherwise innocuous scenes. Each of the ghosts, which I won’t detail here, are incredibly designed and suitably creepy, and at least one of them is genuinely scary.
You are probably wondering by now, “but is it a scary show?” Well, your mileage may vary on that as it does with all horror. However, it is creepy and unsettling the entire way through, and there are several excellent jump-scares. Once again, this is something that Flanagan and company are experts at; maintaining a consistent tone of suspense and dread and then releasing it through a well-timed scare.
Where the show may suffer is through expectations. The Haunting of Hill House was an exceptional season of television and a difficult act to follow. It had the advantage of newness but also of being adapted from a single source. The Haunting of Bly Manor draws its central plot from Henry James’ The Turning of the Screw, but plotlines, character moments, and ideas are also taken from several of his other works. This mostly works, but there are moments when the series doesn’t feel as cohesive a whole as its predecessor.
Another area where Bly Manor shines is the acting. There are no bad performances in the entire series, but returning actors Victoria Pedretti and Henry Thomas are each in top form. Each of their characters is running from a different past. Pedretti’s Dani bears the brunt of the scares here, and she has a very natural presence on screen, so when she gets terrified, you can feel that it is real. In one early scene in particular, which doesn’t even involve a ghost, she incredibly sells the feeling of sheer existential terror.
Thomas, playing the reclusive uncle to the children, doesn’t have as much screen time as the other characters. As his story slowly unfolds, the character’s self-loathing and melancholy is palpable, and his haunting is one of the most effective in the film.
Several of the newcomers in this season are excellent as well, with both Amelie Bea Smith and Benjamin Evan Ainsworth giving nuanced and thoughtful performances as the Wingrave children. Of course, child actors can make or break a horror film, but these two kids are going places.
Rahul Kohli is also a welcome addition to the cast, adding a dash of levity or gravity whenever needed, as his character Owen adds ingredients to the recipes he creates. In those moments, he elevates whichever scene he is in. In particular, there is a conversation scene shared with T’Nia Miller; he displays an incredible sensitivity that is incredibly difficult to fake.
Mike Flanagan has become one of my favourite filmmakers recently. As I have mentioned before, between The Haunting of Hill House and last year’s Doctor Sleep, I am at a point where I will give anything with his name on it a look. The Haunting of Bly Manor only adds to my confidence in this matter. He and his team are masters of controlling tone, and the visual techniques they use to pull off some of the effects are superb. From top to bottom, Bly Manor is another solid entry in his filmography.
I, for one, hope to see a third series before too long.
The Haunting of Bly Manor will premiere on Netflix on October 9th, 2020. I have seen all nine episodes.