Netflix’s ‘The Haunting of Bly Manor’ Gives Up the Ghost to Bring a New Twist to an Old Love Story
Precocious children are perfectly splendid in the world of subliminal horror. There is all that prepubescent curiosity which has yet to rage as hormones. Netflix’s “The Haunting of Bly Manor,” a kindredly spirited sequel to 2018’s “Haunting of Hill House,” turns a screw on the psychic angst of the transition. Directed by Mike Flanagan, the series follows an American au pair who takes on child-rearing duties for a wealthy, but eccentric family. We know eccentricity follows wealth in many cases, but in this instance the events are little disturbing. This is especially true when coupled with the premature sophistication of the young orphans in need of care.
“The Haunting of Bly Manor” is based on the 1898 supernatural psychodrama “The Turn of the Screw.” Henry James’ novella provides a never-ending fount of interpretive analyses. It has been adapted to the screen several times and with varied intents. “The Nightcomers” from 1971, which starred Marlon Brando, saw it as an S&M guide to disciplining naughty children without a safe-word. Flanagan adapted Stephen King’s kinky creep-show “Gerald’s Game,” but his adaptation of “The Haunting of Hill House” was a love letter to author Shirley Jackson. He sees gothic romance in James’ work. But it is a disquieting affair, more spooky than frightening, because the ghost of the novel haunts it from the corners.
Episode one, “The Great Good Place,” begins in 2007 at a Northern California wedding rehearsal dinner, which a toastmaster calls a “practice meal” in one of the few moments of levity. “To truly love another person is to accept that the work of loving them is worth the pain of losing them,” he concludes with a swallow. Not the cheeriest of toasts, but it foreshadows the twist on the ghost story to follow. This is a story of possession, but not the kind which requires an exorcist. A marriage contract binds souls and some aren’t ready for confinement.
The story is told as a verbal nightcap on the night before the wedding. “I have a story,” a woman offers the crowd around the fireplace. “Well, it isn’t really my story. It belongs to someone I knew. And It’s not exactly short.” She downplays the length considerably, as the tale runs out across a nine-episode limited season. As a novelist, James was a sparse wordsmith with a precise approach to getting a story across. “The Haunting of Bly Manor” also pulls in ideas from James’ novels “The Jolly Corner” and “The Romance of Certain Old Clothes.”
Set in 1980s England, the Victorian Era sexual repression of the novel is portrayed by the high-waist, pleated jeans the young American nanny, Dani (Victoria Pedretti), wears. “I understand death,” she tells Henry Wingrave (Henry Thomas) during her interview for a job as a glorified nanny looking after his orphaned niece and nephew. “I know what loss is.” We don’t know she brought some of her own ghosts to Bly Manor until the midway point of the series.
The ensemble cast works together in a perfectly splendid game of hide, seek and destroy. We are scared for Dani, but our money is on the children. The kids are a fun variation on the “spooky British children” trope which goes back to the 1960 horror classic “Village of the Damned.” Miles (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) has a bit of a wandering eye problem on his introduction. Flora (Amelie Bea Smith) talks to wallpaper, stares apprehensively over people’s shoulders, sleepwalks and tends a dollhouse model of their home filled with faceless miniature effigies of the people in it. Whether leading a tour through a stone garden or pummeling a classmate to follow a plea for help scrawled in crayon they are never less than charming. But when little Miles (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) gently moves a tuft of hair from Dani’s face in an oddly placed intimate setting, the American Mary Poppins calls time out.
The housekeeper Hannah (T’Nia Miller) and cook Owen (Rahul Kohli) make excuses for the children, who also lock Dani in a closet and subject her to other physical and psychological distress. The gardener Jamie (Amelia Eve) makes excuses for Dani. It’s a tough thing keeping down one’s nature when dead ex-lovers come to check up. The previous au pair Rebecca (Tahirah Sharif) also denied her desires and committed suicide on the property six months before Dani saw the job posting. Rebecca took the job because she saw it as a way to become a barrister, like Henry Wingrave, without having to cross her legs to veteran legal eagles searching there for her brain. She and Wingrave’s fallen right hand man Peter Quint (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) provide the erotic foundation to the ghost of a story buried in a shallow grave.
The series nods to the B-movie underbelly of Hammer Horror, with directors Ciaran Foy, Yolanda Ramke and Ben Howling, and E.L. Katz filming the majority of the episodes traditionally, with little apparent modern technical aid. The spacious sets are shot with even lighting so we’re not distracted by dark corners. The scares come slowly. You might not even realize it’s a horror series until it pops up from behind you in a mirror. It doesn’t dawdle though. One peek, and you’re cut off to your memory of it. Like a scene which ends with a barely perceptible show of life within a pile of dolls. We see whatever is watching almost long enough to know it’s watching, and then it’s not.
“The Haunting of Bly Manor” plays its cards too close to the vest for too long. The backstory moves the narrative in a diametric pattern to explain what just happened and why it isn’t quite so odd, but we don’t get to it until the third episode. A revelatory flashback within a flashback serves as a lengthy explanation to bring everything into focus. Most horror fans will find it a little long, but it gives the series a chance to breathe, and often heavily.
If “The Haunting of Bly Manor” was pared down by three episodes, it would be an effective and satisfying ghost story. But that’s not what it’s trying to be. We are told outright the series is a love story. Sure, the relationship is a toxic one with enough melodrama for a soap opera, but ghosts have feelings too. It is lonesome being stuck in time, and boring. Sometimes a good scare is just what you need to keep things fresh when things get stale, and begin to rot.
“The Haunting of Bly Manor” begins streaming Oct. 9 on Netflix.