2018’s The Haunting of Hill House seemed to take the world by storm. Mike Flanagan (of Oculus and Doctor Sleep fame) retold an old horror classic with an emphasis on character arcs and childhood trauma, and the final result was pretty well received.
So of course a follow up was demanded, and this year’s The Haunting of Bly Manor serves as the unofficial second season (although it’s technically an anthology spinoff). Can this new miniseries live up to the hype of the original? Let’s take a tour of a haunted mansion and find out!
Another Familiar Classic
Henry James’ 1989 novella “The Turn of the Screw” has been adapted countless times in cinematic form, going back to 1961’s The Innocents, and much more frequently in the last 20 years, one of which, The Turning, was released in early 2020.
Along with the legendary story of Hill House (upon which the first season was based), James’ story has become something of archetype for the haunted house genre. It has all the makings of a good ghost story: a large haunted mansion in the English countryside, a new governess who serves as the audience entering the fray, and a couple of creepy British kids.
Bly Manor begins very much as a faithful adaptation (with the time period adjusted to the 1980s). It begins with an American teacher Dani (Victoria Pedretti) being hired by a wealthy British businessman Henry (Henry Thomas) to be a tutor to his niece Flora (Amelie Bea Smith) and nephew Miles (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) at his family’s estate in the country, Bly Manor.
Upon arrival, she gets entangled with a perky and cheery Flora, a quiet and creepy Miles, a maid and cook who are in love, and a very dark secret about what happened to the last tutor the children had. The series unravels a tragic series of events that ultimately becomes more poignant than it is scary.
Like its predecessor, Bly Manor’s greatest strength is in its character development. Over the course of nine episodes, we really feel like we get to know them as real people, which makes some of their fates all the more heartbreaking.
Flanagan’s American Horror Story?
Both series are anthologies with the same showrunner that involve many of the same cast coming back in different roles, so the comparisons were inevitable. In both cases the horror takes a back burner to character drama and emotional beats, which can be a positive or a negative.
Using his regulars from Hill House, Flanagan implements his usual style of what I like to call “grounded surrealism”. Using Bly Manor, along with his previous work as evidence, it’s quite clear that he’s able to take supernatural subjects and settings, but shoot them in very grounded and simplistic manners, making them all the more believable.
It’s not as stylized as say Tim Burton, but it makes it much easier to believe this all could really be happening. Also, to its credit, Bly Manor is far more subtle and less over the top cheesy than any season of American Horror Story has ever been.
Underwhelming Finale (Spoiler Free)
The only real criticism that Bly Manor earns (other than a few iffy English accents from the several American actors) is in its ending. Without getting into spoilers, the “climax” of the season occurs in the two episodes from the end, with the penultimate one being the explanation of the past, and the final one being more of an epilogue.
Bly Manor’s season finale is well crafted and does provide a great deal of closure. But the next to last episode that almost entirely tells the Manor’s back story comes at a strange time pacing-wise and really throws off the flow of the ending.
Similar to how the 3rd to last episode of Lost completely derailed the narrative for the history of the island, this episode of Bly Manor ruins the momentum that was building towards the finale. Had it come two episodes earlier, or had it been sprinkled throughout several episodes, it might have landed better.
Ultimately, it’s minor issue in season that was legitimately compelling and scary at times. If you’re a fan of slow burn character studies that play out more like dramas with horror elements, this series (along with Hill House) are definitely for you.
In a year that’s been so filled with turmoil, a piece of horror fiction like this provides both a great escape, but also a chance for self-reflection. No word yet whether Mike Flanagan will adapt another classic story into another season, but if audience demand is any factor, he probably will!
What did you think of this season? How did it compare to the first? Let us know in the comments!
The Haunting of Bly Manor is streaming exclusively on Netflix!