Few genres can create instant stars like horror. One director that has benefited from his comfort within horror has been Mike Flanagan. The director was a relative unknown five years ago, with Oculus as his potential breakout hit. Since 2016, Flanagan continues to piece together hit after hit, changing budgets, platforms, and mediums at will. After the combined success of The Haunting of Hill House and Doctor Sleep over the past two years, it was unsurprising that Netflix gave him room on his next project. With The Haunting of Bly Manor, Flanagan adapts Henry James’ The Turning of the Screw (previously adapted as The Innocents and Turning). Flanagan adds new life to the tale, but for fans of Haunting of Hill House, the series pales in terms of sheer frights. Instead, the gothic tones and beautiful narrative create one of the more affecting series of the year.
The Haunting of Bly Manor opens with the young American Dani (Victoria Pedretti) interviewing for an au pair position in England. Two children, Flora (Amelie Bea Smith) and Miles (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth), need an education-minded governess after a series of tragedies. Their Uncle Henry (Henry Thomas) hires Dani to join Bly’s staff, including the live-in housekeeper Mrs. Grose (T’Nia Miller). With regular cook Owen (Rahul Kohli) and landscaper Jamie (Amelia Eve) on staff, the four adults begin to forge strong bonds. Yet the tragic death of the last governess, Miss Jessell (Tahirah Sharif), looms over the house. With whispers of Henry’s former employee Peter (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) returning to the area, Bly may not be as safe as expected.
The strength of The Haunting of Bly Manor lies in its characters. Flanagan wisely devotes the time to craft wonderful backstories for his main cast. Flanagan has proven to be among the most gifted writers in terms of emotional heft. Tragedy can touch anyone, and Flanagan forces his characters to adapt to trauma and loss. Flanagan celebrates life, even as the specter of death hangs over the series. Flanagan also uses his freedom to update the 19th-century tale to a contemporary setting. Even as the events occur in the 1980s, the diverse cast speaks to a moment in Hollywood that is long overdue. Flanagan clearly picked the best performers in each role, allowing Bly Manor to thrive when it hits the emotional crescendos.
The brilliant cast sparkles at every opportunity. It will be hard to imagine that T’Nia Miller would not earn best-in-show praise for her wildly empathetic Mrs. Grose. She embodies strength in nearly every sequence, and she will pull your heart out of your chest on more than one occasion. Her marvelous co-stars give her plenty of help as well. Kohli brings the same charm and charisma that made him stand out on iZombie, and he disappears into his role. He delivers some of the best work a scene partner could ask for, but when he’s away, you’re counting down for his return.
Pedretti proves up to the task to lead the series, offering a completely different kind of character from her Hill House or You characters. Eve surprises, and the relative newcomer holds her own with the established co-stars. The children create a wildly creepy, haunting, and tragic duo. As the series progresses, their performances become the key to unlock the brilliance of the season. Jackson-Cohen showcases layered sadness and anger. His multi-dimensional character provides the series with a formidable threat that will inspire empathy from some.
One complaint that will undeniably be levied against the show will be the lack of scares. Stylistically and narratively, this one does not attempt the visceral athleticism of Hill House. Some trademarks return (especially the shudder-inducing secret ghosts) and a primary “antagonist” that will scare the pants off most. Yet the scares never supersede the story. This ghost tale has more in common with The Others or Rebecca than Flanagan’s previous work. His versatility and storytelling should never be questioned, but expect some to grow frustrated with the narrative’s slow-burn nature.
Stylistically, Bly Manor takes another step forward. The aural experience of Flanagan’s latest sets another high bar. Trevor Gates continues to pull off beautiful and complex work in horror filmmaking. Gates not only built the soundscape for Hill House, but he’s also worked with Jordan Peele (Us & Get Out), several Flanagan films (Doctor Sleep), and even won an Emmy for Atlanta (“Teddy Perkins”). Other sound engineers, including Emmy-winner Jason Dotts, to create another award-worthy creation.
Flanagan continues to utilize his regular craft talent, and the familiarity pays dividends. The Newton Brothers expertly create scores to match the mood of the series. You can feel the music change eras, even within a single scene. The 1980s bleeds into the stuffy manor, but the horror pings set up the scares with wonderful potency. Lynn Falconer, the costume designer, gets to create some wildly intricate and period-specific looks. She really shines as the series progresses, and fits the character into their world’s beautifully.
For some, Bly Manor will not live up to the expectations of Hill House. Yet the gothic and strange tale should find an audience. With enough terrifying images and wonderful characters, The Haunting of Bly Manor continues to build on Flanagan’s rise. While cinephiles will certainly champion other filmmakers, Flanagan’s quiet impression on the genre cannot be ignored. With another series already greenlit at Netflix, Flanagan has found his home to tell adult stories within an ever-evolving genre. Bly Manor earns its place as his most emotionally draining and rewarding work to date.