From ‘Hill House’ to ‘Bly Manor,’ the Past Never Dies
The start of 2020 seemed like a lifetime ago. But if you can remember all the way back in January, there was an “attempt” to adapt Henry James’ novella, The Turn of the Screw. As someone quite enamored with James’ gothic ghost story, The Turning was certainly on my radar. But after watching this unforgivable adaptation, there was no doubt the source material demanded a bit of redemption. Preferably before the end of 2020. Thankfully, Netflix and horror filmmaker Mike Flanagan righted this with The Haunting of Bly Manor miniseries.
Two years ago, Flanagan tackled Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House on the streaming service. The acclaimed miniseries of the same name was one of the genre’s greatest achievements in some time. And The Haunting of Bly Manor continues as an extension of Flanagan’s exquisite storytelling. Bly Manor leaves its 19th century roots, set in the 1980s English countryside. American Dani Clayton (Victoria Pedretti) interviews to be an au pair at the titular Bly Manor. The grounds are a place of tragedy. The suicide of the previous governess, Miss Jessell (Tahirah Sharif) remains a mystery. The two children, Miles (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) and Flora (Amelie Bea Smith), are recently orphaned. And there’s plenty of shadows from the past that go bump in the night.
Like Hill House prior, Bly Manor draws directly upon its source material, yet indulging on plenty of creative liberties. James’ novella is a short read. However, the miniseries clocks in at least seven hours. Is Bly Manor long-winded just because? Not at all. If you’ve seen binge-watched Hill House, you’re well aware the layers Flanagan delves into. It’s yet another successful exercise at nonlinear storytelling. Notable episodes such as “The Pupil” and “The Altar of the Dead” transition back in time for almost the majority of their respective episodes. While diverting from a streamline ghost story, these episodes shed light on young Miles’ unusual behavior and housekeeper Mrs. Grose (T’Nia Miller). Even gardener Jamie (Amelia Eve) and resident cook Owen (Rahul Kohli) are fleshed out beyond being additional subjects of the manor’s terror.
SEE ALSO: TV Review: The Haunting of Bly Manor Features Amazing Gothic Horror, But Light on Scares
The first episode establishes Pedretti’s Dani as the fish out of water protagonist. Even for readers of James’ novella, expectations are subverted as Bly Manor transforms into a dynamic ensemble piece. Everyone’s crippled by some psychological trauma, either presently or in the past. And that in itself is a greater terror than cheap jump scares. It’s signature Flanagan. His previous films, Oculus, Ouija: Origin of Evil and Doctor Sleep, are prime examples of his thematic subversions. And from the get-go, Bly Manor isn’t framed as a by-the-numbers ghost story. In fact, it plays out more as a gothic love story. Think of how films like M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village or Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak were marketed. Then think about the actual film. It’s the same uphill climb Bly Manor faces after the expectations of Hill House.
While Hill House remains the superior miniseries (thanks to Flanagan’s consistent directorial presence), Bly Manor clicks its pieces into position much quicker. It’s wonderful to see Flanagan collaborating once again with Hill House alums, Victoria Pedretti, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Henry Thomas and Kate Siegel. And while Bly Manor pulls an American Horror Story, the utilization of the same actors in new roles in never jarring. Pedretti’s Dani is psychologically tormented like Nell Crain in Hill House. Though there’s never this feeling of “been there done that.” Likewise, Jackson-Cohen’s self-serving specter, Peter Quint is a drastic departure from drug dependent, Luke. The range of both actors as well as Thomas and Siegel (in minor roles) is amplified. Flanagan has a rock-solid ensemble. And if he and Netflix ended up doing a third Haunting miniseries, this is one cast to keep.
The series’ final few episodes stray from James’ novella the most. The Romance of Certain Old Clothes is a penultimate detour. While its self-contained story sheds light on the manor’s past, the momentum towards the finale feels interrupted. The same goes for the finale, The Beast in the Jungle. Here Flanagan toys around with another one of James’ novellas (in name only). Focus is more on the series’ emotional epilogue than on its climactic confrontation. For a series that’s favored the slow burn, the pivotal final hour is slightly uneven. Still, the minor missteps don’t take away from Flanagan delivering another remarkable binge watch on Netflix.
Flanagan’s The Haunting of Bly Manor wholeheartedly restored my faith in The Turn of the Screw being done right in 2020. While there’s distinctive narrative and thematic shadows from Hill House, Bly Manor carves its own legacy as an effectively chilling gothic romance.