Welcome to Previously On, a column that fills you in on our favorite returning TV shows. This week, Valerie Ettenhofer takes a look at the second entry to Mike Flanagan’s “Haunting” horror anthology series for Netflix: The Haunting of Bly Manor.
What is it with detailed miniature replicas of houses in horror? The intricate, custom-made props are having a pop-cultural moment, from the dioramas of Hereditary to the teeth-lined plaything of Sharp Objects to The Lodge’s sinister dollhouse. Their broad appeal as a narrative device is understandable: they gesture at the idea of fate’s mystery, the figures within set up in meaningful or ominous positions. Yet the metaphor, already thin, cheapens with each use. In Mike Flanagan’s The Haunting of Bly Manor, the second entry in the talented horror filmmaker’s Netflix anthology series, it’s all but worthless.
Unfortunately, The Haunting of Bly Manor is full of recycled motifs and narrative turns that fall flat. The series’ reimagining of Henry James’ tightly-wound 1898 novella, The Turn of The Screw, is overwrought and largely scare-free. The bones of both stories are the same: a young woman takes a position as a live-in governess tending to two orphans in the English countryside. She soon becomes fiercely protective of troubled, precocious Miles and darling Flora, even as strange sightings and disturbing stories about former household members begin to make her think the house is haunted.
That’s where the similarities between Flanagan’s work and James’ end. Although The Turn of the Screw is slim, it’s a story that offers many readings. Depending on who you ask, it’s a veiled examination of childhood trauma, a disturbing and subtle psychosexual thriller, or an exploration of mental illness. Various on-screen adaptations have leaned more into one interpretation or another, but The Haunting of Bly Manor diverges entirely, telling a story about love and memory that, by later episodes, barely resembles its source material.
Of course, it’s okay to go off-book if you do it well. The series’ predecessor, The Haunting of Hill House, is a beautiful reimagining of Shirley Jackson’s classic that pulls off a touching, terrifying story of grief while keeping only a thread of the original The Haunting of Hill House intact. Yet The Haunting of Bly Manor entirely lacks the cinematic energy and unique emotional core of the earlier anthology entry.
The series’ problems are twofold. First and foremost, there’s not a genuine fright as far as the eye can see in The Haunting of Bly Manor. The unnerving thrills of The Haunting of Hill House (remember The Bent-Necked Lady?) cast a large shadow over The Haunting of Bly Manor, yet with the exception of a few moments in a later episode that are as disorienting as they are frightening, nothing in the season’s nine episodes is worth having nightmares about.
The scare factor doesn’t have to be the be-all, end-all of horror, but The Haunting of Bly Manor’s structure is also redundant in a way that makes it a frustrating watch. Young Flora (Amelie Bea Smith) is presumably meant to be a likable character, but her only personality trait seems to be her penchant for the phrase “perfectly splendid,” or its inverse, “perfectly dreadful.” She says the phrase multiple times per episode for the first several episodes until it passes from perplexing to deeply grating. In fact, many lines in the series are repeated two, four, or even six times, as if their ubiquity will make them more meaningful.
Due to a later-season twist that’s unique to Flanagan’s version, some sequences are also replayed again and again, and instead of gaining emphasis each time, they’re slowly drained of any resonance. The dollhouse metaphor is not the only thing that feels borrowed, as the series’ discombobulating structure eventually begins to mirror — yet never match — some of Flanagan’s earlier, more solidly built works.
Despite being a step down for both fans of the source material and the series’ first outing, The Haunting of Bly Manor is not without redeeming qualities. Victoria Pedretti, who played ill-fated Nell in The Haunting of Hill House, headlines the series perfectly as Dani Clayton, the au pair looking after the two spooky kids. She has a great, warm presence as a hero who’s both a damn good babysitter and a mysteriously haunted woman herself. Dani’s backstory is the only one that’s truly engrossing, and whenever the series draws focus back to her, it shines a bit brighter.
Several minor roles from the novella are beefed up, giving ample screentime to Bly Manor’s housekeeper (T’Nia Miller), cook (Rahul Kohli), and groundskeeper (Amelia Eve). The group’s dynamic is pleasant enough, but their characters ultimately fall prey to a wonky series structure that presents standalone stories in an isolating, exhausting way (think the split-up Losers Club sequences from IT: Chapter Two).
Flanagan has stated that The Haunting of Bly Manor is a love story, and really, it contains four or five distinct love stories. By spinning a short book into a nine-hour series, the filmmaker casts a wide narrative net, working and reworking lots of ideas but only delivering on a few. The lake that sits on the edge of Bly Manor’s grounds may be deep, but in many ways, the series seems trapped in the shallows.