As David Foster Wallace once wrote, every love story is a ghost story. In an interview before the release of The Haunting of Bly Manor, the new follow-up to The Haunting of Hill House, series creator Mike Flanagan seemed to agree without actually quoting Wallace, stating: “Each of us, when we fall in love, is giving birth to a new ghost – something that’s going to follow up for the rest of our lives.”
Beneath all the creepy moments here – the shrieks, the screams, the spectral figures with half-melted faces; beneath all the death that lurks throughout Bly Manor lurks love, too. What a beautiful idea that is. And yet…Bly Manor never seems to know where it’s going, or how to get there. It wants to scare you and make you swoon, and sadly, is often unsuccessful on both counts. But every now and then, a little bit of magic manages to poke through.
The Haunting of Bly Manor leans heavily on The Turn of the Screw, Henry James’ ghost story novella that’s already been adapted several times before, most noticeably Jack Clayton’s 1961 masterpiece The Innocents. Rather than shy away from the ’61 film, Bly Manor embraces it, going so far as to duplicate shots, like an image of a ghostly woman standing amongst the reeds poking out of a lake, as well as the eerie song “O Willow Waly” that permeates the film.
But Bly Manor dips into some of James’ other ghost stories as well, specifically, The Jolly Corner, which follows a man visiting the house he grew up in and finds it to be haunted by his own alter ego, and The Romance of Certain Old Clothes, which follows the tale of two sisters who both fall in love with the same man. There are other stories being picked from here too – every episode is named after a different James story, and the episode will often draw on elements from said story. And herein lies the problem: Bly Manor is trying to do too much. I hate to criticize something for being “overly ambitious,” as so much media these days takes a lazy approach, and ambition is to be celebrated. But in trying to do too much at once, Bly Manor begins to buckle under its own weight.
It’s the 1980s, and lonely, haunted Dani (Haunting of Hill House breakout Victoria Pedretti) takes a gig as a governess in the UK. She’s tasked with caring for two orphans – Miles (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) and Flora (Amelie Bea Smith) by the children’s distant, cold uncle (Henry Thomas, using a somewhat shaky accent). It seems like a dream job for Dani, who now gets to live in a huge manor house. Aside from the children, she has company in the form of housekeeper Mrs. Grose (T’Nia Miller), estate chef Owen (Rahul Kohli), and groundskeeper Jamie (Amelia Eve). But they’re not the only ones lurking in the sprawling home. There are ghosts, too. Some of the ghosts Dani brings with her from her past, but others have been haunting the halls for some time.
And then there’s the tragic death of the children’s previous governess, Rebecca Jessel (Tahirah Sharif), coupled with a mystery involving Peter Quint (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), who worked for the children’s uncle. The children, for their part, are bright and cheerful – at first. They’re prone to calling everything “perfectly splendid,” and Dani finds herself getting along with them quite nicely. But as Bly Manor begins to give up its secrets – and ghosts – things grow steadily harrowing.
In the midst of all this slowly mounting horror are a series of romances, and here’s where things get tricky, since talking about just who falls in love with whom has been verboten via embargo notes set out to the press. Since the love story elements play such a major point this season, I find this particular embargo request a tad maddening, but I will adhere to it. But the romances that slowly form as the season progresses are indeed effective – even sweet. In fact, they work much better than the horror elements, which are often muddled and confusing in trying to create mythology – as well as rules – for the ghosts haunting Bly Manor. The love stories blossoming here are tender and sweet. And, yes, in keeping with the best gothic romance tradition, more than a bit tragic.
As was the case with Hill House, Pedretti is once again the best member of the ensemble, delivering a tender, often frantic performance full of big emotional moments. Pedretti is quite skilled at making us both root and fear for her, and it’s impossible not to get swept up in Dani’s storyline as things grow direr and direr. Sadly, while Hill House managed to balance its multiple characters quite nicely, Bly Manor never quite succeeds. The actors around Pedretti are all doing fine work, but their characters are often rather flat. Hill House kept me interested in every single individual storyline, whereas anytime Bly Manor focused on someone other than Dani I felt myself growing listless.
While TV, like film, is a collaborative effort, and auteur theory has been overblown over the years, it becomes apparent that the problems plaguing Bly stem from a lack of an authoritative voice. Hill House was directed entirely by Flanagan from beginning to end, but with Bly Manor, Flanagan directs the premiere and then hands directorial duties over to Yolanda Ramke & Ben Howling (Cargo), Ciarán Foy (Sinister 2), Liam Gavin (A Dark Song), E. L. Katz (Channel Zero) and Axelle Carolyn (Tales of Halloween).
All of these directors are quite gifted in their own respects (A Dark Song is one of the best horror movies of the last five years, so the more work Gavin gets, the better), and do solid work here – every episode is appropriately atmospheric, and the way some of the ghosts present themselves is often downright chilling. And there’s so much to embrace. The production design does wonders for making Bly Manor look both crumbling and inviting; it’s easy to be both scared and allured by the estate. And while Flanagan may not be behind the camera for a large amount of time, the series still embraces his overall approach to horror – an approach that mines both scares and pathos out of the same moment. The past and present (and future) all run rampant through the hall of Bly Manor,
But the lack of one distinct filmmaker’s voice behind-the-camera hurts this season and keeps it from ever feeling one solid narrative. Instead, what happens within the walls of Bly Manor and beyond recalls a line from Hill House: “Our moments fall around us like rain. Or… snow. Or confetti.” Intentional or not, The Haunting of Bly Manor suffers because of it.
/Film Rating: 7 out of 10
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