Thanks to social media and our always-on news cycle, nothing good stays secret for long. So when The Haunting Of Hill House hit Netflix in October 2018, it took literal hours before everyone knew about the streamer’s latest sleeper hit. Fast-forward two years and the show has a second season, but this time around, it should have stayed under the radar.
Adapted from Henry James’ classic Victorian ghost story The Turn Of The Screw, The Haunting Of Bly Manor isn’t a sequel. Instead, creator Mike Flanagan has fashioned an anthology series a la Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story. This new instalment follows Dani, a young American nanny who takes a job looking after two posh orphans in the English countryside. While there, she makes friends with the staff: friendly yet officious housekeeper Hannah (T’Nia Miller); moustachioed cook Owen (Rahul Kohli); and standoffish gardener Jamie (Amelia Eve). At first, everything seems to be going well. Dani even finds she quite likes the slow pace of life on the sprawling estate (there’s also romance in the offing). But a creeping suspicion soon turns to dread – and after several paranormal encounters, her mental health begins to unravel.
At first glance, Bly Manor looks like another haunted house fright-fest. And if that were true, then great. But creaking floorboards and shadowy ghosts are at a minimum during its nine episodes. Hill House won fans thanks to steadily mounting anticipation and expertly-crafted jump scares. There is a bit of that in Bly Manor, but this is a much more varied drama than its predecessor. Along with the central story – wronged ex-employees visit their spectral wrath on the house’s current occupants until they crack up – several other plotlines unfold. There are the numerous tangled love stories that play out, often simultaneously and without payoff. Then there’s the shoehorned subplot that revolves around the children’s troubled uncle at his London law firm – much of which doesn’t make sense. And finally, each manor resident seems to get an entire episode of backstory – which is fine, but not when it comes in the form of a dream/memory kaleidoscope (episode five) that mixes up timelines without explanation. The result is a confused mess which lurches from kitschy romcom to psychological thriller to cheap schlock horror. Often, trying to remember (let alone understand) it all is like wading through thick, gloopy ectoplasm.
This might easily be blamed on runtime. James’ tight-knit 1898 novella only lasts about 100 pages, far too little material for a nine-hour TV show. In order to fill out space, Flanagan has to convolute a straightforward gothic tale with extra plot. Soon, more than half the cast has had an affair, most have stolen money from each other, and everyone is on the verge of a mental breakdown. Simply put, there’s just too much stuff going on.
It’s a shame, because The Haunting Of Bly Manor starts strongly. The dialogue is sharp, the aesthetic alluring, and the performances (particularly Miller’s) good enough to make you care. Even the scary bits, far more frequent in the opening episodes, are clever and genuinely frightening. It’s almost as if Flanagan panicked around chapter three, realised he didn’t have enough narrative, and started throwing stuff at the wall to see what would stick. Hill House might have built a new franchise, but Bly Manor does its best to burn it to the ground.