Though not as lauded as Ari Aster or Jordan Peele or Robert Eggers, make no mistake, Mike Flanagan is one of the finest horror filmmakers working today. From Gerald’s Game to Doctor Sleep, the auteur has proven his spooky chops. But perhaps none of his works have been as transcendent or as popular as The Haunting of Hill House. The 2018 series was an artistic marvel, imbuing genuine scares and breathtaking cinematic technicality with a heartbreaking, soul crushing tale of a family coping with grief, mental illness, addiction and trauma. Two years later, Flanagan has turned his Netflix hit into a seasonal anthology, following up with The Haunting of Bly Manor.
While Hill House was loosely based on the eponymous novel by Shirley Jackson, this eerie story is an amalgamation of Henry James’ literary works, with a particular emphasis on his 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw (which has been adapted many times), alongside strains of The Romance of Certain Old Clothes and The Jolly Corner. Using several familiar actors from Hill House (Victoria Pedretti, Henry Thomas, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Kate Siegel, Carla Gugino) in new roles, Bly Manor unfolds another beautiful tragedy with meticulous attention to detail and characters more haunted than the house. But while Flanagan’s impeccable character work remains, this second season is an entirely different beast.
Hill House was a show about a family. Bly Manor in contrast is about strangers. And amidst the ghosts, this second season is actually a gothic romance at its core. The story follows an American woman named Dani Clayton (Pedretti) who takes a job as an au pair to two orphaned English children at a secluded summer house after the tragic deaths of their parents and previous nanny (Tahirah Sharif). As with every other haunted house tale in history, there is a lot more going on beneath the surface than Dani initially realizes, and the secrets of the manor slowly begin to reveal themselves to its inhabitants.
Like all of Flanagan’s filmography, the literal spectres serve as metaphorical expressions of the emotional wounds that they carry around, and how the past and the present can echo each other. Everyone who resides in Bly Manor brings their own baggage and horror with them, setting up a few intriguing side plots and illuminating looks into their tragic pasts. But while each is worthwhile, well-told and offers a necessary piece to the story’s puzzle – the nonlinear structure here is not nearly as neat or uniformly enthralling as Hill House. The various backstories are individually captivating, and yet perhaps a little too labyrinthian and improperly paced – especially during the middle of its season.
Its convoluted narrative choices and momentum missteps aren’t the only thing bogging it down. Unlike Hill House, Mike Flanagan doesn’t helm the majority of these episodes, and Bly Manor sorely missed his directorial flourish. While the camera work here is solid, the suspense isn’t as expertly crafted, and don’t expect to see bravura single take sequences (ala “The Two Storms”). That being said, this second season’s flaws are only minor hurdles towards enjoying an otherwise excellent show. Yes, it isn’t as cohesive as Hill House, but there’s still plenty of sumptuous storytelling to savour here.
Pedretti is exceptional once again in the lead role, and many of the supporting performances – notably those by Amelia Eve as Jamie and T’Nia Miller as Hannah Grose – are also terrific. The Haunting of Bly Manor is a doomed and dread-filled love story that is simultaneously blood-curdling and mesmeric. There are legitimately terrifying moments, involving both the living and the dead – including an extraordinarily effective jump scare that will cause viewers to shriek! So even in spite of its shortcomings, The Haunting of Bly Manor proves to be a worthy follow-up that’s both viscerally gripping and emotionally compelling.