Fans of Mike Flanagan knew that they’d have a good watch on their hands when he rocked up to Hill House a few years ago, we just didn’t know how good. The exceptional adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House took us on a long and winding road that besides scaring the crap out of anyone with a pulse, found one beating in the heartfelt examination of loss, and the various reactions to it. In between this emotional analysis and tall men in hats, there was also Flanagan’s expert skill of tapping into what he’s had a bead on since Oculus and most recently, Doctor Sleep; fear – plain and simple. Grabbing you in the first minutes of the opening episode it hovered over the series like a lady with a bent neck and kept you on edge until its end. You wouldn’t be remiss then, for creaking the door open for The Haunting of Bly Manor – Flanagan’s follow-up to his Netflix and chilling series – with the same expectation, especially given the familiar faces in it. Make no mistake, just like some of the cast from the last series, the fear factor is certainly present, but whereas Hill House focused on characters that were grieving a past horror, Bly Manor plants us firmly on the foundations of a nightmare unfolding and tells a very different story altogether.
Based on the 19th century novella, The Turn of the Screw, Bly Manor sees Victoria Pedretti (Nell from Hill House) back in the Haunting anthology, as Dani Clayton, a newly appointed nanny to Miles and Flora Wingrave; two orphaned children who reside at the titular estate. Perfectly splendid (Flora’s words, not ours) on first appearance, there’s a warm welcome from the little nippers and the house staff; the housekeeper, Mrs Grose (T’Nia Miller); the gardener, Jamie (Amelia Eve); and the pun-tactic cook, Owen (Rahul Kohli) to soften the blow of what hides inside its walls. Because unfortunately, besides the homey kitchen and rich history, there’s also an array of tortured spirits that have a firm grip on the living, and it doesn’t take long for Dani to find herself in reach of them as well.
That might well be Flanagan’s biggest risk in his encore effort with Bly Manor, simply because the pacing of this tale feels almost jarring in comparison to last time around. This is a much slower burn in setting the scene and the lost souls inhabiting it, be they living or dead (surprising given that this is one episode shorter than Hill House), which might leave some audiences hungry for frights that Bly Manor doesn’t give up so easily. Instead, it spends time laying the groundwork, paving the inevitable binge watch with mystery, murder and forces meddling from beyond the grave. It’s for those very reasons that it becomes an equally impressive show all on its own, albeit with some key ingredients hauled over in Flanagan’s big move.
Following the same route as Ryan Murphy’s popular, but nowhere near as terrifying horror-fest American Horror Story, Flanagan has brought back some core cast members to play along in his new ghost story. Along with Pedretti, there’s a couple of cameos and key parts filled by those that were once Crain family members in Hill House. Henry Thomas plays Dani’s employer and the children’s estranged Uncle Henry who has his own demons to face beyond Bly Manor, and Oliver Jackson-Cohen gives up the ghost that was his recovering drug addict role in Hill House for Peter Quint, a far more present and despicably smug work associate to Henry. Tapping into the charming but aggressive nature that was on show (but not quite) in The Invisible Man, his is one of the returning visitors to this anthology that may impress audiences most, but it’s the new additions to Flanagan’s scary sophomore season that may end up earning most of the praise.
The staff and residents at Bly Manor that are new blood to this ghost train Flanagan has on track so perfectly are key components to what allows this season to stand on its own. A refreshing change of pace that Hill House lacked is here, a warming presence to put you at ease in between the moments of dread and despair, presenting itself in the form of Rahul Kohli. Even with the growing chill that fills this house, Kohli’s cook and creator of bad jokes is the dose of humour and assurance before the lights go out, and one of the few you hope make it through this alive. But if Kohli is the heart of Bly Manor, T’Nia Miller is most definitely the head of the house as Miss Grosse, who delivers what might be the best performance of the series, and is at the centre of the season’s strongest episodes.
The Haunting of Hill House was revered for two reasons; ‘The Bent Neck Lady’ and ‘Two Storms’ episodes, and here it feels like Flanagan has taken the best of both and pushed it through the doors of Bly Manor’s Grosse-centric instalment. While it’s in no way a set production nightmare that ‘Two Storms’ clearly was, it is a marriage of brilliant storytelling on Flanagan’s part, and Miller’s great and gradual decline of a woman losing her sense of reality from the horrors she’s witnessing. From then, even though the story’s focus may shift, it’s too late – Miller has stolen the show entirely. The only issue is just the time spent getting there and certain characters that take it up, which leave marks on Bly Manor for the wrong reasons.
The aforementioned pacing of Bly Manor to Hill House is not without its issues and most are linked to the show’s lead character. Pedretti gets more to work with in the role of Dani than she did with Nell, but a lot of it feels like unnecessary depth that pumps the brakes on a character arc that doesn’t need it. It’s clear that she, like many of Bly House’s inhabitants are seeking redemption, but hers feels neither warranted or relevant, if only to light the spark in the relationship that builds between herself and Jamie (Eve) that could still work without it. This English rose gardener with a just as thorny attitude is another fresh face that, like her character, makes herself welcome as soon as she arrives, and you’ll be so glad she stayed. Hers is another rare one to see sense when things are going bump in the night, but not without her own ghosts haunting her past she’s desperately trying to exorcise.
That’s the other major difference and rewarding takeaway from Bly Manor: whereas its predecessor was a show honing in on regret, this one has a strong focus on guilt, just or not, and the weight it can bring to those that are tasked with carrying it. As a result, like Flanagan managed before, it allows us to conjure remorse for even the darkest souls lingering in what is another truly gripping show bound in fright and feeling. Fear not ye who enter, Bly Manor opens the door to another top-tier show from Netflix. You’re welcome.