‘The Haunting of Bly Manor’ is a perfectly dreadful ‘Turn of the Screw’

A promotional poster for "The Haunting of Bly Manor" (2020) is pictured. via IMDB

“The Haunting of Bly Manor” (2020), the second installment in director Mike Flanagan’s ever-growing anthology of adapted gothic literature, has, at long last, dropped on Netflix. The show is a ghostly re-telling of Henry James’s novella “The Turn of the Screw” (1898), here taking place in England in the 1980s. The show tells the story of a haunted governess, who cares for two tragically haunted kids within the haunted grounds of Bly Manor. With a tight cast of compelling characters, a gripping plot and a grand, labyrinthine mansion, the series is a lofty, ghastly tale of sadness and woe.

The mysteries that lie in wait at Bly Manor are fittingly introduced through somewhat mysterious circumstances. The story begins as guests at a wedding rehearsal dinner try to scare each other with some spooky stories. One woman, stand-offish and cryptic, begins the story of Bly Manor (and offers bits of narration throughout the rest of the series). The main focus is on Dani (Victoria Pedretti) who, after moving from the United States to England, is hired to teach and look after two orphaned kids 10-year-old Miles (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) and 8-year-old Flora (Amelie Bea Smith) — by their uncle, Henry Wingrave (Henry Thomas). Isolated on the grounds of the sprawling manor, things begin to creep in and they all begin to experience the unexplainable, the daunting, the terrifying.

The definite highlight of the show is the characters. The monstrous ways in which each one is haunted — some by external and some by internal demons — create well-rounded, sympathetic characters with whom the audience can identify and empathize. Their chemistry, camaraderie and shared terror are palpable in each episode, and each character’s interior worlds and inner feelings are expressed in such sympathetic lights.

The acting lends a lot to the success of all the characters. Alongside Pedretti, the show features the talents of T’Nia Miller, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Amelia Eve and Rahul Kohli, who play some of the central roles in the series. Displaying camaraderie, terror and a deep-seated awfulness, the actors all keep the fantastic world of the story grounded in the realistic world of its people. The two child actors, too, blend the haunting and haunted sides of their characters together so well and organically. As Flora would say, the performances are all “perfectly splendid.”

The world of Bly, too, is “perfectly splendid.” The manor is made up of the main castle-like mansion, a church, the woods and, most importantly, a small pond. The production design is wonderfully done, and the setting paints an idyllic backdrop on which the horror fits so nicely. With the dark reds and greens and dark-stained wood of the manor, the airy openness of the kitchen, the fog of the pond and the bright gloom of the church, the story stays grounded in its own reality and place.

The costumes are fitting for the ‘80s, as is the hair. Beauty mirrors horror, and just like so much other horror media, the beautiful aesthetic is the perfect antithesis to the dark and grim horrors of the plot. 

Though “The Haunting of Bly Manor” is meant to be a spooky story fit for late night conversation, the series is noticeably less scary than Flanagan’s “The Haunting of Hill House” (2018). More trauma than terror, “Bly Manor” continues to explore existential and emotional routes, this time with only a few splashes of horror along the way. Ghosts lurk in every shadow, crevice and corner, but the scares are spaced out and dimmed. Though not quite scary, the series creates a perfect atmosphere of pure haunting. The haunting is layered and refracted, as the Manor’s ghosts and the character’s selves fold in on top of one another. An uneasy eeriness wafts throughout the series.

Overall, the new series is great, even if it doesn’t measure up to its “Hill House” counterpart. The characters are all compelling, the plot binding, and the story unfolds in such an exciting manner that makes for an enjoyable and electric show.


Summary

More trauma than terror, 'The Haunting of Bly Manor' could be scarier, but makes for a generally enjoyable watch.

3.5 stars
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