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Review: The Haunting of Bly Manor – “It’s a love story and it’s a beautiful one”

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Mike Flanagan is the most consistently excellent creator working in the horror genre today.  He has brought us, among other things:

  • Oculus – a fun, effective haunted mirror story starring Karen Gillan of Doctor Who and the Avengers
  • Hush – a rare ‘well, what would you do?’ story with none of the easy answers that often plague horror films. An isolated, deaf, and mute woman must fight off a homicidal lunatic.
  • Gerald’s Game – one of his excellent Stephen King adaptations. As any long-time aficionado of that author knows, the current renaissance belies the fact that decent King adaptations are rarer than an ugly Australian (have you ever seen a genuinely ugly Australian?  I haven’t.)
  • Doctor Sleep – the book wasn’t brilliantly received, but the film works superbly. The sheer bravado of making a sequel to Kubrick’s The Shining often voted the best horror movie ever made (despite King’s famous disdain) is impressive.  Flanagan succeeds with aplomb.
  • The Haunting of Hill House – this ten-episode, 2018 Netflix series is his masterpiece. An enthralling story of family, secrets, regrets and redemption, it would work without the fear.  But the fear is absolute and genuine. From the first episode, it grips with the icy clutch of earned horror.

Throughout he’s usually worked with the same ensemble, Carla Gugino, Kate Siegel, and Henry Thomas… yes, Elliot from ET.  They’re all excellent actors and make a fantastic team with Flanagan.

Last Friday, Netflix released The Haunting of Bly Manor, styled as the second in an anthology series that started with Hill House.  It stars most of the same cast as Hill House in different roles.  Victoria Pedretti who was Nell in the last series becomes the protagonist.  Oliver Jackson-Cohen was her adult brother last time, he plays a very different role here.

The story is based primarily on Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, which has been adapted too many times to count, including once already this year as a movie.  Stephen King, among others, called the book compulsory reading for horror fans, but I have to say it left me cold, rather than chilled.  I wondered at the time if it had suffered what all classics do – being first often means being imitated into lifelessness.

Hill House kept the DNA of the original novel and span it out into both a wider and narrower tapestry.  Bly absorbs other stories by James and incorporates them into the narrative.

The biggest difference between the two though?  Bly Manor isn’t scary.  At all.

Okay, not everyone is as immersed in this genre as me.  If you normally avoid this kind of thing then it might unsettle you or make you jump.  But Hill House was a spectacular treat that haunted me long afterwards, for all the right reasons.  Bly doesn’t haunt.  Does that make it a failure?  No.  Partly because, as I mentioned – had you removed the scares from Hill House, you’d still have a compelling story.  Moreover, this is a different story and a different kind of ghost story, too.

Hill House was a family horror.  It perfectly captured the feeling of being related to total strangers, of love and loyalty despite betrayals, of undercurrents and resentments swept aside by the familiar.  It understood that home isn’t a place, it’s the people we love.  It captured that rarely glimpsed connection between family members that borders on the psychic.  We know when they need us.  And for me (despite loving this stuff, I’m often cynical about the supernatural) it kept the best thing about the novel – this could all be a psychological manifestation.

Bly is about letting go, about grief and the terrible inevitability of illness and death.  But importantly, it’s about using that certainty to truly live.  In places, it’s desperately sad, but it’s also funny (the running joke about tea especially tickled me) and life-affirming.

In comparison to both Hill House and The Turn of the Screw, it’s also unequivocal.  I’ve read that The Innocents from 1961 also ditches the novel’s ambiguity, and I must watch it, but the weakest episodes for me were when we dwelt on the central haunting of that story.  However, it recovered with another great Siegel performance from another James story, an episode that succeeded as a self-contained ghost-story and rescued the overall arc.

A big difference from Hill House is that while Flanagan oversaw the show, he only directed one episode of Bly.  It shows and clearly, I enjoyed the 2018 series more than this.

I must also address the accents… some other reviewers have had great fun ripping into the cast about this.  That’s a little unfair, but it certainly doesn’t always work.  When we first meet Henry Thomas, I thought he did a good job not just of the accent, but of Englishness.  There’s a sarcastic eye roll and comment when Pedretti’s American says how much she loves London that was spot on.  After that though… his accent is as wobbly as an alcoholic on a Space Hopper.  I thought for a while it was part of the performance, trying to delineate between different ‘states’ he occupies during the story, but sadly not.

Similarly, there are some anachronisms in speech and a few things which take you from the story.  For example, the light in the cellar at Bly Manor has a chain switch on the pendant.  Ain’t never seen that in any UK house, Guvnor.  Seen it plenty on American movies though.

But these criticisms are minor.  The story is compelling, the acting is generally very strong, and, in some episodes, I was utterly transported, particularly when learning the origin of the word ‘bonfire’ and in another scene with moonflowers.

Ultimately, as one character says towards the end, this isn’t a ghost story, it’s a love story and it’s a beautiful one.  As the nights draw in and we prepare to turn our backs on this bollocks of a year, you could do much worse than spend your time at Bly.

You can read more of my reviews on my blog.

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