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The Haunting of Bly Manor Delivers Spooky Horrors With Surprising Heart

Flora (Amelie Smith) and her very special dollhouse.
Flora (Amelie Smith) and her very special dollhouse.
Photo: Eike Schroter/Netflix
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It’s been two years since Mike Flanagan and Netflix turned classic horror novel The Haunting of Hill House into a series that earned raves not just for its story, characters, and creativity, but also for scaring the bejesus out of viewers. Can lightning strike twice? The Haunting of Bly Manor is here to find out.

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We won’t be spoiling any of Bly Manor’s big twists and reveals in this review—we’ve seen how Netflix-spawned ghosts take their revenge, after all—so you can read on with confidence. But whatever you do, stay in your room. Don’t go wandering around the house at night!

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That’s a request, really more of a fervent plea, pressed upon Dani Clayton (Victoria Pedretti, who played Nell in Hill House) on her first day working as an au pair at the stately country mansion known as Bly Manor. Since it comes from eight-year-old Flora Wingrave (Amelie Smith), who lives there with her 10-year-old brother Miles (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth), Dani doesn’t initially take this warning too seriously. After all, Bly Manor is “a great good place” according to its London-dwelling owner, Flora and Miles’ Uncle Henry (Henry Thomas, also back from Hill House, though this time he gets to do a British accent)—in stark contrast to Hill House, which was famously “born bad.” But by the time Dani arrives, Bly Manor has both a tragic recent past and a tragic distant past weighing on it. Heavily.

Dani—an outwardly chipper American whose preppy fashions are often the only reminder that Bly Manor’s present is 1987—has her own heavy troubles trailing behind her, so she’s thrilled to be starting a new job while she tries to make a new start. At Bly Manor, she meets the people in the Wingrave family orbit who’ll help her do that: housekeeper Hannah (T’Nia Miller), chef Owen (iZombie’s Rahul Kohli), and groundskeeper Jamie (Amelia Eve). Series creator Flanagan has spoken about how Hill House focused on a traditional family of brothers and sisters, while Bly Manor is more about a “family” of friends, and we see how Dani is welcomed by her co-workers into their close-knit ranks. Everyone is really good at their jobs—including Dani, who’s great with the kids—and has an easy rapport; they’re all fond of the sort of good-natured shit-talking that comes from genuinely enjoying each other’s company.

Hannah, Miles, Owen, and Flora welcome Dani to dinner.
Hannah, Miles, Owen, and Flora welcome Dani to dinner.
Image: Eike Schroter/Netflix

So Bly Manor sounds like a pretty chill place to work, right? Not so fast. There is, as Dani suspects from the start, a “catch.” A few catches, actually. Miles and Flora are generally charming, but their moments of moodiness and mischief—initially waved away as the behavior of kids who’re still mourning the loss of their parents to an accident abroad two years prior, as well as the more recent loss of their previous nanny, Rebecca (Tahirah Sharif), who died at Bly—begin to increase after Dani’s arrival. Soon they start feeling less like childish pranks and more like dangerous cause for concern. Small details, like the way Flora arranges the dolls in her Bly Manor dollhouse, or the condescending way Miles addresses his nanny as “Dani” instead of “Miss Clayton,” begin to take on major significance.

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If you’ve read Henry James’ novella The Turn of the Screw—or seen any of the other many previous adaptations, especially 1961's The Innocents—you already have a pretty good idea where things are going to go from there, though Bly Manor isn’t just a new version of that tale. It has nine episodes to dig into the lives of its fascinating, full-bodied characters, which it does with the help of some very carefully structured flashbacks, as well as intertwining its plot with threads pulled from other ghostly James tales. And, of course, it sets up a series of mysteries for the audience to latch onto while setting a mood of deep, dripping dread. As for the main antagonist, we won’t even get into any identifying details—other than to say they do indeed achieve Bent-Neck Lady levels of sheer terror.

Peter Quint (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) finds one of Flora’s very special dolls.
Peter Quint (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) finds one of Flora’s very special dolls.
Photo: Eike Schroter/Netflix
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While Bly Manor’s central themes do traverse some of the same turf covered in Hill House (fun stuff like childhood trauma and emotional agony)—and the story does feature many, many deaths (several of which have nothing to do with the house at all, other than they affect the people who live and/or work there), it is ultimately a love story. Flanagan has expressly said as much, and it’s also something that’s specifically pointed out in the dialogue. But calling Bly Manor a “love story” (or even the more specifically foreboding “Gothic love story,” which it obviously is) is hardly simplifying it. There are many love stories contained within its chapters—forbidden or secret love, unconditional love, passionate romantic love, and the kind of love that gets twisted into something dark that feels more like possession.

That last one is what propels the forces behind many of Bly Manor’s frights. It’d be tough to pull off the show’s choice to fluidly shift perspectives and points of view—sometimes replaying scenes over and over when it serves the story—if the cast wasn’t so incredibly strong. Several actors end up playing two versions of their character as the story progresses, and we won’t reveal more other than to say that Flanagan—who also made Ouija: Origin of Evil and Doctor Sleep—is to be commended for his skill in casting and directing children.

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Haunting vets Pedretti, Thomas, and Oliver Jackson-Cohen (who plays Henry Wingrave’s slippery valet, Peter Quint) get to do most of the showy emoting, but the performances never go too far over the top (as they did sometimes in the occasionally maudlin Hill House). The standouts though are T’Nia Miller, who handles her character’s dramatic heavy lifting with incredible subtlety, and Rahul Kohli, whose mischievous take on Owen injects some much-needed lightness and joy into Bly Manor’s gloom.

Henry Thomas as the reluctant lord of Bly Manor.
Henry Thomas as the reluctant lord of Bly Manor.
Photo: Eike Schroter/Netflix
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If we didn’t care so much about these characters—even the ones who do terrible things and then continue to be terrible—Bly Manor wouldn’t be as moving and suspenseful as it is throughout. In most haunted house stories, Hill House included, it’s tempting to wonder why the people who’re being plagued by ghosts don’t just leave the property and never look back. Bly Manor makes a case for hanging around even when things start to go supernaturally haywire. If the people you love are in peril, and there’s any chance at all that you could help, even if it means tangling with some extremely malevolent forces—why wouldn’t you?

The Haunting of Bly Manor hits Netflix on October 9.

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DISCUSSION

CassiusLonginus
CassiusLonginus

Does it land the last third better than the first season? Because that almost entirely fell apart after such great first 2/3rds.