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It’s been labelled as the poor relation to The Haunting of Hill House and scoffed at for its lack of scares. Mike Flanagan’s The Haunting of Bly Manor seems to have fallen flat as far as critics are concerned, but does horror television always need to make us jump out of our seats?
Based on Henry James’ novella The Turn of the Screw, Bly Manor swaps the 1890s for the 1980s and the English governess for an American au pair (Dani). Following the tragic death of her fiancé, Dani is desperate to start a new life in a new place – the perfect candidate for a job that involves taking care of two creepy orphans in an even creepier remote country house. Thankfully, Dani has a friendly housekeeper (Hannah aka Mrs Grose), a cook (Owen), a gardener (Jamie), and several terrifying ghosts to keep her company. As with Hill House, it’s not a full-blown ‘80s nostalgia trip à la Stranger Things. The modern setting is subtle and only hinted at through clothing (the mom jeans and blazers are a dead giveaway). The sprawling, antiquated Gothic-ness of the house dominates the show’s aesthetic, retaining the original Victorian ghost story feel.
Bly Manor’s biggest fault is its treatment of the supernatural, which is a pretty big deal for a series about ghosts. Its obsession with over-explaining ruins its own horror moments. Episodes 1-4 build up some brilliantly chilling hauntings, only to undo their impact through lengthy flashbacks, dull backstories and a convoluted time travel narrative. The penultimate episode explains the entire supernatural system via an origin story for the ‘lady in the lake’ ghost yet it feels like an abrupt deviation from the main narrative and denies the audience the enjoyment of exploring their own interpretations. When we’ve spent the whole season getting to know the existing cast of characters, there is no motivation to suddenly care about this one and her backstory certainly doesn’t warrant an entire episode. A little ambiguity works wonders in the horror genre, particularly where ghost stories are concerned. The temptation to tie up every loose end runs the risk of disappointing the audience and that’s exactly what happens with Bly Manor.
Despite this, the relationships that develop between the characters as they are confined to an isolated existence gives us a reason to keep watching: Dani and Jamie’s budding romance, Hannah and Owen’s will-they-or-won’t-they friendship, the disintegration of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel’s toxic affair. The female-dominated ensemble cast is an asset, with several actors delivering memorable performances in complex roles that dig deep into the characters’ psyches. Victoria Pedretti as the traumatised au pair particularly stands out. Her role as the troubled sister Nell in Hill House is what made that season so powerful and she brings the same level of emotional depth to her character in Bly Manor. The latest season has been given a hard time for not being as scary as Hill House. While it does have its moments, Bly Manor’s lack of scares suggests that it doesn’t set out to be a straightforward horror narrative. In fact, the final episode refers to it as a love story. I think it’s more fitting to call it a story of loss: bereavement, lost opportunities, fading memories. In which case, the final episode is where the season really comes into its own with some beautiful writing that conveys the sadness of the characters as they reflect on their time at Bly Manor and, in some cases, hope to be reunited. These moments stay with you more than the fleeting thrill of a jump scare.