Netflix and filmmaker Mike Flanagan conquered the October conversation two years ago with the release of The Haunting of Hill House, a surprise hit that most viewers fell in love with rather quickly. Everything from its aesthetic to its performances to the hidden ghosts you had to watch a second time to spot helped make Hill House a rousing success. Of course Netflix and Flanagan were going to return for more, there never seemed to be any question about it. That follow-up soon arrives in the form of The Haunting of Bly Manor. The second installment is bound to be compared to its predecessor, and it's honestly lacking in quite a few ways when you stack the two up side by side. However, on its own, Bly Manor is still an entertaining, if sometimes inconsistent, haunted house drama.
The Haunting of Bly Manor is based on Henry James' novella The Turn of the Screw, and follows a woman named Dani Clayton (Victoria Pedretti) who takes a job as an au pair to two young English children at their family's secluded summer house after the tragic deaths of their parents and previous caregiver (Tahirah Sharif). Obviously, as with every other haunted house tale in history, there is a lot more going on beneath the surface than Dani initially realizes, and the secrets of the manor slowly begin to reveal themselves to its inhabitants.
Everyone who resides in Bly Manor brings their own baggage and horror with them, setting up a few intriguing side plots. Dani constantly sees a dark figure with round, glowing eyes when she looks in a mirror, hinting at a devastating event in her past. The children have quite a few peculiar habits. Hannah (T'Nia Miller), the housekeeper, finds herself drifting away in the middle of conversations. All of these side stories are worthy of exploring, and they all get their own time to shine, eventually. In fact, they probably get a little too much time.
The issue with Bly Manor isn't its content. It's a very good retelling of James' novella, certainly the best in recent years., but it doesn't always take the best or most direct route to where it ultimately wants to go. Like Hannah, it likes to drift.
The first three episodes of Bly Manor are compact and move quickly. It's a breeze to binge that initial trio. But as the midway point approaches, and certain threads need explaining, there are multiple episodes dedicated to flashbacks and side plots. Only one can really be described as a "bottle episode," but there are three or four that spend the majority of their time simply explaining the past. The plot moves forward with these vignettes, because they're essential to the ultimate climax, but they make for a pretty exhausting few hours. Trimming an episode or two would have made a massive difference.
This is where the comparisons to Hill House really work against Bly Manor. Hill House famously told two different stories simultaneously: that of the Crain family in the present day and the time surrounding their mother's death. That series did such an excellent job of weaving those stories together in ways that always kept you engaged. Bly Manor, on the other hand, is a bit more all over the place. Those one-offs in the back half bring any momentum to a halt in order to explain what's going on in the house. It's vital information but it comes at inopportune times.
Bly Manor is also lacking any real technical marvels, the likes of which really helped Hill House soar. None of the episodes are poorly directed or designed by any stretch. There's nothing but confident filmmaking throughout the series, but Hill House went the extra mile on numerous occasions. It took months for everyone to stop talking about that one-take funeral episode, as Hill House took enormous swings with its set pieces and camera tricks, but Bly Manor opts instead to play it much safer.
Even in the face of its shortcomings, Bly Manor offers a lot to be excited about. Disguising a gothic romance as a supernatural horror project is a bold move that really pays off in the finale. The performances range from good to extraordinary, with T'Nia Miller and Amelia Eve proving themselves especially outstanding. There are even some legitimately terrifying moments hidden at the manor, involving both the living and the dead; similar to Hill House, there's one horrifying jump-scare towards the end of the show.
The biggest knock against The Haunting of Bly Manor is that it has the unfortunate task of following The Haunting of Hill House. There are still some flaws when you strip the comparisons away, but it's bound to leave most horror fans satisfied by the time it comes to a close.
Rating: 3 out of 5
The Haunting of Bly Manor arrives on Netflix on October 9th.