When we first heard that creator Mike Flanagan was developing a follow-up series to 2018’s “The Haunting of Hill House”, we were thrilled. “Hill House” was a truly harrowing experience. Brimming with interesting characters, captivating world-building and of course, plenty of heart-stopping scares.
Seriously, what was up with that cat’s eyes?! We had such high hopes for Flanagan.
This was the visionary behind films like “Oculus” and the redemptive “Ouija: Origin of Evil”. Films with some of the most unique and jaw-dropping horror sequences of the 2010s. So how does Flanagan go from making one of television’s most terrifying horror series to creating this? A messy, deeply uncreative and disappointingly lacklustre horror series, “The Haunting of Bly Manor”. Let’s find out.
While the series bounces between multiple time periods, the primary setting is within 1987. Mostly set in the titular Bly Manor, in the English countryside. The series follows the story of one Danielle “Dani” Clayton, an American school teacher who takes up the job of raising two orphans, Flora and Miles Wingrave in their stately mansion.
She’ll soon find out, though, that there’s more to these precocious kids than just mischief. They, along with everyone else in the house, are hiding a dark secret. One related to their previous caretaker, or au pair, Rebecca Jessel. Now, Dani must contend with malevolent forces, both human and supernatural to protect the ones she loves.
The series is meant to be a sort of homage to Henry James’ horror novella “The Turn of the Screw”. Which we actually did read. The one thing that this tiny novella did so well was its ability to strike a creeping sense of dread in its readers. It was subtle and nuanced, like a fine, icy stiletto slit between the ribs. Unfortunately, “Bly Manor” has all the grace and finesse of a blunt hammer. There’s a painful awkwardness to the manner in which the show teases out its coming events. Almost as if it’s a joke being told by someone whose too busy chuckling to get to the punchline.
We get it. Spooky things are happening in the house and there’s probably a grim history behind it all. At the very least, we would have appreciated the series if it would have attempted to keep up a facade of normalcy. Oh, and then there’s the writing. The utterly laughable writing! Some of the lines that the orphans, Flora and Miles Wingrave, say are so overtly cryptic and foreboding it borders on comedy. Simply put the children do not act like children. Rather they’re the kind of children horror writers think exists but really they don’t.
This issue with dialogue extends to the rest of the cast members as well. Every character seems to exists only to give exposition and foreshadow. It breaks immersion, which is the crux of any good horror story. This issue is further exacerbated when you take into account the cast’s pension for overacting and, believe us, there’s plenty of that! Get ready for long dramatic pauses, hesitant gasps and breathy screams galore.
The actors playing the two orphan children, Amelie Bae Smith and Benjamin Evan Ainsworth, are by far the worst offenders. Before anyone goes mouthing off saying “They’re just children and we can’t expect emotional nuance from them”, that’s nonsense. There have been plenty of great child actors over the years that have knocked down that argument. Look at Dafne Keen’s Lyla in HBO’s “His Dark Materials” and the phenomenal cast in Netflix’s “Stranger Things”.
As for the adults, none of them is particularly memorable or captivating in their role. Even the supposed star of the series, Victoria Pedretti as Dani is as vanilla as they come. That being said, there were some performances that made the series somewhat watchable. Rahul Kohli as the playful, sweet cook Owen Sharma was a breath of fresh air. He seemed like the only person on-screen who wasn’t trying to ham up their part. We did enjoy his blossoming romance with the housekeeper played by T’Nia Miller. Kohli and Miller have excellent chemistry together. We’d much rather have the series revolve around them instead.
So the story, writing and performances aren’t anything to boast about. Is it at the very least scary? That depends, do you enjoy cheap jump scares that anyone who has watched horror films for the last 20 years can predict a mile away? If the answer is no, then we’re afraid there’s very little here that’ll keep you up at night.
The majority of scares in the series take place within the halls and rooms of the manor itself. The premise alone is already limiting. Therefore,” Bly Manor” has got to explore some truly creative angles to make it scary. The goofy acting and ridiculous dialogue have already handicapped the show’s immersive factor. So at the end of the day, the series relies on the most cliche tactics to generate some minor thrills.
A lot of horror cinematography is reliant on space, lighting and angle. For example, if a scene is framed with plenty of dark space on the left, the camera is guiding you to anticipate something coming from that angle. If an area on-screen is obscured, there’s a chance that we’ll catch a glimpse of something creepy as the characters walk away. One particular method that “Bly Manor” overuses is the classic reflection trick, in which the character spots a ghost or demon in a reflection abruptly before turning around to see nothing.
This isn’t the early 2010s, “Bly Manor” can’t expect to rely on these antiquated techniques to deliver the scares. “The Haunting of Hill House” used macabre violence and twisted parodies of the human form to unnerve. None of that is here. There’s no atmosphere, no innovation and certainly no real punch behind any of the scenes.
“The Haunting of Bly Manor” is an utter failure on multiple levels. Its story fails to intrigue, or elicit any real emotional stakes. Its over-the-top acting and painful writing subjects viewers to more agony than any of its characters have endured. Most importantly, it simply isn’t scary.
Hopefully, Flanagan gets another shot at redemption in future entries of his “The Haunting” anthology series. You’re better off skipping this one and going straight for “The Haunting of Hill House”. Now that one is something to scream about. This one you’ll forget quicker than a bad dream.