Netflix's 'The Haunting of Bly Manor' Review: Is Victoria Pedretti's return to the saga a worthy sequel?
Starring some of Mike Flanagan's favorite collaborators from the outstanding and emotionally rich debut season, Bly Manor is ambitious but incoherent, failing to actually scare
Spoilers for 'The Haunting of Bly Manor'
Before Netflix's 'You' Season 2 had showcased the other side of Victoria Pedretti, she was still the jewel revelation from Mike Flanagan's original horror 'The Haunting of Hill House'. Genre-bending, emotionally rich, and a story so layered and woven so intricately around its main characters' past - dark or otherwise - Hill House rose to the highest of ranks when it came to acclaim from the critics and public. It was a terrifying, blink-and-you-miss-it horror that albeit rode on the done and dusted murder house concept, was still revolutionary with the right kind of subtlety that saved it from becoming Ryan Murphy's often campy 'American Horror Story'. Living up to an already enthralling sequel is a dangerous task to accomplish, but when the story changes completely there's hope for shine. Let's add to that the twisted works of Henry James and Flanagan had a lot to work to his benefit with Bly Manor. Perhaps that's the problem; Flanagan borrows a lot from the novelist's work and sets up a pace so slow to encompass it all that the journey ends up making no sense.
The story of Bly Manor is an exact replica of James' 70's novella 'The Turn of the Screw' for the most part. Dani Clayton (Pedretti), an American woman, moves across the pond looking for a job. Six months later, she meets the broodingly dismissive owner of the titular Bly Manor who needs a full-time live-in nanny for his nephew and niece (Amelie Bea Smith, Benjamin Evan Ainsworth), left orphaned and under his guardianship following the death of their parents. Dani's stay at Bly Manor starts getting eerie and spooky since day one, with her wards contributing to mischief and mulling over the mysterious death of their ex-nanny Miss Jessel. Soon secrets of the house and its property unravel and Dani grapples to keep herself and her wards safe from both of their past as the future starts looking bleak.
James' novella has been adapted for the screen beyond recognition at times. The most stellar rendition still being the 60s' 'The Innocents' despite a 2020 adaptation titled 'The Turning', its not an easy task adapting James works, especially when you mingle more than just the original material. Flanagan here dabbles with James classics like 'The Jolly Corner' and 'The Romance of Certain Old Clothes', and for a while, his expertise as relayed through 'Occulus' and 'Hush' play out brilliantly. What he doesn't quite ace like a maestro at, is the pacing. Bly Manor tries to reflect the Hill House charm of assessing characters, evaluating their past and trauma thus spinning a raw and emotional story surrounding death and beyond with a jagged narrative. All of that is still pretty much intact in the second installment but the actual element of the genre - the scare factor - is gtoo perforated with its inaccurate timing.
Flanagan takes some three to four episodes out of the nine to establish a firm ground of horror in Bly Manor. And even after that, for a trailer that had teased masks made out of human skin, a basement full of creepy dolls, dark entities in the mirror, and a decomposing lady coming out of a lake, the actual series falls flat. Unlike Hill House's horrors kick-starting from the get-go, Bly Manor beats around the bush a lot. It plays with death and its glaring reality too much to be taken seriously, with Dani claiming within the first few minutes of the show “I understand death. I know what loss is,” and then ruining the climax by admitting “I’ve lost people a few ways in my life.” Dani's troubled past is a reflection in mirrors that she keeps draped at all times because of a dark, tall, male figure with glowing eyes she sees in them. Her immediate affinity with Owen, the France-returned manor chef and part-time chauffeur speaks of the past she's running away from as he keeps running away from his present.
Pedretti isn't the only Hill House alum present in this story that kicks off with Carla Gugino as the narrator, telling Dani's story that she claims isn't hers, at a wedding. Henry Thomas plays the Bly owner, and Oliver Jackson-Cohen is the oft-disappearing employee at the manor. Getting lost in a sea of the ensemble cast, each with a character backstory as intense as those in Bly is easy, but not for T’Nia Miller, who plays the role of groundskeeper Hannah Grosse. The kids love her and she is a staunch defender of the manor, but Miller channels some deep, dark rooted trauma into Grosse that hoists her to what Pedretti was for Hill House. She is just as unmissable as she was in 'Years and Years', and the spooky little children under Dani's care - the troubled Miles who's back from boarding school and the infectiously adorable Flora who treats apparitions and the house's misadventures as no big deal.
As Dani inches closer to the truth behind the mysterious death of Miss Jessel, she and the others go on a journey of contemplation and confrontation, learning and deconstructing their own views about themselves the way a meaty horror should progress. Sadly, it takes too long and shoves too much down the viewers' throats for us to feel sated. By the end, everything seems flaccid and disconnected as the predictable climax rolls out leaving much to be desired. Bly Manor leaves the audience full beyond the body's capacity, marinated and saturated with emotions that would end up driving towards a steady purge, or craving a sound sleep after whatever the nine long hours dished.
'The Haunting of Bly Manor' premiered on October 9 and is now available for streaming only on Netflix.