‘The Haunting of Bly Manor’ Review: Not the Halloween Horror Story You May Expect (No Spoilers)
Towards the end of "The Haunting of Bly Manor," after the season's narrator has spun her yarn in front of an attentive audience, a listener interferes with advice. “I liked your story,” she says. “But I think you got it wrong. They said it was a ghost story. It is not so. It's a love story. "Though the narrator graciously claims they are the same, she also admits," If you keep telling it, you'll make that change for me at the top. "
This review is by no means "retelling" the nine episodes that make up Mike Flanagan's next entry in his "Haunting" anthology series - you won't find spoilers here - but it is intended to emphasize the type of story being told. Framing, especially with sequels, is critical to reception. Look no further than Flanagan's own blockbuster "Doctor Sleep", which played on the sequel to Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining," although it was nearing the sequel to Stephen King's novel. Now Flanagan is returning to his own work. The new season has nothing to do with Hill House except for a few cast members playing new roles, but that doesn't mean Netflix viewers don't expect a similar thrill, especially given the October release.
In contrast to the legion of horrors hidden under every bed and behind every creaky door in its original haunted house, Flanagan's "Bly Manor" is a calm, allegorically dense, romantic melodrama. I like it, but it's not a love story - or if so, it's not an affective one. More importantly, it's not a horror show, and Netflix viewers should dissuade themselves from such guesswork or risk missing out on their beautiful reflections.
Our nameless narrator takes us back to 1987 when an American teacher named Dani Clayton (Victoria Pedretti) was interviewed to be an au pair for an English family. Dani sits in the spacious London office of Henry Wingrave (Henry Thomas, who also starred in Hill House) trying to convince the disheveled uncle that her experience as a trainer exceeds her inexperience as a full-time caretaker, and Henry pokes and nudges accordingly until they both get to the questions that really matter: Why is a young single American teacher trying so hard to leave years of her life to two children in a remote English mansion? And why is your disconnected, hard-drinking uncle, who first published the job advertisement six months ago, so reluctant to even hire someone for the position?
Like so many stupid people in horror films, both move forward without getting the answers they need, and Dani is soon driving deep into the country to meet her roommates. There's Owen (Rahul Kohli), the estate's chef and bachelor # 1 who really loves playing puns with his dad. Hannah (T'Nia Miller), the housekeeper and Owen's # 1 admirer, who is extra roomy from time to time; Jamie (Amelia Eve) the gardener and resident cool woman who does what she wants, when she wants; and then there are the kids Flora (Amelie Smith) and Miles (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth).
As the oldest, tallest, and most effectively dead-eyed man, Miles is the ideal "creepy kid" (think Macaulay Culkin in "The Good Son") while his younger sister serves as the cute one who runs Dani's house calls every room "perfect splendid ”- except of course the classroom! Oh, what rascals, these children.
Once this first cast of characters is revealed, it doesn't take long before inexplicable circumstances lead to questions being asked, the story revealed, and deep trauma uncovered. Yes, there are ghosts in Bly Manor, and Flanagan wisely doesn't spend too much time pretending there aren't any. Where it slips is trying to define how they do what they do. Similar to time travel shows, ghost stories don't have to spend too much time explaining how the ghosts can float through walls and grab someone by the neck, for example. In this way, assumptions work in favor of the program: The viewers do not have to attend long seminars in which the inexplicable is explained. They know what ghosts are, they know this is a ghost story so just go ahead.
In addition to the agonizing bloating factor, there is an expansive cast. All of these people I mentioned above? Not even all of the series regulars, but more could venture into the area of spoilers. While every person is, in fact, crafted to feel three-dimensional, not everyone is as compelling, and some of the least dynamic characters are also those who are asked to take on a majority of the exposure burden. "Bly Manor" also lacks the dual timelines that helped streamline the character development of "Hill House". Flanagan instead relies on lots of flashbacks that eventually warp into a unique narrative device, but there are just too many backstories to get through and too much redundancies in them. (The pace of Bly Manor is deliberate. It invites the audience to ponder the story's emotionally complex metaphors. It also suffers from Shutter Island syndrome, where the same information is shared and shown to you. )
All of this means that "Bly Manor" is flawed; more flawed than Hill House, but last season's fresh foundation almost makes up for it. Flanagan doesn't just try to tell a story about the dead to impress the living. He tries to tell a story about the need for storytelling, especially when it comes to people we have lost. "Bly Manor" searches for meaning in the afterlife, not in a religious version of heaven or hell, angels or demons, but rather how memories can be preserved, corrupted and honored. It's difficult to talk about without giving examples. So first, let's say that academic guys are going to love Bly Manor. There is much to dissect, debate and discuss.
Anyone expecting fear, excitement, or other excitement this Halloween may need to look elsewhere. The ghosts swirling around "The Haunting of Bly Manor" are preoccupied with memories and how they define both the dead and the living, but their presence is almost paradoxical. Yes, at the end of the season Flanagan ties its many threads together, and without its creepy guests the season would be an excruciating boredom. But the ghosts are also disturbing enough to wonder if these characters deserve another setting. Flanagan understands this genre well, that much has been clear for some time, and his desire to push classic horror constructs into a more nuanced, emotional territory is admirable. But if those lifeless romances are an indicator, he may need to mess around in an un-haunted house to improve his dramatic boundaries. "Bly Manor" stands for an ambitious mix of genres and, with the right gravity, hits its final point. It's not a great ghost story, it's not a great love story, but it's still haunting enough to hear.
"The Haunting of Bly Manor" premieres on Friday October 9th on Netflix.
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