When The Haunting of Hill House premiered on Netflix in 2018, I was one of many viewers shouting its praise from the rooftop. As a horror aficionado, I appreciated how it merged the genre with a thoughtful approach to family drama and social commentary, whilst still never losing sight of its horror roots.
Created, written, and directed by the talented Mike Flanagan, Hill House offered plenty of suspense-laden thrills to keep its audience on the edge of their seats. And Flanagan proved to be more than a one-shot-wonder when he went on to direct the excellent film adaptation of Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep, a movie which was universally praised as not only a worthy adaptation, but a worthy follow-up to Stanley Kubrick’s classic film The Shining.
Before that, Flannagan also successfully brought to life to Gerald’s Game, another of King’s stories which was long considered to be impossible to make interesting for the screen.
I mention all of this just to make it clear: I am a fan of Mike Flanagan’s work. I have nothing against him at all. In fact, if anything, I give him more benefit of the doubt than any other director working today. And while I was excited to hear that his next entry in The Haunting saga was coming to Netflix with The Haunting of Bly Manor, itself an adaptation of the 1898 gothic horror novella The Turn of the Screw, I wasn’t under any illusions that Flanagan would be able to top what he accomplished in Hill House.
Not only did I deliberately choose not to set the bar high for Bly Manor, but I even went in assuming it wouldn’t quite reach the dizzying heights of either Hill House or Doctor Sleep. If you watch enough film and television, you know it’s unreasonable to expect a director to consistently churn out gem after gem of that caliber. After depleting a lot of creative energy, artists often need to use some projects as more of a cathartic exercise to sort of meditate and gestate on lighter concepts as they build up their energy reserves for bigger and better things.
I saw Bly Manor as a pit stop for Flanagan to slow down and relax. An appetizer that probably wouldn’t fill me up, but would prepare me for the main course that he might deliver in his next project or the one after.
Unfortunately, despite checking my expectations at the door, Bly Manor disappointed me even as an appetizer. And I’ll cut to the chase: this show fails miserably as a horror story. And not only does it fail as a horror story, but it fails at any other kind of story it might be trying to be. A romance. A drama. A period piece. Whatever you’re trying to bill it as makes no difference to me. The Haunting of Bly Manor sucks.
I was willing to adjust myself for whatever Flanagan wanted to throw my way. If he’s tired of doing the whole horror genre, I’m cool with that. I’d suggest he not make a series with the word ‘haunting’ in the title if that’s the case, but I’m cool with it. But horror is what he’s good at. The only reasons we’ve accepted his kind of shallow family drama attempts in the past were because (1) the characters were likable enough to make it work, and (2) they just felt like opportunities for us to catch our breath between scary scenes. And those fluffy moments made the scary moments feel scarier than they actually were since the contrast was so jarring you had no choice but to viscerally react in shock.
But there are no veritably scary moments in Bly Manor. Not even anything approaching being even remotely scary. So all we’re left with is the filler fluff for episodes on end. And these characters aren’t as likable as the ones in Hill House, so the fluff feels even more forced than before. There are no twist and turns, as even the least observant viewer can pretty much figure out exactly what’s going on in the first episode alone, or at least make a decent guess at what’s going on.
That’s not to say there are no redeeming qualities in Bly Manor. The casting choices are spot-on, and every actor and actress gives a great performance with the role and dialogue they’ve been given. Amelie Bea Smith and Benjamin Evan Ainsworth stand out as Flora and Miles Wingrave, two young orphaned siblings.
Tahirah Sharif also puts on a believable and sympathetic performance as Rebecca, one of the children’s nannies. And there are plenty of Hill House alumni who do well in their respective roles here, such as Victoria Pedretti, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Carla Gugino, Henry Thomas, and Kate Siegel.
Fans of the cult classic film The Room might also be pleased to see Greg Sestero make an appearance.
But again, none of that really matters if the script is as dull as butter knife, which it is. The first episode is probably the best, as it only goes downhill from there. Each installment gets more bland and boring that the previous, and I was ready to call it quits by the fifth episode but chose to soldier on so I could write this review in earnest when I say that I didn’t enjoy The Haunting of Bly Manor.
This won’t be a spoiler review and I’ve said everything I can on the topic, which is that the writing is bad and there is no real horror moments to speak of. Other than some good acting, there’s literally nothing here but an empty husk of a TV show. The whole thing could’ve been condensed down to a two or three hour mini-series and it would’ve been more impactful.
The paper thin plot cannot sustain itself when stretched out over nine episodes, unfortunately. I still have faith in Flanagan’s talents. One misfire isn’t enough to undo all the goodwill he’s generated from his previous homeruns. But Bly Manor is certainly a depressing blemish on his record.