It takes approximately 500 minutes for creator Mike Flanagan’s “The Haunting of Bly Manor” to tell a story that would have been just as effective at 120, or even 150 minutes, with fewer characters. Flanagan’s previous blockbuster Netflix miniseries “The Haunting of Hill House” was around the same size, and yet the expanse of “Bly Manor” feels unruly, in part because of some grave mistakes. For one, it’s not haunting, even in its intriguing exploration about how ghosts have feelings, too. But that leads to a larger problem: in its attempt to escape the shadow of “Hill House,” “Bly Manor” takes a misguided pivot into gothic soap opera, stranding its performers and fans in the process.
The first of many slack mysteries in “The Haunting of Bly Manor” (based on the works of Henry James, primarily “The Turn of the Screw”) involves an an American au pair in England, who lands a job taking care of two kids who live in a giant mansion, and whose parents are mysteriously dead. Why did Dani (Victoria Pedretti) leave the country, and what truly happened to the parents of Flora (Amelie Bea Smith) and Miles (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth)? Dani gets hired by the family’s uncle Henry (Henry Thomas, a “Hill House” alum, now with an English accent) who himself has his own demons, related to the disappearance of his brother. Bly Manor is a giant burden to him, even in thought, and he prefers to spend his time in his office alone, drinking.
From Dani’s arrival, Flora and Miles exhibit different types of creepy kid behavior. But they’ve seen a lot, given that the previous au pair Rebecca (Tahirah Sharif) died on the property six months previous, so everyone kind of rolls with this behavior. Flora is the more whimsical of the two, in her meticulousness with her the dollhouse and its strange figures, or the way that she stares at something over Dani’s shoulder, goes silent, and then reverts back to to her outward pleasantries. Her older brother Miles, on the other hand, exhibits more inappropriate behavior, like peering into Dani’s bedroom as she changes, or touching her hair in a way a sleazy first date might. The two kids initially make for some mild anxiety in the story, especially as they terrorize the extremely friendly Dani, while mud prints start to appear on the stairs, and a weird figure flashes in random reflections.
One of the big surprises is that the people on the grounds are themselves entirely not shady. Yes, there’s the shadowy face of an infamous family associate named Peter Quint (Oliver Jackson-Cohen, also from “Hill House”), but the other Bly workers offer a type of respite; a sunny, makeshift family of have-nots who immediately welcome Dani. Each has their own melancholy, as with housekeeper Hannah (T'Nia Miller), the most powerful woman in the manor, but also one who carries herself the most delicately. Dani is initially introduced to Bly by driver and cook Owen (Rahul Kohli), who always has a pun at the ready, and seems to bring the natural light into many of the dining scenes. Even the gardener, a job you might expect would be the resident oddball in a horror story, is the heartfelt, slightly playful Jamie (Amelia Eve), who sees through much of Dani’s neuroses with her a surprising tenderness.
The performances are all around strong, but it’s like the actors are using heart-wrenching work to try to break out of a story that is melodramatic, flat, and relatively humorless. Across tales of repressed and/or stolen love, the script squeezes them for tears and these actors provide, like with the big, anticlimactic reveal of the trauma that Dani brings to Bly Manor. Instead of making the story deeper, or making its cerebral twists most wrenching, the cast adds to an emotional white noise with extensive, hushed monologues that create little propulsion for the present. Or, in some cases, like with Uncle Henry’s secret side, they’re on-the-nose and cheesy, and veer toward drama that won’t inspire wonder about these characters when they’re alone with their thoughts, but heavy sighs.
All of this is framed as a story being told by a woman at a wedding party (“Hill House” alum Carla Gugino, also with an English accent), which feels to be part of some wink from creators. The same can be said for how none other than Greg Sestero from Tommy Wiseau’s “The Room” is the groom of said party, as if meant to trigger your B-movie sensibilities. With these specific choices it’s almost like the series wants to foreground its kookiness, and match it with soft lighting that makes everything in the manor look especially stagey, intentionally taking away the dark corners that can make for unease. “Bly Manor” wants to be something like high-minded camp, but it doesn’t have anywhere near the edge to be as fun as that sounds. Instead of taking these choices and opportunities to up the ante, “Bly Manor” then goes for the gut, and misses.
For hundreds of minutes, with hour-long episodes constructed of emotional memories, confusing hallucinations, and general ghostly visions, the series is like getting lost in a labyrinth, and losing your will to reach the exit. All until “Bly Manor” hands you a map in episode eight, a flashback (that can’t be spoiled) to end all of the series’ countless flashbacks, a narrative copout dressed up in period clothing, slathered with even more voice-over. It’s an episode that does so much explaining that you practically think the series is done. But there’s another long episode, and only in the last 45 minutes of “Bly Manor” do you understand what the main focus of the series was meant to be throughout all of the different character backstories that took up so much time. “Bly Manor” drags you through the mud and up some stairs and back down again to reach a profundity that proves to be as plain as it is self-serious.
This isn’t a sequel to “The Haunting of Hill House,” but aside from sharing a similar title it does carry over another touch—the wistful piano motif that kicks in for major moments both somber and ghostly. Whenever it plays it becomes hard not to flashback to “Hill House,” and the way that series used many of the same themes more effectively, more naturally; how that series tactfully punched you in the gut, and how “Bly Manor” makes you work overtime just to feel something. If “Hill House” provided a blueprint in how to tell a long, heartbreaking, and actually scary story, the failures and indulgences of “Bly Manor” are unfortunate examples in how not to.
Available on Netflix on Friday, October 9