A ghostly mistake: Why Netflix’s The Haunting of Bly Manor is terrifyingly underwhelming

The new haunted house series is an adaptation of classic horror story ‘The Turn of the Screw’ in the loosest sense, forfeiting proper scares in favour of obvious techniques and a focus on award-seeking drama. Annabel Nugent lowers her cushion

Monday 12 October 2020 06:32
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I see dead people: (from left) Flora (Amelia Bea Smith), Dani (Victoria Pendretti) and Jamie (Amelia Eve)
I see dead people: (from left) Flora (Amelia Bea Smith), Dani (Victoria Pendretti) and Jamie (Amelia Eve)

The Turn of the Screw is despicable in the best way. Critics have called Henry James’s seminal work of horror fiction “depraved” and “hopelessly evil” and so, naturally, it has spawned countless iterations: operas, ballets, plays, TV series, movies and even an episode of Star Trek: Voyager. It was only a matter of time, then, before Netflix sunk its teeth into James’s ample cash-cow, as the followup to 2018 anthology series The Haunting of Hill House. Although depraved and hopelessly evil, it is not.

The 1898 novella is about an eerie old house in Essex, populated with the appropriate number of ghosts and creepy children (a pair of each). When the book’s narrator, an unnamed young woman, first arrives as the new governess to two cherubic yet tragically orphaned children, everything seems peachy. Of course, it’s not and soon enough she becomes convinced of a malevolent presence in the manor.

The Haunting of Bly Manor plays fast and loose with its source material: creator Mike Flanagan borrows elements from James’s original – spooky house, ominous kids, brokenhearted ghosts – and (over)bakes them into a new-ish story with a lick of sci-fi and some doomed romance. But its complicated narrative and hamfisted attempts to keep up with modern television storytelling mean that it often falls short of real scares.

Shrugging off the bonnet and shawl for acid wash jeans, Dani Clayton (Victoria Pedretti) arrives at Bly Manor in the Eighties as a wide-eyed American and the new au pair to saccharine Flora (Amelie Bea Smith) and creepy Miles (Benjamin Ainsworth’s unsettling performance rivals the little boy in The Omen). Together, they all live in the “great good place” of Bly Manor with conscientious housekeeper Hannah Grose (T’Nia Miller), groundskeeper Jamie (Amelia Eve) and resident chef Owen (Rahul Kohli), with the sort of award-seeking dramatic arcs and scrambled chronology we’ve become accustomed to on the small screen.

The first few episodes of Bly Manor were encouraging. The series does well to set up the premise swiftly, while a growing sense of dread is doled out precisely and relentlessly. Staying true to the form he established in Hill House, Flanagan hides his spectres in shadowy corners and long corridors. Clever camerawork makes for a thrilling game of “terrible ghoul or errant bureau”, while the chronology toggles between present day and flashbacks, each snippet of the past promising another piece in the puzzle.

Trailer for Netflix’s ‘The Haunting of Bly Manor’

Bly Manor is most effective when it relies primarily on atmosphere, as in early scenes with young Flora, who appears to always be looking just past Dani’s shoulder at something no one else seems to see. In this way, the series is characteristic of the haute indie flicks that have crept onto the modern horror landscape (Hereditary and Relic), which do away with classic shock devices in favour of a quietly mounting tension. It’s a captivating technique, but still, there’s a very real danger of the shtick getting old in a 120-minute movie, never mind a series with a total running time of over nine hours.

Netflix has a bad habit of assigning too much time to its shows. Bly Manor suffers the same misfortune. Maybe it’s the reason why Flanagan felt the need to bolster James’s original story with the desirable heft of a weighty drama – but it’s not a risk that pays off. The introduction of new characters like Jamie and Owen, and the insertion of extra plotlines exploring Dani’s backstory, Mrs Grose’s marriage, various love interests and so on, are too many in number to feel meaningful, and so only detract from the terrifying core at the series’ centre – one that becomes less scary (and less interesting) the further and more frequently the camera strays from the manor.

Victoria Pedretti returns to Mike Flanagan’s ‘Haunting’ anthology as Dani Clayton

What’s most frustrating, though, is that in all its cherry-picking of the original novella, Bly Manor has failed to harvest the original’s glossiest, juiciest one: ambiguity. Much of the terror that arises when reading The Turn of the Screw comes from its unreliable narration: are there malevolent spirits haunting this country home or are they the fictitious products of an unravelling mind? The question of the governess’s sanity hangs over the book like a spectre, one which James refused to vanquish. The fact that no one in the book other than the narrator witnesses a ghost traps both her and the reader in a well of terrible isolation that makes up at least half of the story’s intrigue. But no real obscurity is found in Flanagan’s iteration: Dani is sane; the manor’s residents – and most importantly the viewer – rally around her. How boring.

The Haunting of Bly Manor is ultimately a stylish, bingeable and at times genuinely scary show just in time for Halloween. But anyone looking for the same nuance and intensity that makes The Turn of the Screw such a terrifying tale will be disappointed.

‘The Haunting of Bly Manor’ is on Netflix now

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