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Country House

Posted on the 12 April 2024 by Sjhoneywell
Film: The Haunting of Bly Manor
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on various players. Country House

Horror, in general, is a short-form genre. It’s hard to maintain fear for a long period of time in media. As long as we care a little bit about the characters and they are in danger, we’re going to have something at stake in the way the story plays out. There’s a reason, though, that the longest horror movies tend to be anthologies, and a lot of them are 90 minutes or shorter. That makes the idea of a horror miniseries (like American Horror Story) kind of anathema, and it’s one of the reasons I find AHS to be vastly overrated in general. Mike Flanagan seems to have found the formula, though, and The Haunting of Bly Manor is a solid entrant into the genre.

The biggest knock against The Haunting of Bly Manor is that he hasn’t ever matched the power and the horror that he managed from his first mainstream horror miniseries, The Haunting of Hill House. Flanagan also did Midnight Mass, The Fall of the House of Usher, and The Midnight Club. I haven’t seen the latest two of those, but I almost certainly will. While Hill House is his best work (that I’ve seen) in this genre, it’s also the best work anyone has done (that I’ve seen) for a horror miniseries. That this is a step down is no insult; almost anything would be.

The comparison with Hill House is an obvious one, though, and not just because of the similarity of the name. Flanagan’s first foray into the genre expanded on an established classic story—Shirley Jackson’s book of the same name. Bly Manor tackles “The Turn of the Screw” by Henry James, which was made into the classic horror film The Innocents in the ‘60s. Naturally, we’re going to be making some changes and expanding on a number of characters and themes, but still maintaining the basic idea of the story.

Another similarity is that this takes place in what is essentially a cursed house. We’re told that Hill House in that story is “born bad,” but Bly Manor is simply a house that became cursed because of a woman who was done wrong by her husband and sister. Through no real fault of her own, but her own anger, yearning, and sense of loss, the house became a place where those who died on the grounds could not leave the grounds.

This story takes place in the 1980s, although there will be jaunts into the past to gain some sense of the history of the place. A young American named Dani (Victoria Pedretti) takes a job as an au pair for two young children who have been orphaned because of a terrible accident. These kids, Miles (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) and Flora (Amelie Bea Smith) are both troubled, naturally so, but it’s Miles who seems sometimes cruel and far older than his young age. Orbiting the house is their uncle Henry (Henry Thomas), who hires Dani in the first place. The situation is unusual also because the previous au pair (Tahirah Sharif) committed suicide on the grounds.

Dani will be far from alone, though. Also at the house are the gardener, Jamie (Amelia Eve), the house keeper Hannah (T’Nia Miller), and the cook, Owen (Rahul Kohli). Each of these people are dealing with their own grief—Hannah’s husband has left her and Owen’s mother is dealing with dementia. But there is also a specter hanging over the house in the form of Peter Quint (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), Henry’s former assistant, a known charlatan, and the lover of Rebecca, the au pair who killed herself. Quint has possibly been seen on the grounds as well, and is considered a danger.

While Bly Manor doesn’t have the narrative weight of Hill House, it does a lot of things right. It’s much slower to get started, but it does manage to provide some legitimate creeps all the way through. Frequently, we’ll be watching something happen in the foreground of a scene only to notice someone in the background in shadow, moving slowly but gone unnoticed by everyone else. There’s a real sense of dread in many of the scenes that is surprisingly effective.

It's also cast incredibly well. Flanagan clearly has favorites he likes to work with. Carla Gugino, who starred in Hill House serves as the narrator for this one, and while Henry Thomas is much less evident in this, he was a major player in Hill House as well. Additionally, both Victoria Pedretti and Oliver Jackson-Cohen were major players in Hill House.

It's hard not to like this. The slow burn that lasts for several episodes will certainly bother some people who are much more prone to wanting their horror to come fast and relentless, or who are much more desirous of gore. There’s not a lot of that here. This is about the build of dread, about gaining a sense of a place that has an inescapable gravity that traps people like bugs in amber and keeps them, regardless of their innocence or guilt.

The Haunting of Bly Manor is best watched over time. It’s certainly something that you can binge, but I don’t recommend it. An episode a day, perhaps two, is the best way to have it unfold. Watched over the course of a week to ten days, it seeps in much more effectively, creating its own narrative gravity the way the house does in the story.

I’ll get to Flanagan’s other work as the year progresses. He’s earned it.

Why to watch The Haunting of Bly Manor: It expands extremely well on the source material.
Why not to watch: It’s a step down from The Haunting of Hill House.

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