james debate
james debate

Sunday 22 November 2020

Created by Mike Flanagan (based on the works of Henry James)
Network Netflix
Starring Victoria Pedretti, Olivier Jackson-Cohen, Amelia Eve, T'Nia Miller
Genre Supernatural
Running Time 45-65 minutes

netflix haunting of hill house bly manor mike flanagan best new show 2020
I had high expectations coming into this. Creator Mike Flanagan is establishing himself as one of the leading names in horror through a growing filmography of spooky hits that include the likes of Oculus, Hush, and Ouija. The first season of his The Haunting anthology series, The Haunting of Hill House, has so far been his crowning achievement: just the right amount of scary with a level of production quality and artistic ambition far beyond its peers - one episode is audaciously filmed as (seemingly) a single camera shot, while another "The Bent-Neck Lady" remains some of the finest horror story telling of the past thirty years. In particular, I was impressed by the subtle attention to detail of the series - the first season famously would do things like change the position and expressions of statues in between camera shots and hide ghostly figures in plain sight without drawing attention to them. Subtle and barely perceptible details that are nevertheless noticeable enough to create a general sense of unease. The Haunting of Hill House earned a runner-up place in the end of year Debbie Awards for best new TV series.

The Haunting of Bly Manor is the second season of this series. Same actors, but completely different characters, setting and source material. Whereas Hill House was based on the 1959 novel of the same name by Shirley Jackson, Bly Manor is based on numerous works of 19th Century author Henry James, most notably 1898's The Turn of the Screw. But while this is ostensibly a continuation of Flanagan's Haunting anthology, viewers would do well to temper their expectations. This is in no way The Haunting of Hill House 2.

Without wanting to spoil too much, the setting is this: a young au pair arrives at the country estate of Bly to look after its two young children who have lost both their parents to tragedy. The manor is populated by a team of full time staff and various other entities, but as the au pair begins to settle in to her new life she finds herself haunted by the pain of a past romance. To be honest I'm not even sure I would classify this as a horror series (I have gone with the genre "supernatural" instead). Sure, there are ghosts, but for the most part the ghosts aren't anything to cause fright. In Bly Manor, ghosts are more like sad memories than malevolent entities. A reminder of lost loves and unspeakable wrongs, rather than Hill House's cruel tricksters. That's not to say that the show lacks for scares or chilling imagery, but these moments are used more sparingly and do not take the primary focus of the series in the way that was the case with Hill House.

Bly Manor is essentially a gothic romance where the true evils reside in the base instincts of man and the unjust machinations of society. The spooks and ghouls, such that they are, are more tragic figures to be pitied than feared, and the main drivers of conflict lie in the weight of personal duty and familial obligations. It all makes for an impressively complex and psychological tale, albeit a slow burning one that never feels fully formed until its final moments.

While this may be a very different type of show, the quality is still generally high. Bly Manor is well made, with gorgeous visual and audio and a slick production (and yes the hidden ghosts return, although to a much lesser extent). The filmmaking in general comes off as a bit less artful and ambitious than its predecessor, which is perhaps not surprising with Flanagan largely stepping back from directorial duties, but this is still a very competently composed series. I will say that the narrative feels a bit weaker than Hill House, perhaps due in part to its slow-burning nature. The story itself is not bad, but the way it unwinds over some ten hours feels less focused, less tight, and a bit more self-indulgent. It almost feels as if they had to stretch it out in order to fill Netflix's ten hour runtime request. Ultimately it does all come together in a satisfying, if emotionally manipulative, ending, but I can't help but feel that they could have been more disciplined in editing and cut out a fair bit of the repetition in getting us there.

I have to commend the creators of this series for being willing to try something so completely different to what worked in the first season. Television is an industry where fans and critics alike like to be able to neatly categorise everything, and from its first season The Haunting was neatly categorised as horror. But as Bly Manor reminds us, that word "haunting" can have many different meanings. If the first season gave us a haunting of nasty thrills and chills, Bly Manor gives us a haunting of a more lingering and tragic nature. It is nevertheless a very bold move to switch up genres to such an extent, one that risks alienating an existing fanbase. But the payoff is that The Haunting is now much more than just a genre pastiche. This is a vehicle capable of exploring any creative niche its creator so chooses. I, for one, am excited to see where he takes us next.

Bly Manor is good, but not as good as Hill House. Viewers coming into this series expecting more of the same will probably be disappointed - this is more Patrick Swayze's Ghost than Wes Craven after all. But those who can come into this with an open mind will find a polished and strangely nostalgic haunting of a different nature.

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