The Haunting of Hill House (2018) was, in my humble opinion, a televisual masterpiece. Balancing the perfect blend of scares, compelling story, and strong character development. As a self-confessed fan of pretty much all that writer/director Mike Flanagan puts out, it was everything I hoped it would be.
It was for this reason that I found myself more than a little excited that a second season had been given the GreenLight. It was announced last year that season two was not going to be a sequel to Hill House. I didn’t mind. It didn’t need one. The story had a perfect start, middle and end. Season two was to be based on a different book. The book in question, being The Turn of the Screw by Henry James.
In many ways, ‘The Haunting of’ series uses a similar format to American Horror Story. Different season = different story. It's like an AHS for grown-ups. A series created by someone who actually understands horror. AHS has none of that understanding. It's flashy, pretentious nonsense. As you might be able to tell, I hate American Horror Story with a fiery passion.
Many of the actors from Hill House and other Flanagan collaborations return for the second season, including Henry Thomas, Kate Siegel, Oliver Jackson-Cohen and Victoria Pedretti. Along for the ride are T’Nia Miller (fantastic as Hannah Grose), Rahul Kohli (iZombie) and Amelie Bea Smith and Benjamin Evan Ainsworth as creepy kids, Flora and Miles. I should add that the child actors are superb in their roles. At first, I thought I would quickly tire of Flora’s catchphrase, however, that wasn’t the case at all. It actually became almost endearing. I must be growing soft in my advanced years.
Victoria Pedretti plays Dani Clayton, an American schoolteacher who travels to England and winds up employed as an au pair to Flora and Miles. The children’s Uncle, Henry Wingrave is not the most hands-on of parental figures, preferring to stay in London and leave the care of the kids and the grand, stately home that they live in, in the hands of the staff of Bly.
Dani arrives at the Manor already haunted by her past and the freaky spectre with the glowing eyes that appears whenever she encounters a mirror or lets her guard down for a moment.
Meanwhile, Bly Manor plays host to a few ghosts of its own. A creepy kid with no face, who only Flora can see, and the Lady in the Lake, who aimlessly wanders the Manor halls late at night. Her story becomes more important as the series plays out. Especially in episode eight, which happens to be my favourite of the series.
As Dani tries to lay her ghosts to rest and find comfort in her newfound family, she quickly learns that she isn’t alone in her haunting. Bly Manor has a past that holds its 'present' in a tight, terrifying grip.
As excited as I was, I had to wait a couple of days before diving into Bly so that I could finish season two of The Boys, over on Amazon. I’m old and my brain couldn’t handle binge-watching two shows at once. By the time I got around to watching Bly, the reviews had already started pouring in. I did my best to avoid spoilers, but from the review headlines alone, I could see that they were a mixed bag. Some seemed to love it, while others hated it.
The most common complaint seemed to be that people didn’t find it as scary as Hill House. I guess, in many ways, those reviews are accurate. Bly Manor isn’t as outright scary as Hill House. That’s not to say there aren’t any chilling moments. There are. They just don’t come as thick and fast as they did in the previous season, and I, personally, feel that this works in Bly’s favour.
Bly Manor is a slow burn. It takes a good few episodes for the show to build momentum, and I’m all for it if the reward for my patience is a satisfying pay-off. Taking the time to build characters and have the audience care for them, sympathise with them and eventually feel the emotional impact of their fate is far better than a 'wham, bam', here's another jump scare approach. Again, I look to you AHS.
The scares are no constant and unrelenting. Things don’t continually leap out at the camera, hoping to induce heart attacks every three seconds. Instead, it opts for a more subtle approach. Every corner of the frame needs to be watched. Every shadow needs to be scrutinised, just in case you miss something, lurking. The sense of dread comes naturally. It never feels forced. And when those scares do come, they are all the more shocking for having made you wait.
Having had a little time to reflect on the show before writing this review, it allowed me to weigh up exactly how I feel about it. In doing so, I can confidently say that The Haunting of Bly Manor is probably my favourite thing that Flanagan and Co have created. It’s a beautiful piece of storytelling. Everything about it is gorgeous, from the performances of the cast, to the writing, to the cinematography. Hill House will always hold a special place in my heart, but it’s Bly Manor that I truly believe to be Flanagan’s masterpiece.
Okay, so it’s not a straight-up horror story. It works better if viewed as a gothic romance. I’m perfectly ok with that. Horror doesn’t have to be all about some lunatic running at the screen with a chainsaw. The reality of horror is that it appears when least expected to disrupt the normal. If everything was horrifying, then nothing would be.
Bly Manor succeeds in getting under your skin if you let it. And not just in a creepy sense. This is how a ghost story should be told. We are all haunted in some way. Our past is what shapes us, and not all of it is positive. We all have our ghosts that follow us wherever we go. It’s the moments of beauty that keep us going. Keep us pushing on through the dark. Bly Manor, much like life, can be dark and scary, but fundamentally it’s a unique, beautiful experience.
The Haunting of Bly manor is available to stream on Netflix, now.