A season-long adaptation of Henry James’ iconic 1898 novella “The Turning of the Screw,” Mike Flanagan’s “The Haunting of Bly Manor” puts the horror filmmaker’s excellent direction and skillful adaptation style on full display for Netflix subscribers.
A modernized take on the classic horror tale, “Bly Manor” is the nine episode follow-up to 2018’s “The Haunting of Hill House,” season one of Flanagan’s “The Haunting” anthology series for Netflix. While it’s not the horrifying visual spectacle the first season was, it’s a major achievement in its own right.
Released Oct. 9, Flanagan’s adaptation keeps the same plot synopsis, characters and setting as James’ novella, but modernizes the whole affair. The show follows Dani Clayton (Victoria Pedretti) as she takes the job of live-in au pair to two recently orphaned children who stay at a country estate known as Bly Manor.
Just as he did with the Stephen King novels “Gerald’s Game” and “Doctor Sleep,” Flanagan has fleshed out the narrative, updated the story’s time period and assembled a diverse cast of immensely talented actors to put his vision on screen.
Pedretti is phenomenally expressive as Clayton, a confident young American with lofty ambitions and some mysterious, but very good, reasons to seek a quiet life in the British countryside. As soon as she arrives at Bly Manor, Clayton is greeted by the children: Flora (Amelie Bea Smith) and Miles (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) Wingrave.
Pedretti is the show’s lead, but Smith and Ainsworth might give the most memorable performances of the impressive ensemble. Flora and Miles are preternaturally polite and prone to fits of wholly concerning behavior, but they’re also good kids who are struggling to cope in a confusing, devastating time. It’s a testament to both children’s performances that this balance is conveyed so well.
Miles is a proper spoiled British lad, and Ainsworth is clearly having a blast alternating between the tantrums of a 10-year-old and the sinister charm of whatever evil Miles has absorbed from Bly Manor.
Flora is a less complex character — she’s younger, more a passenger of the narrative than a driver — but Smith is no less impressive. Dolls and superstitions might be silly to an adult, but they aren’t to a small child, and as Flora, Smith is as self-assured and particular about her playthings as any real kid I’ve encountered.
Rounding out the house’s staff (and the show’s main recurring cast) are Owen (Rahul Kohli), who’s the cook, Hannah Grosse (T’Nia Miller), the housekeeper, and the gardener, Jamie (Amelia Eve).
Where the anthology’s first season examines a biological family, the second season shows the complicated family dynamic that arises in a house with a full-time staff. Issues of class, sexual preference and power balance in a household fill the show’s margins, a result of Flanagan’s elegant blending of today’s societal ills with the ones James tackled in his original text.
There’s a remarkable humanity to the narrative’s structure, and as the house adapts to their new au pair, the character’s relationships change and evolve in a way that’s both entirely realistic and brand new to Flanagan’s rendition of the story. By the show’s end, the audience sees each character in a completely new light, an achievement many dramas fall short of.
But make no mistake — as the title indicates, this is a horror story through-and-through. It’s just not the kind of horror audiences may have grown used to by now. Strictly sticking to the original novella’s classification as gothic horror, the show is fixated on the human condition and the terror it produces.
Relatable human experiences inform the ghostly scares Flanagan is interested in — car crashes, coming out to someone who doesn’t accept it, watching a loved one’s memories fade. Loss is at the show’s core, and Flanagan has a rare ability to handle his characters tenderly without undercutting the horrific nature of their experiences.
Though Flanagan is only credited with writing and directing this season’s first episode, he’s also the creator, and his fingerprints are all over the entire season. Despite featuring directing turns from recognizable horror filmmakers like Ciarán Foy (“Sinister 2,” “Eli”), Axelle Carolyn (“Chilling Adventures of Sabrina,” “Tales of Halloween: Grim Grinning Ghost”) and E.L. Katz (“Cheap Thrills,” “Channel Zero: The Dream Door”), the show ultimately looks and feels like a Flanagan product.
If there’s a complaint to be leveled at the show, it’s that the sheer quantity of material — a necessity given the series’ episodic format for each season — is distributed unevenly throughout each episode. The result is a trade-off — the episodes are rarely repetitive, and at times the show’s ability to convey an enormous amount of information in a single 40-minute episode is masterful, but there are a couple dud episodes and stretches of others that lag for no apparent reason.
Minor pacing issues aside, this season of TV is a modern oddity which should be treasured. Recently, a fair amount of debate has gone on about what qualifies a movie, book or TV show as horror, and Flanagan’s latest will no doubt face the same consternation. Disregard this.
Horror is a genre, but more importantly, it’s a state of being, a part of life, the same way that joy, love, sorrow and anger are. The best horror fiction attempts to understand people by examining the fears, doubts and worries they carry with them. “The Haunting of Bly Manor” treats its characters like people, and it deserves to be regarded alongside the best of horror fiction.
“The Haunting of Bly Manor,” rated TV-MA, is now available to stream on Netflix.