Some Thoughts on “The Haunting of Bly Manor”

Photo Courtesy of Netflix

First, let me apologize for not updating this blog as much as I used to. The sudden shift to teaching virtually has consumed a lot of my time over the last several months. Additionally, I’ve been writing a lot of reviews for HorrOrigins and Signal Horizon Magazine when I can spare a moment, so that’s kept me busy. That said, I’d like to get back to updating this blog as regularly as I can!

With theaters still shut down for the most part, or limited to retro films, streaming services are the only option for new content. With most of 2020’s bigger horror productions, including Halloween Kills and Candyman, pushed back to at least 2021, that’s given more attention to the already highly anticipated “The Haunting of Bly Manor,” Netflix’s 9-episode take on Henry James’ Gothic ghost stories, especially his novella The Turn of the Screw.

After finishing “Bly Manor” a few days ago, I’m still thinking about it, and I’m still undecided regarding how I feel about it as a whole. I thought Mike Flanagan’s reimagining of Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House was quite strong. The fifth and sixth episodes specifically were some of the best examples of horror on the small screen that I’ve ever seen. The bent-neck lady was terrifying, and Flanagan did an excellent job diverging a bit from Jackson’s narrative, while still keeping most of her key ideas and themes in tact.

“Bly Manor,” however, is short on scares, at least compared to “Hill House.” Instead, the series is more of a Gothic Romance. The basic, and I mean VERY basic plot of The Turn of the Screw is introduced in the first episode. A young American, Dani Clayton (Victoria Pedretti), takes a job as a governess at Bly Manor, where she keeps watch over young Miles (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) and Flora (Amelie Bea Smith). The first few episodes explore Clayton’s trauma, specifically the tragic death of her boyfriend, thus the reason she fled the states and takes the job at the British estate. Yet, she can’t escape the past, and her boyfriend appears to her as a ghost with shiny golden glasses, to boot.

The kids are one of the highlights of the series, nearly matching what James penned. Miles is both devious and charming. Flora runs around saying “perfectly splendid,” as if she’s practicing to be a 19th Century aristocrat. Though the series takes place in the 1980s, it very much feels like a 19th Century Gothic tale, due largely to Maxime Alexandre and James Kniest’s cinematography. Fog rolls off the pond near the castle-like estate. Night time shots create a sense of foreboding. Darkened corridors and long hallways feel menacing.

Photo Courtesy of Netflix

Yet, the ghosts in “Bly Manor” just aren’t that scary. The two main spirits featured in The Turn of the Screw, Peter Quint, played by Oliver Jackson-Cohen, and Miss Jessel, played by Tahirah Sharif, aren’t very threatening. Quint is abusive in a totally different way in “Bly Manor,” but he’s never…. that terrifying. Quint is a violent drunk in the novella. When Miss Clayton sees his ghost throughout the estate, he’s horrifying. The recounting of his death is also hair-raising. With “Bly Manor,” even the scenes directly adapted from James’ work, like an image of Quint’s face in a mirror or window, just aren’t that spooky.

Additionally, “Bly Manor” adds a storyline about possession (I think?) and time skipping that just don’t work quite well. “Hill House” toyed with a non-linear timeline in regards to ghosts, but it worked better in that series. In “Bly Manor,” it’s rather confusing. There is also a brief storyline about Miles and Flora’s uncle, Henry Wingrave (Henry Thomas), and his devious double. But that’s equally confounding..

All of that said, the eighth episode is a fantastic ghost story that provides context and background for the Lady in the Lake, a chilling spectral presence who haunts the residents at Bly. This episode is adapted from James’ story “The Romance of Old Clothes.” Once upon a time, the Lady in the Lake wasn’t faceless and water-logged. She was Viola, a wealthy woman with extravagant taste. Eventually, she marries, but she’s betrayed by her sister, Perdita (Daniela Dib), who moves in on her hubby when Viola falls ill. Viola is played by Kate Siegel, Flanagan’s wife who also played Theodora in “Hill House.” Siegel’s entrance to “Bly Manor” comes near the end of the series, but it’s worth the wait. The single episode contains nearly every trope of Gothic literature, including family betrayal, an ugly history that haunts the present, a failing English manor descending into financial ruin, and a vengeful ghost. It also sets up the finale quite well.

Overall, I need a few days to think about “Bly Manor” some more. Right now, the images and the cinematography stick with me most, especially shots of the foggy pond at night. But the ambiguity of James’ novella and some of its most terrifying scenes seem lost in this recent adaptation. There’s commentary about how ghosts and memories fade with time, hence the faceless Lady in the Lake. I’m afraid “Bly Manor” has that potential. I’m unsure what I’ll remember of the series months from now. I don’t know if this will stay with me the way “Hill House” did, but that’s okay. At least a 19th Century ghost story lives on for modern audiences.

If you want to check out another adaptation of The Turn of the Screw, I highly recommend The Innocents (1961).

Review: Ghost Stories (2018)

Ghost Stories, written and directed by Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman, is a British anthology horror film based on their stage production, but the narrative outside of the three tales is the real highlight. The film poses questions about how society views those who claim to have supernatural experiences and why we sometimes turn to the belief in the paranormal while grieving. In questioning reality, the film makes the statement, the brain sees what it wants to see.

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The film’s storyteller, so to speak, is the pompous Professor Goodman (Andy Nyman), who hosts a show called “Psychic Cheats” and discounts stories of the supernatural. After exposing a psychic as a fake, Goodman is summoned by his idol, reformed debunker Charles Cameron (Leonard Byrne), who hands him three case files and urges him to reconsider his world view.

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Professor Goodman (Andy Wyman)

Accepting the offer, Goodman first interviews Tony (Paul Whitehouse), a former night watchman of an asylum who is haunted by what he saw one shift. This first story is a slow burn, one that relies on elements of a traditional ghost story, including late night bumps and sounds, shadows, and a gradual build-up to Tony’s encounter of a creepy ghost girl.

Tony’s character is one of the most interesting. In the story’s wrap-around, he expresses disdain towards Goodman and mocks his professor title. He also mentions that he’s been jobless, due to immigration, and eventually, he confesses that he’s suffered personal tragedy. Rather than really listen to Tony, Goodman is quick to discount his experience and blame it on his personal grief and unstable life.

The second story, “Simon Rifkind,” is similar to the first tale, meaning that it takes its time building to its final scare. Simon (Alex Lawther) claims to have seen an apparition late one night while driving home from a party. Simon’s performance makes up for the generally weak story, especially when he cries into a crumbled tissue and tells Goodman that he doesn’t want people to think there’s anything wrong with him. The final tale, “Mike Priddle,” is generally subdued and focuses on a rather mild poltergeist that knocks over knick-knacks in Priddle’s (Martin Freeman) home. The story concludes with an unsatisfying jump scare.

The three stories, overall, are mild and it’s the in-between that’s the most interesting, the blurring of reality with the supernatural. After the first tale, Goodman interviews Tony’s priest, who tells him, “How unfashionable it has become to believe in anything other than our personal gains.” This is a personal jab at Goodman who makes a living tearing apart people’s beliefs that can’t be reduced to quantifiable evidence.

The conclusion of the film takes a reality-bending turn, and we’re suddenly thrust into Goodman’s past, presented with a childhood memory of bullies who tormented him and called him “Jew face” before inflicting even worse torment upon another child who they lure into a cave and leave for dead. At its core, Ghost Stories poses questions about reality, while relying on one key element of traditional Gothic literature: the past’s influence on the present. Goodman is haunted by his childhood memory and the boy left for dead in the cave, and as a result, he spends his life denying that the supernatural can be plausible or even that the past can have serious baring on our present actions.

The film’s wrap-around is its real strength, specifically when Goodman’s cocksure reasoning is challenged. The three tales aren’t that scary. Rather, they serve and advance the interspersed, more interesting narrative surrounding Goodman’s beliefs. Unlike other anthology films, such as Creepshow, The ABC’s of Death, and Tales from the Darkside, Ghost Stories makes its storyteller the real focus, and his journey should be considered the fourth tale. It is the most engaging and most substantive aspect of the film.