Roush Review: A New 'Haunting' (of 'Bly Manor'), Same Old Spooks
A funny thing about ghosts: The more you flesh them out, the less haunting they become.
One reason I've never forgotten the 1961 film The Innocents, based on Henry James' The Turn of the Screw, is that even when it's over, you're not sure if the spooky spirits are real or mere manifestations of a governess' fevered imagination. No such ambiguity troubles The Haunting of Bly Manor, the second revisionist retelling of a classic ghost story by creator and showrunner Mike Flanagan (The Haunting of Hill House).
The screws turn very slowly, though elegantly and creepily, in this mashup of James' supernatural oeuvre. By the time you’ve made it through nine long but atmospheric hours of Netflix bloat, you'll be on a first-name basis with all of the specters who go "boo" in the night through the Gothic corridors of Bly Manor.
"It's not exactly short," warns the season's narrator (identity and actor both major spoilers) as the story begins, and that's no joke. Time may not fly, but it most definitely blurs in a surreal swirl of forbidden passions and romantic tragedy reaching back from the 17th century to the story's 1987 setting.
"What is the catch?" wonders spunky but, yes, haunted Dani (Hill House's Victoria Pedretti), a fourth-grade teacher from America who takes the position of au pair to two young orphans at a remote British country estate. It doesn't take long for her to realize that something's amiss with her morbid charges: the solemn and unnervingly mature Miles and "perfectly splendid" adorable Flora (the excellent Benjamin Evan Ainsworth and Amelie Bea Smith), who have a habit of gazing into the distance, seeing things they oughtn't. Sometimes it happens in broad daylight, which is somehow even scarier for seeming so real.
Bly Manor is a sinister smorgasbord of all things spine-tingling: muddy footprints from nowhere, a macabre dollhouse and self-starting music box, faceless ghouls, mysterious phone calls, shocking visions that invariably make you jump. As a Halloween curtain-raiser, this Haunting is often a blast, even if I wish the enigmatic storyteller had sustained a bit more mystery.
As in Hill House, several of whose actors appear in new roles, most episodes zero in on the backstories of individual characters, including the children's tormented and remote Uncle Henry (Henry Thomas with a starchy accent); his charming but scheming assistant, Peter Quint (Oliver Jackson-Cohen); the devout and protective housekeeper, Mrs. Grose (T'Nia Miller); and Dani's doomed predecessor, Miss Jessel (Tahirah Sharif).
Their fates, whether living or dead, intertwine as the story builds to a climax that would be even more frightening if the shadows had stayed just a little darker.
The Haunting of Bly Manor, Season Premiere, Friday, October 9, Netflix