There's something discombobulating about The Haunting of Bly Manor – everything's just slightly... off. That's not to be disparaging about the new Netflix series, an anthological follow-up to The Haunting of Hill House, but simply a way to summarise the disconcerting feeling that comes over you while watching. There are ghouls around every corner, watching from the darkness and from under the stairs, and each character has some quirk that makes them feel strange and other-worldly.
For starters, the returning actors from Hill House are all playing different characters with wildly different traits. First and foremost, there's Victoria Pedretti as Dani Clayton, an American au pair abroad who's hired by a British gentleman (Henry Thomas) to look after his niece and nephew. The two children are holed up at Bly Manor in the English countryside, a beautiful setting tainted by a terrible past.
Pedretti plays the sweet, straight-talking Dani with more than a whiff of melodrama; one scene – where she gets locked in a closet – quickly turns to some overly dramatic explosions of screaming, while another scene sees her cry-talking to a gardener as her face crumples into a ball. The performance is so at odds with the one seen in Hill House, which helps set the mood of unease that perforates Bly Manor.
See, nothing's quite as it seems. There are ghosts haunting every scene – Dani even brings her own to Bly Manor – yet they're slightly more obvious than the ones lurking in Hill House. Perhaps it's simply because we know to expect them this time around, but the spirits are less shocking and more shlocky here. There's only so many times a mirror-dwelling demon can leave you scared without becoming predictable. That's also a result of showrunner Mike Flanagan not helming every episode – the series is not as neatly put together as Hill House, especially the timelines/flashbacks, which aren't as effectively interwoven.
The story itself is also not as tightly wound. There are plenty of scares to keep you enthralled, but the pacing's not as bracing as the former series, which started with one of the most haunting scenes in television history. The mystery of Hill House was better explored within the opening episodes, which heightened the scares. Here, there's a slower burn and a reliance on Pedretti's Dani to keep us interested as she takes on the dominant point-of-view for the most part. No wonder, then, that Flanagan decided to base this series on various Henry James novels rather than just the short Turn of the Screw.
Yet, it's perhaps slightly unfair to keep comparing this to Hill House. Bly Manor shares similar connective tissues – there are the same slow-creeping wide shots and plenty of jump scares – but the new series is very fun. A strange term, perhaps, to use to describe a show that will haunt you long after the credits roll, but one that's apt for Bly Manor. The scares will have you grabbing your quarantine buddy's hand, but never quite chilling you to the bone. This is prime Saturday night watching material that's gripping because, no matter how many times you watch Dani walking around the haunted building, there's always a tense build-up to a scare that'll have your popcorn covering the living-room floor. As the episodes progress, the intensity increases and a love story also unfurls with an emotional punch and its own strange twist. Ah, there's that uneasiness again – the reason you won't sleep well after watching Bly Manor.
Perhaps the thing that's left me feeling most off-kilter, though, is the show's depiction of England. The series opens in London, I think, but it's an entirely Americanised version of it. Two characters bump into each other in what I presume is meant to be a pub. Yet, it's more New York dive-bar than London gastro. The pint glasses aren't actual pint glasses – or at least don't look like them. Plus, a few too many characters – minus, namely, T'Nia Miller and Rahul Kohli, who are both superb as Bly Manor's housekeeper and cook (though Kohli is underused) – have dodgy accents. I know Flanagan has been to England on at least two occasions for press interviews (I was there!) which makes this all the more haunting.
Luckily, Bly Manor's more than good enough to overcome the pint glass sized error (god, I miss the pub) and horror fans will marvel once more at Flanagan's command of the genre. There's a lot of fun to be had with Bly Manor, which has proven this anthology series has enough power to last many more seasons.
The Haunting of Bly Manor is on Netflix now. If you've watched the series already, the make sure to read our piece on The Haunting of Bly Manor ending explained.