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The Haunting of Bly Manor review: A gothic horror story with plenty of heart

The Haunting of Bly Manor | Teaser Trailer | Netflix

In 2018, The Haunting of Hill House became a Halloween-season hit for Netflix with its generation-spanning tale of a family tormented by supernatural entities in a haunted mansion. The 10-episode series was so positively received that Netflix announced a follow-up project a few months later. Now, The Haunting of Bly Manor is set to offer yet another modern reimagining of a classic gothic horror story.

The Haunting of Bly Manor premieres October 9 on Netflix, and although it feels similar to Hill House in how its story unfolds (and even shares several cast members with its predecessor), Bly Manor still offers plenty of potent scares and narrative twists to keep you guessing while wrapping its story in a fresh set of themes.

Series creator and co-producer Mike Flanagan returns behind the camera for The Haunting of Bly Manor, which follows an American woman who agrees to look after a British businessman’s niece and nephew at the family’s country estate. Hill House actress Victoria Pedretti portrays Dani Clayton, the young governess whose experience at the family’s seemingly idyllic summer home takes a terrifying turn when the children begin acting strangely and supernatural entities make their presence known.

Back to the past

Although The Haunting of Bly Manor is thematically different from Hill House, much of the story structure and framing of the series will feel familiar to fans of the latter, for better or worse.

Flanagan has an affinity for toying with timelines and making heavy use of flashbacks to keep the audience uncertain of how key events connect in each character’s history and the overarching story. That narrative technique was put to good use in The Haunting of Hill House, which generated many of its biggest revelations from the sudden convergence of the characters’ individual story arcs. That trend continues with Bly Manor, which similarly devotes large spans of its story — in some cases, entire episodes — to a character’s history and perspective on the events so far, then brings that narrative detour back into the primary story arc for a revelatory aha moment.

Falling back on that storytelling device isn’t necessarily a negative for Bly Manor, as anyone familiar with Flanagan’s past work — particularly Hill House — will enter the series with a level of comfort that lets you spend more time absorbing what’s happening on the screen instead of struggling to make sense of it.

The storytelling structure of The Haunting of Bly Manor isn’t the only element it shares with Hill House, either. One of the aspects of the Hill House that gave it a hefty dose of second-viewing appeal was Flanagan’s knack for inserting subtle elements in scenes that foreshadow events to come or simply reward eagle-eyed viewers. The popularity of Hill House led to countless articles about the unique ghosts that appeared in particular scenes but likely went unnoticed, and Bly Manor continues to test your attentiveness to what’s going on in the background of every scene.

These qualities — along with the presence of several Hill House cast members — occasionally make Bly Manor feel a little too familiar, but fortunately, the impressive performances from the cast and some significant thematic differences help set the new series apart from its predecessor.

Horror with heart

Pedretti is particularly entertaining as the former schoolteacher who arrives at the manor with some serious baggage of her own, only to find herself in the middle of a far more sinister ordeal. Her character’s arc has her pivoting between moments of heart-wrenching helplessness and inspiring strength, and she makes both extremes seem equally plausible in her portrayal of a woman struggling to be comfortable in her own skin.

T’Nia Miller and Rahul Kohli also deliver memorable performances as the longtime housekeeper and cook at the estate, respectively. Both actors dive deep into their characters and turn roles that could have easily been disposable in the story into all-too-human figures you become increasingly invested in as the terrifying story unfolds.

Young actors Benjamin Evan Ainsworth and Amelie Smith perform well beyond their years as siblings Miles and Flora Wingrave, portraying their characters with just enough nuance to keep the level of mystery around their experiences high throughout the series.

Praiseworthy performances aside, it’s the story’s themes that most differentiate Bly Manor from Hill House in the end.

Sentimental scares

Where The Haunting of Hill House used the gothic horror genre to explore the ways addiction, trauma, and abuse can drive wedges into a family and ripple outward for generations, The Haunting of Bly Manor is, at its heart, a story about the power of love and memory to transcend our mortal lives.

Hill House famously (or perhaps infamously) had audiences alternating between screaming and crying with its surprisingly resonant emotional depth, and Bly Manor accomplishes a similar feat. The individual love stories at the core of each character’s arc in Bly Manor are authentic and powerful, making the entire series feel surprisingly hopeful rather than bleak. That’s not an easy sentiment to pull off in a gothic horror tale, and it’s a credit to Flanagan’s vision for the series and its talented cast that Bly Manor is able to strike that tricky tone so well.

Gothic horror has always been about more than just the scares, and with both The Haunting of Hill House and The Haunting of Bly Manor, Flanagan has proven himself to be not only aware of that fact, but comfortable with all of the nuance and potential the genre offers. In doing so, he’s also brought the works of authors Shirley Jackson and Henry James back into the public eye — another commendable accomplishment — and offered yet another reminder that the horror genre really is timeless.

All nine episodes of The Haunting of Bly Manor premiere October 9 on Netflix.

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