‘The Haunting of Bly Manor’ review: Why Ghost Stories should be Sad

In another creepy house with a disturbing past, lost souls find themselves staked by spectres. Dani Clayton (Victoria Pedretti) is the new nanny running from a tragic romance. She takes a job in Bly Manor where the children are acting strangely and the other staff seem to be hiding something. Tensions build and tragic backstories accumulate until Dani is presented with a terrible choice that may free or damn the residents of the great old place.

The Haunting of Bly Manor is an adaptation of The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, previously adapted by Jack Clayton as The Innocents. Writer-director Mike Flannigan and crew are able to create something as chilling and affecting as the source material and previous film, whilst fitting comfortably within Flannigan’s oeuvre of thoughtful and melancholy horror stories.

Mike Flannigan is very interested in ghosts as a manifestation of time. His television shows and films often take place over several decades and are very effective in creating a morose feeling of physical distance between moments. Characters are untethered and drift in and out of memories inside of Bly Manor. The effect is not cathartic, but cruel. The closer the past is physically, the further it is emotionally. The final episode of the series is emotionally intense. The rules of the house and the supernatural world create an inescapable situation for our heroes that clearly resembles the tragedy of illness and the inevitability of death triumphing over love.

Ghost stories should be sad. Serial killers and beasts are things of flesh and blood and so can be overcome, escaped and defeated. Ghosts cannot be touched, nor overcome, nor escaped.  In most ghost stories, Ghosts can only be accepted or encouraged to move on. The very concept of a spirit surviving the death of it’s body only to live on intangibly, unable to communicate with its loved ones and their lives continue without them, is deeply morose and few are better at wringing tears from the concept than Flannigan.

This drama is made all the more poignant by the superb production. The spooky, wintry aesthetic is suitably distinct from the atmospheric photography of The Innocents.  Pedretti leads a fantastic cast who bring the characters to joyful and complex life. Each episode is a nearly self-contained drama about accepting and riling against death but as a whole it is a masterful and multifaceted study of loss.

Bly manor is not as effective a horror series as Hill House. It lacks the big scares and memorable jumps of that earlier show and is far more interested in it’s ghouls as human characters than sources of fear. But it is very successful in continuing and expanding upon Finnigan’s exploration of memory and time as a physical distance. In fact this could be his definitive work. It’s a show about living with the dead and with death and trying to find happiness amongst immense stone walls.

Five stars

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *