Mike Flanagan seems to have arrived on cue to demonstrate that there’s life in old horror tropes. Following up his Shirley Jackson riff on The Haunting of Hill House, Flanagan is serving old wine in new bottles with his Netflix follow-up, perhaps, but he makes something so fresh and original, it would be churlish to complain. The Haunting of Bly Manor reaches back to Henry James and The Turn of the Screw, a classic tale recently bodged horrendously in The Turning, but Flanagan navigates the expected haunted-house clichés with skill, turning them inside out. In the way that Hill House links to Robert Wise’s The Haunting for inspiration, this one reaches back to Jack Clayton’s The Innocents, but again, Flanagan makes the material very much his own by using the original text as a jumping off point…
It was one of the few weaknesses of Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep adaptation that it revealed too much of the mystery of The Shining. That’s not a problem here, since there’s so many ambiguities to play with and develop, and Flanagan makes sure he has all the answers. Dani the nanny (Victoria Pedretti) is a US import to the UK in the mid-80’s, seeking her career-reboot at Bly Manor. The children behave strangely, the staff all seem to be covering something up, the fate of the previous nanny is unknown. Who was Peter Quint (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) and what became of him? What was Quint’s relationship to Mrs Jessell (Tahirah Sharif), and where is she now? And what is the origin of the malevolent spectral presence that haunts Bly Manor, and why does it exert such power over housekeeper Mrs Grosse (T’Nia Miller) and the other staff?
So many questions, but Flanagan methodically works through them, taking single lines from the texts and creating hugely imaginative leaps forward to explain the muddy footprints in the manor corridors; indeed, there’s an entire black and white episode set centuries back that explains how the malevolent entity was created. While some of the accents can be faulted, and the constant emphasis on the dream-scapes that the characters inhabit is confusing at times, The Haunting of Bly Manor is a great bit of home entertainment, short on jump scares but long on character and melancholy.
A love story and a ghost story may well be one and the same; Flanagan creates a modern love story to classic ghost stories, and while thrill-seekers may be disappointed, this is arguably the most inventive take on James’s story to date.