Billed as a “gothic romance” (but advertised as a horror series), The Haunting of Bly Manor debuted last week on Netflix and appeared quickly on top of Netflix’s Top 10 list. Following the success of the decent The Haunting of Hill House series, most figured some kind of sequel series would be in the works. Instead of a direct sequel, Mike Flanagan instead delivers an anthology series much more rooted in similar core design but taking a significantly different artistic direction. These differences didn’t amount to improving the quality of the series, both in the short and long term, giving us an ultimately serviceable but largely mediocre end result.
As a warning, this review will contain spoilers, as it’s not possible to cite my grievances with even the technical elements without specifying at least a few certain scenes that reveal key plot points.
This particular mini-series has plenty of good moments. In fact, virtually every actor does a great job portraying their characters, especially towards the ending when many of them are in desperation, fear, and immense sadness. Basically, every character gets a designated episode for themselves alongside the central 1987 plotline, typically beginning and/or ending with a segue way into the 1987 plot while a majority of the episode runtime deals with that particular character’s history. This is where the writing either excels or stumbles magnificently.
See, many of the backstories drag on far longer than ever necessary, definitely holding the viewer’s hand so hard to ensure you are unable to walk away with any manner of ambiguity. Plot points themselves would only not be familiar to you if you’ve never watched horror movies before, such as the character of Hannah being dead the whole time (which was a plot point that only surprised me by when it was she died, and still contains multiple plot holes such as how she physically is able to interact with objects when no other ghost can do so, etc.) but there are still great points, particularly where the ghost characters end up “dreamhopping” and repeating certain events in their lives, with a commentary as to why they’re repeating these certain events. Hannah’s story does this the most, alongside the episode revolving around Rebecca and Peter, and the connections are interesting and their own repetition powers some great moments. That being said, many other characters also face a lot of repetition in their own stories, and it’s those plots that could easily have been trimmed down without losing their powerful moments.
This is a series where every positive I can give it is immediately weighed down by a negative of the same magnitude. One of my potentially favorite moments would be in episode 4, when Dani’s story is being explored as to why she sees the ghost of a man with glasses. In a scene that was crafted nearly perfectly, when she realizes her sexual orientation and fears greatly about hurting her fiance, she declares their relationship over and their wedding needs to be called off, that she cannot handle hurting him, nor pretending to be what she is not. Their argument continues in their parked car, and what should have been a moment of intense tragedy became one of immense irritation for me, personally. Her fiance becomes frustrated and leaves the car, when Dani tries to get him to come back, and in a split second, a delivery truck barrels into him and the door, killing him. My problem, is that there was no buildup of any kind- no engine noise, no noise of traffic, no horn being honked, no nothing. It would have added so much to this one scene to have some form of buildup rather than reduce its emotional impact to a jump scare. It would have even made sense for him to ignore the sound of an oncoming truck, as he was belligerent and felt a desperate need to just get out of the environment he was in. It enraged me that this series reduced such a potentially captivating personal moment to a lowly jump scare, and it accurately reflects how many other elements frustrate me in equal measures throughout the duration of this 8+ hour run time.
In truth, there are many things I wanted desperately to like about this series. After all, it seems to borrow a multitude of plot points and themes from one of my more favorite gothic romances, Crimson Peak. One of the lines that the Bride says in the last episode reflects this accurately, that the Narrator incorrectly stated her story was a “ghost story” when it was really a “love story”- the same is equally true about Crimson Peak. But in multiple parts, this entire mini-series feels like a longer yet more reductionist version of that film. Had there been less repetition, less hand-holding, but more emotionally charged and technically competent moments, it would have been as good as Netflix recommendations said it would be. Unfortunately, the borrowed elements, the reliance on modern horror tropes, the repetition- all of it detracts from what could have been a well-executed love story with ghosts in it. This series isn’t without its merits, and it’s a shame that so much it does strips my enjoyment away from it. Equal parts enjoyment with equal parts frustration has me giving this series a 5 out of 10.