Mike Flanagan’s latest spectacular piece of work follows an American teacher, who after moving away from the US, books a job as an au pair for two orphaned children, moving in to their home to look after them along with the housekeeper, groundskeeper and chef.
The Haunting of Bly Manor is another piece in Mike Flanagan’s incredible portfolio of phenomenal horror films and series’ that continue to exceed expectations. The man has not missed, and this is evident through all 9 episodes here. Where The Haunting of Hill House did have a good blend of horror and emotional storytelling, it still sat firmly in the world of atmospheric horror. Mike has taken a somewhat different and refreshing approach with Bly Manor, where much of the series is focused on building and exploring the relationships, romances and character connections involving the main (and side) characters. In a beautiful twist of tone, Bly Manor is still scary, unnerving and utterly terrifying at times, but it’s also beautiful, heartbreaking and heartwarming – making it sit tightly in this ‘gothic romance’ genre.
The deep and thorough exploration of these characters, their lives and their relationships becomes a driving force for the emotion, the story and the horror. It’s unmistakably mesmerising in how Mike manages to use these subtle, key details about these characters’ lives to make everything that little bit more distressing and unnerving. A number of episodes feature large chunks of time dedicated to further developing these characters and really honing in on the small details about them that allow the audience to really understand what makes them tick. Theres a bunch of very intimate conversations with great dialogue that leads to some stellar character development choices. This balance of character-centric storytelling and horror set-pieces is just that – a balance. It’s perfectly weighted, to where not a single minute feels wasted, with everything building to a crescendo that does not disappoint.
In terms of the story, every moment feels like it’s all leading to something. Nothing feels wasted, with each step of the story being very clearly planned out from the get-go. It’s gripping and engaging the entire way through, with everything from the big-picture and wider mysteries to the smaller character-centric moments having a lasting impact. The level of foreshadowing in this series is one of the most well-executed that I’ve ever witnessed. There are so many small, intricate details, both visually and in the dialogue, that link to future story elements in ways that would make a rewatch so valuable. It leads to clever connections that, once revealed, only make you appreciate the attention to detail put into it. Having written the entire series, and from his previous works, it’s clear that Mike knows how to tell a complete story where every single detail has a meaning and a purpose. The impacts of which, are an incredible narrative that is wholly original in tone and story.
As with Hill House, there are episodes, or large chunks of episodes, dedicated to going into the history of a character or characters to really understand how and why they are the way they are. Specifically, episode 5 is a true masterpiece, a beautifully mesmerising character study of one of the most mysterious characters in the series. It’s a heartwarming, twisting journey through time, space and memories that has a lasting impact as the best and most memorable episode of the season. Speaking of memories, the way Mike uses the concept of memories in regards to the story and the deliverance of some horror elements is remarkably original. It adds a uniquely haunting element to the film that blends the real and the supernatural. There are a number of twists, turns, questions and answers that continue to keep the story fresh and exciting through each and every episode.
The series ends on a high note, encapsulating everything that came before it in a near-perfect way. However, there is one very interesting choice that is made with the penultimate episode, the one that is typically the most explosive or revelatory episode of any season. In a way, it is still a revelatory episode, however it is also a very bold move by Mike to use the episode for the storytelling purposes it does. It’s risky as it can be seen as a break in the pace of the story, putting things on a slight hold right before the final episode. However, it’s yet another brilliant and necessary piece of the story that I feel comes at the perfect moment for what it’s trying to say.
When it comes to the performances, no one picks their actors better than Mike Flanagan. He does bring back some of those he has used before in Carla Gugino, Henry Thomas, Victoria Pedretti, Oliver Jackson-Cohen and Kate Siegel, whilst also bringing in the likes of Rahul Kohli, Amelia Eve and T’Nia Miller. This series largely rides on the back of Victoria Pedretti and her emotionally resonant performance as the the central element of the story. There is not a moment of this series in which she is not absolutely spectacular. She really captures the loving and caring nature of her character and also sells the duress and desperation her character is feeling when things start to go awry. The connection and chemistry that she shares with Rahul Kohli, Amelia Eve and T’Nia Miller really makes allows the adult residents of Bly Manor to shine throughout. Each of the three of them bring something unique to the series. Whether it’s playing into the eerie mysteries at hand, delivering some hits of humour or enhancing the emotional elements, they all prove their worth through incredible acting. I’d love to see much, much more of them.
When it comes to the kids, I’m not sure there’s anyone better to portray these two characters in such a perfectly delicate way than Amelie Bae Smith and Benjamin Evan Ainsworth. Especially when you consider what the two characters are going through in the story, it’s utterly phenomenal the way they both play these roles with such perfection. At so many points through this series I had to stop and think just how good these child actors are. Like Lulu Wilson and McKenna Grace in Hill House, these two bring so much to the series that it would not be the same without them.
Lastly, I want to highlight Mike Flanagan’s genius use of atmospheric horror that has seen him become one of my top 3 modern horror directors and one of my favourite directors, period. The sharp and sudden jump-scares are hardly present, and they don’t need to be. The way he uses the story, visuals and tone to drive the horror and create an unmistakably eerie atmosphere is all that’s needed to terrify you. His use, once again, of hidden ghosts and figures in the background and foreground of shots is mesmerisingly effective. The figures may never move, never be focused on and never actually do anything, but their presence is enough to make the scene seem scary. There’s even a very creative way that these hidden figures are tied into the story, which only adds to the genius of Mike Flanagan.
In the end, The Haunting of Bly Manor continues Mike Flanagan’s, hopefully never-ending, run of incredible works of horror. This is a beautiful blend of emotional storytelling and thrilling scares that only Mike could have pulled off. The focus on, and building of, character relationships is phenomenal, creating a story that is just as emotionally impactful as it is haunting. It’s handled in a way that is so different and so bold that it should be celebrated for its choices. It’s eerie, unsettling, heartwarming and tragic all at the same time. The way the story and many mysteries unfold makes for a final product so layered that a rewatch would unveil a number of clever seeds Mike planted, hinting at future events. This is a brilliant piece of horror storytelling that is not to be missed, along with The Haunting of Hill House.