‘The Haunting of Bly Manor’ strips all subtlety from ‘The Turn of the Screw’

Photo of Netflix's "The Haunting of Bly Manor"
Eike Schroter/Netflix/Courtesy

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Grade: 1.5/5.0

Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw” is a seminal work of horror fiction. Since its 1898 publication, James’ novella has not only been the subject of a vast body of literary criticism, but has also inspired a multitude of film adaptations — most of which have failed to cinematically render those aspects that make “Turn of the Screw” worth studying.

Despite the odds, however, “The Haunting of Bly Manor” seemed poised for success. The second installment in Netflix’s “The Haunting” anthology, “Bly Manor” sees the return of several creative leads and cast members from 2018’s excellent “The Haunting of Hill House.” Most notable is creator Mike Flanagan, who perfectly balanced the intellectual literary source material with more pulpy horror elements in “Hill House,” displaying an impressive faculty for suspenseful, emotional storytelling.

Comparisons to “Hill House” automatically put any follow-ups at a disadvantage, but even taken on its own terms, “Bly Manor” sorely disappoints in nearly every regard. This season follows Dani (Victoria Pedretti), a neurotic American living in England, who is hired as an au pair for the recently orphaned Miles and Flora. Dani moves to the titular country estate to care for the children, but soon worries that Miles and Flora are drawn to the insidious forces that seem to inhabit the grounds.

Though the setup is nearly identical to James’ source novella, Flanagan makes some strange changes that ultimately harm the material. Instead of the original Victorian setting, “Bly Manor” is set in 1987, with a framing story in 2007. Lacking the lush historical mise-en-scene, “Bly Manor” instead ends up with a generic horror aesthetic. James’ original dialogue, still occasionally quoted in “Bly Manor,” feels completely out of place in the ’80s, while newly written dialogue is so on the nose that it baldly flies in the face of James’ deliberate efforts to obscure obvious readings.

It doesn’t help that, instead of casting British actors, Flanagan brought several American cast members from “Hill House” back for “Bly Manor” in prominent roles as non-Americans. Henry Thomas and Carla Gugino were two of the highlights in “Hill House,” but in “Bly Manor,” the actors’ performances are sabotaged by ridiculously phony English accents. Thomas and Gugino, both occupied with mastering pronunciation, are distracted from ever penetrating to the subtext of their heavily expository dialogue.

Pedretti, another “Hill House” alum, goes to the other extreme, playing Dani as painfully American. Although she is initially endearing, “Bly Manor” runs out of anything interesting to say about Dani by its midpoint. Even after her inchoate, predictable backstory is clumsily unraveled in a narrative detour that manages to be both long-winded and woefully superficial, Dani still lacks the depth achieved by Pedretti in her smaller “Hill House” supporting role.

The most effective aspects of “Bly Manor” — the creepy interactions between Dani and the children, the ghastly apparitions of Peter Quint — are those that remain closest to “Turn of the Screw.” However, tasked with filling nine hours of television, Flanagan chooses to overexplain and expand upon James’ beautifully cryptic story, thereby destroying the carefully wrought ambiguity that “Turn of the Screw” kindles.

Even though multiple minor characters are given extensive, tangentially related flashbacks, “Bly Manor” struggles to pad its run time. Bafflingly structured so that the uninteresting, verbose exposition interrupts the apotheosis, “Bly Manor” spends the final excruciatingly slow episodes developing more digressive backstory that undercuts Dani’s arc. When two late episodes end on the exact same cliffhanger, the narrative spinning wheels are plainly evident. By the time “Bly Manor” reaches its unearned mushy resolution, the puzzle pieces have been so neatly laid out that almost nothing is left subjective.

“Bly Manor” is even worse off when compared to Jack Clayton’s eerie 1961 masterpiece “The Innocents,”a far superior adaptation of the source material that provides all the thrills viewers don’t get from “Bly Manor.” Where “The Innocents” remains committed to James’ pursuit of dread-soaked ambiguity, “The Haunting of Bly Manor” turns James’ chilling tale into a convoluted melodramatic bore — one that fails to incite even the slightest amount of terror expected from a decent ghost story.

Contact Neil Haeems at [email protected].