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Benjamin Evan Ainsworth may not be who you think he is. Courtesy Jasper Savage/Amblin Partners/Focus Features

In 2018’s The Haunting of Hill House, director Mike Flanagan (Oculus, Doctor Sleep) used the Shirley Jackson novel of the same name as a springboard to tell the story of a family shattered by the trauma of their time in a haunted house. With The Haunting of Bly Manor, now on Netflix, he turns to the work of Henry James, primarily his 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw, to tell another story about a haunted mansion. However, while Hill House focused on past traumas haunting people, Bly Manor instead shows how love can haunt. Yes, it’s a good old-fashioned Gothic romance, and while it might not have its predecessor’s level of fright, Bly Manor makes up for that with psychological scares and a surprising amount of heart.

American Dani Clayton (Victoria Pedretti) is hired by Briton Henry Wingrave (Henry Thomas) to be the new au pair for his nephew Miles (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) and niece Flora (Amelie Bea Smith) at the family’s summer home of Bly Manor. Though this at first seems like a decent job at a good place, the children are, in fact, still reeling from the sudden deaths of their parents while abroad two years ago, not to mention their previous au pair drowning herself in the grounds’ lake. Both Miles and Flora seem tormented by the events, but there may be darker happenings at Bly.

Let’s get this out of the way first: No, Bly Manor is not as scary as Hill House. It lacks the sinister edge and skin-crawling scares that propelled that series’ narrative. Bly is more methodical, taking longer to clarify where it’s heading with a sense of slow-building mystery about it. That said, it’s not lacking for scares, as there are plenty of tension-building slow camera pans down dark hallways, jump scares, and hidden ghosts to be found. Oh, and did I mention that little Flora likes playing with creepy dolls that have no faces?

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Like the previous series, Bly is anchored by memorable characters brought to life by great performances. Pedretti brings an endearing sense of nervousness and determination to Dani, a woman with her own ghosts to deal with. The child actors also strike a fine balance of believable and interesting without being saccharine, especially Ainsworth. The standout of the series is probably T’Nia Miler as housekeeper Mrs. Grose, who delivers a portrayal that’s sincere, strong-willed, and just off-kilter enough to make you wonder what the hell is going on with her. It may take a bit for all the pieces to be laid out on the board, but when they are, you get moments like the bonfire scene in Episode 4, when I absolutely fell in love with the show.

And it’s those strong performances that give the story and its thematic focus on romance such power. The pain of a love unspoken, the terror of a possessive love, and the longing of love forbidden are all mined by the show for a tale about how we can be haunted with and without ghosts. The tale could be told with a little trimming and a handful of scenes could be cut to speed things along, but while the frights still aren’t on the caliber of Hill House’s musings on trauma, Bly’s strong bonds between its characters lead to a powerful ending that makes the slow-burn approach absolutely worth it.

So if you find yourself cooped up without a Halloween party to attend this year, getting cozy with the characters of Bly Manor is a solid way to spend the holiday, lights on or off, alone or with someone special.

 

The Haunting of Bly Manor
Starring Victoria Pedretti, Amelie Bea Smith, Benjamin Evan Ainsworth, and Henry Thomas. Directed by Mike Flanagan. Based on the works of Henry James. Rated TV-MA.

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