On Oct. 9, the hotly anticipated sequel series to 2018’s “The Haunting of Hill House” arrived on Netflix with showrunner Mike Flanagan at the helm once more. With nine episodes, “The Haunting of Bly Manor” runs at just over eight hours, and, like “The Haunting of Hill House,” is chock-full of delightfully horrific moments. Flanagan has proven himself a veritable force when it comes to the genre, directing not only “The Haunting of Hill House,” but a few adaptations of the work of horror magnate Stephen King, including the critically-acclaimed Netflix movie “Gerald’s Game” and “Doctor Sleep,” the forty-years-later sequel to the 1980 classic “The Shining.”
“The Haunting of Bly Manor,” based on the writings of renowned author Henry James, follows Dani Clayton, a down-on-her-luck American looking for a fresh start in the United Kingdom. Dani lands a job as an au pair for the aristocratic Wingrave children, Miles and Flora, who reside in an isolated manor at Bly in the British countryside. Dani must inherit the woes of these children following the deaths of their parents and the previous au pair, Rebecca Jessel. Meanwhile, she begins to uncover the dark secrets of Bly Manor and dredge up not only her own traumatic past, but also those of the other manor staff.
With the thrilling highs of “The Haunting of Bly Manor” come equally sluggish lows. What begins as a stellar introduction to the manor and its denizens in the series’s first episode declines into repetitious boredom for the next three or so. Conflicts are introduced that stand unresolved by episode’s end, only to resurface in the following episode and produce the same tensions. An example of this lingering conflict concerns a past trauma of Dani’s, one that manifests itself as a shadowy figure glimpsed only in mirrors. This particular ghost is almost always expected and serves basically as the sole means for scare potential in the first four episodes. The trauma itself is not addressed until episode four, after well over three hours of teasing. In all, this drawing out of information bogs down the show’s other proceedings and hints at the poor pacing to come in the series’s second half.
Marking the midpoint of “Bly Manor,” however, is something special. The fifth episode, “The Altar of the Dead,” showcases some of the series’s best acting, cinematography and storytelling. The episode centers around Hannah Grose, the esteemed manager of Bly, and her haunting relationship with the manor and property itself. Where elsewhere such a character-centered episode might decelerate the show’s rising action, the artful minutiae of “The Altar of the Dead” and its placement in the middle uphold it as an impressive standalone and pivoting point for the series. The episode experiments with time, which is unusual for the genre, and so further serves as a kind of launch pad for the more exotic facets of the series’s latter half.
The final four episodes of “The Haunting of Bly Manor” are all fine in their own right. The placement and general structuring of events, however, lay bare the show’s Achilles’ heel: its pacing. The penultimate episode, titled “The Romance of Certain Old Clothes,” is almost entirely expository in its exploration of the unfortunate lives of the manor’s original owners. All necessary information, mind you, but I reiterate the fact that this is the second-to-last episode — I feel that such information should have been provided much earlier in the series, or at least in a less all-at-once fashion than an episode-length flashback. This episode also ends with the same cliffhanger as the previous one, which only adds to the already sluggish pace. By the end of it, the whole thing feels regrettably anticlimactic.
In a number of technical respects, though, “The Haunting of Bly Manor” is exemplary. The framing is consistently well-done and the mark of a masterful horror director — no surprise with Flanagan as showrunner. The cinematography is equally realized and some of the best work Netflix has to offer. The Newton Brothers’ score, most notably the piano arrangements, manages to be touching, melancholy and of course, haunting.
Finally, the acting is excellent throughout, especially T’Nia Miller as the mysterious Hannah Grose alongside Amelia Eve as Bly gardener and Dani’s love interest Jamie. Both actors are fully capable of the varied emotions required of their characters and impress at every turn. Victoria Pedretti as the aforementioned Dani likewise impresses, as the strong but sweetly innocent au pair.
Though ultimately messy and meandering, “The Haunting of Bly Manor” offers some truly frightening moments and genuine scares. However, these instances are few and far between and leave much to be desired regarding structure and — I sound like a broken record at this point — pacing. With “The Haunting of Bly Manor,” expect not the direct terror of previous series “The Haunting of Hill House,” but rather a thoughtful narrative that often stumbles and occasionally soars.