Horror is not my strong suit. I have never been a massive fan of peering through my fingers to watch atrocious acts played out on film, and I have always questioned those that are drawn to that kind of viewing experience. However, every now and then horror manages to pierce through that fear and discomfort, to offer up something that tantalizes, intrigues, and somehow convinces me to crawl out of my horror-less space. In 2018, The Haunting of Hill House done just that.
Jump to the phenomenal space of 2020, and a new television series on Netflix is a godsend, but the follow-up to Hill House is one that I have actually spent most of my year looking forward to. Hill House offered up a well-rounded story that begged to be unraveled, and a level of horror that still required those covering hands but remained at a manageable level for a horror novice like myself. Going into The Haunting of Bly Manor I expected something similar. Sadly, however, Bly Manor didn’t tantalize, it didn’t intrigue, and by the halfway mark of the season I had forgotten what it was like peer at horror through split fingers.
Now this harsh critique may not be entirely warranted to something that I didn’t hate. True enough, I spent most of Bly Manor being reasonably entertained. Yet it wasn’t until I had sat on the show for a few days and let my thoughts truly evolve on the matter that I realized Bly was missing something from the very start.
Being the horror-dodger that I am, horror’s appeal all lies in the central drive. The tagline question that makes you think, “I would like to know the answer to that question”. For Hill House it all circled the night when the Crane family fled their home. What happened that night? A troubled father, and even more troubled children left me desperate to know its secrets and endlessly fascinated by how this inciting incident had influenced the lives of all in the family.
As we first slowly enter the estate of Bly Manor, we quickly realise that there will be no such drive. No question bubbling over with the need to be answered. This is very much a “haunting” happening in the moment, and while the show tries to imitate the non-linear timeline with the use of flashback and parallel episodes, it fails to sink its narrative and character-based hooks into its audience.
While Hill House started with its premise and built the characters around it, Bly does the opposite. With some returning cast, Bly attempts to assimilate a surrogate family, and comes heartbreakingly close at times. With a charismatic bunch at their disposal, I was easily entertained at points by the back and forth banter, watching as they bonded with one and other. However, banter makes way for heartbreak, and as we delve into some of their back stories, a treasure trove of repetitive writing and boundless clichés are revealed. A gardener that likes plants better than people is about all I need to say in this department.
Now what I am about to say in summation of this season may be considered spoilery, but I deem it necessary in my critique: If the solution to your ghost story is to simply leave the house that you are being haunted in, then it may not be that good a story. At no point does Bly Manor establish that these are the characters fit for this story, leaving you reason to believe it is simply happening to them because they are where they are. And to hammer the final nail on this coffin of shallow storytelling, after recounting its events I realised that there are characters present that have little to no impact in the actual story, beyond being another member of this supposed surrogate family. And without a level of engagement from the characters, audiences may struggle to engage themselves.
To jump over to spooky town since this is technically a horror series, Bly Manor struggles to muster up even a fraction of the fear I felt in Hill House. The first third of the season threatened to be scary with creepy dolls and just out of frame silhouettes, but come its end I grew bored of its repetitive use of ghosts in reflections – which is no surprise considering it was attempting to keep two ghosts scary over a nine hour story. Yet, you wonder if its self-reflective labelling as a love story over ghost story validate its failings in its horror roots, or act as a thinly veiled excuse.
I don’t think The Haunting of Bly Manor is necessarily a bad show, despite my incessant bashing. My interest never dipped to a level that made me grudge another episode. However, its story wasn’t involved enough with its roster of characters, resulting in product that felt disconnected and shallow. It wasn’t particularly scary, relied all too much on the likeability of its actors, and as ghost stories go it told a story we’ve heard before with tricks we’ve become numb to. Come its curtain call, I felt like I had simply watched events unfold, rather than the elation of seeing a rich story come to its end. The disappointment I felt may haunt me more than the show itself.