The Haunting of Bly Manor, or, The Stripping of the Screw

I liked The Haunting of Bly Manor, but I’m already afraid of diminishing returns

This week I watched The Haunting of Bly Manor, the second in the new not-quite-anthology series led by Mike Flanagan that started with The Haunting of Hill House. This installment stars several of the same actors from Hill House, but with all-new accents! It’s “based on the work of Henry James,” meaning it uses The Turn of the Screw as a framing structure, incorporating elements of James’s other ghost stories.

I can’t imagine trying to fill up nine hours of television with The Turn of the Screw, since it’s very short, most of it (all of it?) takes place inside the main character’s mind, and it is, I would grow to find, upon reading, earlier this month, intending to get myself in the mood, as so many were, of October and Halloween, filled with sentences, as it might be said, that are so laden, much as a pack mule, with subordinate clauses, that one finds oneself, on occasion, unable to discern what, exactly, the sentence is, I’m disappointed to report, about.

It also must’ve been a beast to adapt because sensibilities have changed so fundamentally since it was written. The title refers — unless there’s some subtext I missed — to the notion that this story raises the stakes to an unspeakably horrific degree because it involves ghosts that threaten not one but two beatifically innocent children. What could be worse? In a post-Poltergeist world, though, it’s difficult to milk more horror out of that without getting exploitative. (Even if you do cast a little boy who deliberately resembles Damien from The Omen).

But the series does try to be an interesting (if not faithful) adaptation, instead of just using it as a framing device. It takes the book’s story-told-by-unnamed-narrator conceit and expands on it to change the tone of the entire series. You can tell that it’s an amalgamation of a few different stories stitched together in writing rooms, but it’s difficult to tell exactly where the seams are. And there’s a repeated scene structure in which a character realizes they’re currently stuck in a memory, and I think they’re all very cleverly written and performed, to give a sense of disorientation and loneliness. If there’s a recurring theme of the series, it’s the horror of being trapped in isolation with no sense of time passing and no sense of an ending.

Most remarkable to me, the first few episodes contain one of the best representations of repressed homosexuality that I’ve ever seen in fiction: the feelings of guilt and betrayal, the dead weight of years of obligation, the feeling of being trapped by people acting out of love or good intentions, and how just the burden of it all turns into shame.

Even the criticisms I’ve seen seem to me to be cases of the creative team making a choice, instead of being lazy unaware. I found a not-entirely-serious (I suspect) article complaining that British people would never say “the math doesn’t work” instead of “the maths don’t work.” But this didn’t seem like carelessness to me, especially since it’s delivered by a British actor. It seemed like a choice to avoid any dialogue that would sound jarring to a majority non-British audience in the middle of a very dramatic scene. Especially since in a later episode, a character says “maths” in a much more casual scene.

Similarly, I saw a television writer on Twitter commenting on how unrealistically precocious the children were, while that turned out to be a plot point. And I saw a ton of people mocking the line “In Paris I was a sous-chef, which means I mostly chopped vegetables,” but I didn’t think that was a lack of research so much as a short line that could be repeated over and over, which would be memorable enough to notice the pattern, but not tedious in the repetition.

That said, there are several choices that felt weird or, frankly, half-baked, giving much of the series the feeling of a first draft. Casting Matthew Holness aka Garth Marenghi in a horror series was a masterstroke, but his accent is distinctive enough that it seems odd that Henry Thomas as his brother seems to be doing some even more mannered version of John Geilgud. An episode set entirely in the past is shot beautifully in black and white, but it also feels like a short story with maybe 25 minutes of material was artificially inflated to 50 minutes. And one character has a monologue describing her troubled childhood, which feels like someone in a writer’s room wrote “TROUBLED CHILDHOOD” on a whiteboard, everybody riffed on that for a half hour, and then the challenge was to incorporate into that scene every single idea that was mentioned.

So ultimately, The Haunting of Bly Manor just isn’t as good as The Haunting of Hill House. But I’m not even sure if that’s a question, much less a controversial one. It doesn’t feel as ambitious as the previous series. It makes it explicit in the last episode that it had different goals from the previous series. And I think making something as complex and effective as Hill House is the kind of achievement that happens rarely in an entire career, much less something that can be repeated annually. But the comparison is still inevitable.

That got me thinking about not just the Netflix model, but the whole notion of episodic entertainment in general. I only worked in episodic games for a few years, but it was long enough that I could never fully wrap my head around the idea of commodified entertainment, and how thoroughly it inverts the entire reason for wanting to get into a creative industry in the first place.

In short: I ended up writing a lot of filler. Stuff that exists not because I had a strong idea, but because there was a space that needed to be filled with content. Even the ubiquity of that word “content” shows how firmly entrenched commerce has become in the creative process. In an ideal world, it wouldn’t even have to be a compromise; you’d have a team of people with too many ideas to fit in the available space, so your problem is editing down to the best ones, not desperately trying to come up with uninspired ones. But I’ve hardly ever found myself working in an ideal world.

And honestly, I think it’s something that we should make peace with, instead of thinking of it as a cop-out or a compromise. Opening Netflix these days, it’s easy to feel that there’s just an overwhelming glut of content that’s almost certainly filled with mediocre material that’s been artificially stretched out to fill a slate of n 25- or 45-minute episodes, or the requisite 90 minute feature. But I suspect it’s even more likely that almost everything on the platform has its fans somewhere, and the only reason the current environment of narrowly-focused, hyper-specialized entertainment seems odd to me is because it’s so unlike what I grew up with. Back then, the problem was making enough stuff to fill hours of broadcast time. Now, I imagine it’s filling up a scrolling list of rectangles with enough thumbnails to keep people subscribing.

It’s entirely possible that I’m just being too cynical. Maybe the dominance of streaming services doesn’t just mean that creators are having to fill slots with content, instead of being able to wait for inspiration. Maybe it means that more and more of the moments of inspiration that never would’ve found an audience before, are finally able to make it into production.

All this makes it sound like I’m being completely dismissive of The Haunting of Bly Manor, which I don’t mean to do. It was good, with several interesting ideas and some great horror-story moments (like Flora telling a ghost in the attic to be quiet). And obviously, it was compelling enough for me to want to keep watching it all over the course of three nights. (Also, shallowly, I was quite pleased with most of the casting). But if they are planning to make this an anthology series, I think they’ve earned some time to rest and wait for that truly spectacular inspiration to strike, instead of having to keep to a yearly schedule.