In 2018, Mike Flanagan brought big screen cinematic scares to Netflix in “The Haunting of Hill House.” Now, two years later, his spectacularly spooky series has been transformed into an anthology series, and Flanagan and his core cast are back to reinterpret Henry James’s 1898 horror novella “The Turn of the Screw” in a new season dubbed “The Haunting of Bly Manor.” With stars Victoria Pedretti (Nell Crain in “Hill House”), Oliver Jackson-Cohen (Luke Crain), Carla Gugino (Olivia Crain) and Henry Thomas (Young Hugh Crain) all returning as new characters in a new haunted house, “Bly Manor” doesn’t take long to have viewers once again holding their breath.
“Bly Manor” begins far away from the haunted manor. Instead, we’re in Northern California circa 2007, with a special guest appearance from Gugino as “The Storyteller.” She seems to be a wistful, mysterious woman in a hotel room, reciting lyrics to a lost lover, saying “We lay my love and I beneath the weeping willow. But now alone I lie and weep beside the tree. Singing ‘Oh willow waly’ by the tree that weeps with me. Singing ‘Oh willow waly’ till my lover return to me.” A bit of digging reveals the origin of these lyrics: a song from Jack Clayton’s 1961 film “The Innocents,” which was also based on James’s “The Turn of the Screw.” It’s clear this is going to be a tale of love and loss, and a creepy one at that.
The Storyteller makes her way to a wedding rehearsal dinner at a supposedly haunted castle – always a great idea! – and quickly earns her title, as she begins to share a ghost story over post-dinner drinks. She notes this is not her story tell, but instead the story of someone she knew, and we fade to 1987 London.
Enter Dani Clayton (Pedretti), an American school teacher seeking adventure in London. Only, that quest to explore the great unknown has for some reason led her to answer a classified ad for a live-in au pair for one Lord Henry Wingrave (Thomas). Before she can even make it into the office for an interview, though, it’s clear something is up. A car zips past Dani on the London streets and we get our first jump scare – a creepy, shadowy reflection of a young boy with blindingly bright eyes startles both Dani and us. Back to the interview… Wingrave needs a new governess to handle his “exceptional but challenging” niece and nephew after the tragic death of their parents.
The gig comes with free room and board in a sprawling countryside mansion, a chef, a groundskeeper, and a live-in housekeeper – but there’s a catch. As Dani astutely points out, if this job was truly all that, why hasn’t it been filled in the six months Wingrave has been searching? Wingrave points out that Dani must have her own catch, too, considering no twenty-something would want to trade in her freedom to settle down as a nanny so soon.
The interview takes a turn and not in Dani’s favor, so like a true Brit, she heads to the pub to recover with a cold pint when in walks Wingrave. Without the formalities of an official interview to hold them back – and quite a few brews to push them forward – the two reveal their respective catches. According to Wingrave, he thought he found an answer last summer in one Miss Jessel, only to have the au pair take her own life on the grounds of Bly Manor. Naturally, the story of two dead parents and a suicidal nanny precedes the job, rightfully scaring away any potential applicants.
Dani’s catch isn’t nearly as dramatic: she felt overwhelmed by the sheer amount of students she was responsible for – a reasonable complaint in the American public school system, to be honest – so she packed her bags and figured she could make a more impactful difference handling just two children. She also cryptically adds that she knows the pain of losing someone, but more on that later.
OK, it’s later! Dani gets the job and heads back to her hostel to pack her bags and head to the countryside. She makes a phone call home to her mother, telling her about the job and that she’ll be abroad longer than expected, but the news is met with disapproval. Dani tells her mother, “I’m not running from anything,” which is exactly the kind of thing someone who’s running from something would say. Within seconds, as she finishes packing and pulls sheets off of her room’s two mirrors, Shadow Boy and his high beam eyes are back for another surprise flash. Could this be a representation of who she’s running from, and could it be how she knows loss? It’s clear who or whatever this thing is, it’s not welcome, and Dani’s doing her best to avoid any sort of reflection.
Dani catches a ride to Bly Manor with Owen (Rahul Kohli), the mansion’s chef, who shares that he’s spent nearly his whole life in Bly, except for a brief stint abroad in France. As he puts it, the town is like a gravity well that traps most people in Bly forever. Once the cab reaches the outskirts of the manor’s grounds, Dani opts to make the rest of the trek on foot, exploring the grounds and running into the children, Flora (Amelie Bea Smith) and Miles (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth). Any cuteness garnered by Flora’s flowery dress, sing-song voice, or overuse of the phrase “perfectly splendid” is immediately stripped away by the voodoo doll-esque talisman in her hands.
Miles makes an equally creepy entrance, and Dani meets Ms. Grose (T’Nia Miller), the live-in housekeeper, before going on a tour of Bly Manor. As all haunted houses tend to have, Bly Manor has an enticing forbidden area. This time it’s the old wing of the mansion where the children’s parents used to live, and it’s been left seemingly untouched since their death. So, of course, it’s only a matter of time until someone ventures off into that restricted section.
Remember how Miles seemed to be a creepy little boy? Well, that theory is quickly proven to be correct as he peeks into Dani’s bedroom watching her change clothes just hours after meeting her. After being caught, Miles offers Dani a butterfly hair clip as a sort of apology, but later that evening the clip stirs up even more trouble. While getting a bath before bed, Flora notices the clip in Dani’s hair and is immediately flustered, telling Dani the clip previously belonged to the now deceased Miss Jessel. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Shadow Boy makes another appearance in the bathroom mirror to freak Dani out even more.
After settling back down, Flora spends some time playing with her dolls, which appear to each correspond to someone in the house. The only catch is that there are way more dolls than there are people in the house… or are there? Did someone say ghosts? When Dani helps her clean up the toys before bed, she makes the grave mistake of picking up the doll strategically positioned beneath the dresser – another move to noticeably upset Flora, as the little girl sternly tells Dani that the doll must remain there. Flora also utters one final warning before bed: do not leave your bedroom at night.
So, of course, the emptiness of the house calls out to a restless Dani and she sets off to explore, starting with a pot of tea in the kitchen. The faucet drips, the floor creaks, and creepiness abounds as that familiar, unsettling feeling sinks its claws into viewers. Dani makes it back to her room safe and sound, but not without secret being followed by the terrifying silhouette of a man donning what appears to be an old-timey plague mask. Dani’s nighttime escapades didn’t go unnoticed by Flora, though, who somehow knew of her exploring. Could there have been movement in the dollhouse?
But there’s no time for chit chat, because Dani notices a strange man (Jackson-Cohen) on the manor’s parapet outside of the parents’ old bedroom. The others quickly shoot down her speculation of an outside guest being on the premises, deciding she must have imagined the man, but Dani sets off to find him – and that means heading into the forbidden wing. Again, with bated breath we watch her navigate hallways and rooms filled with mysterious objects covered by bedsheets, only to reach the balcony and find it empty. There may not be a stranger waiting, but there is… Flora’s Wicker Man-style voodoo doll.
From the balcony Dani notices lights flickering in the old stone chapel next to the house and sets off to investigate. What she finds is not nearly as sinister as what she (or viewers) might expect. Instead, it’s simply Ms. Grose spending some alone time in the church and reflecting on loved ones she has lost. Ms. Grose sheds a bit more light on what happened with Miss Jessel, telling Dani that she was a “bright young thing” until she fell for a man who stole her money and her heart before skipping town. She also tells Dani that Flora was the one to find the body floating face down in the lake, and since then, the dolls, or talismans, are a game she plays to keep everyone in the house safe. Sure they are…
Finally, as Episode 1 begins to wind down, the children do, too, and Dani tucks them into bed, but not before Miles requests Dani retrieve a fan from the cupboard. Dani takes a peek into the closet and has no luck finding the fan, but what she does find is Flora and Miles standing menacingly outside the closet door. Yup, they tricked her. The kids slam the closet door shut and throw away the key, locking Dani inside with – you guessed it – a mirror and Shadow Boy.
Hours later the duo rescues Dani from her confinement and apologizes profusely, claiming it was an accident, but for some reason Dani’s not buying it. Can’t say I blame her. She sends the kids to bed and heads to her own room for a little bit of peace, but before she can make it there, she finds muddy footprints leading to the front doors which have been flung wide open. Dani wanders into the night following the footprints before turning around to find Flora and Miles watching from their windows above in the creepiest way possible.
Andddddd cut. Welcome to Bly Manor.
- Straight off the bat it’s clear that there is something going on here with eyes. I mean, that intro music is chilling enough on its own, but then you throw in oil paintings erasing eyeballs? Now I’m really scared. It’s too soon to determine what exactly this will mean, but if we’re seeing it at the start of every episode, then it must mean something. Plus, the Shadow Boy’s bright eyes only add to the evidence.
- We all know about the hidden ghosts in the backgrounds throughout “Hill House,” but will that – and ghosts in general – carry over into “Bly Manor”? Well, Shadow Boy is definitely something, and so is that silhouette with the plague mask. But what about the potential for others? Flora has plenty of extra dolls in her house that could represent other spirits throughout the manor, and what about the man on the parapet?
- Speaking of potential ghosts… could Ms. Grose be on the list? There isn’t a ton of evidence to support this theory just yet, but it’s worth noting she chose not to eat during both meal scenes. Maybe she’s just not hungry, or maybe it’s because of something more suspicious.
- This is going to be a tale of lost love. The opening recital of the “Willow Waly” lyrics made that clear, then minutes later a guest at the wedding provided another heartbreaking quote: “To truly love another person is to accept the work of loving them is worth the pain of losing them.” When you add in the tale of Miss Jessel and her broken heart, it’s easy to worry Dani may be headed down the same path.
Zach Goins is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association based in Raleigh, N.C. Zach co-founded Inside The Film Room in 2018 and serves as Editor-in-Chief of the website and co-host of the podcast. Zach also serves as a film critic for CLTure.org.