Disclaimer: The following critique includes spoilers for the new Netflix show The Haunting of Bly Manor, and a minor spoiler for the film Hush.
TW: In my review, I use the word “queer” to be an all-encompassing term for LGBTQIA+ people. As a member of the community, I use this term as a reclamation of our past and because it is easier and quicker than the acronym (which I feel can sometimes be exclusionary anyway).
Mike Flanagan, horror film creator, who dazzled Netflix fans with his interpretation of The Haunting of Hill House, is at it again. The Haunting of Bly Manor, based loosely on Henry James’ 1898 novella, The Turn of the Screw, is a modern retelling that is both charming, terrifying, and yet, disappointing. Flanagan’s imaginative idea of what it would be like to be a ghost, gives you the sense of haunting whiplash. I cannot deny Flanagan’s originality and horror-prowess, with movies like Hush and Before I wake, I have been very impressed with his ability to turn horror tropes on their head. However, Flannagan falls into that trap he’s so narrowly missed in his retelling of The Turn of the Screw.
As a new narrative in and of itself, it’s expected that Flanagan would change his show from the original story. However, the stories begin in an almost identical manner: there’s a dinner party where the guests are telling ghost stories to which our narrator responds with a story of her own. The story, of course, being that of the governess (or au pair in the netflix show) of Bly manor. The gist is the same: Miles and Flora have lost their parents to a mysterious accident halfway across the world. Their uncle wants nothing to do with them and leaves them in the care of the cook, the housekeeper, the gardner, and now the governess. However, the governess must take over the role of the late Miss Jessel who died on the grounds. Like in the novella, Dani, the au pair, is an untrustworthy narrator. In the show, she sees the ghost of her fiance every time she sees her own reflection. Therefore, the audience is unsure if the ghosts are real at first. The most important part of the novella is that you can never trust the nameless governess. At no point in the novella does Henry James reveal whether or not anyone else can see the ghosts. One could argue that Miles and Flora can see them but it’s never for certain. Flanagan’s “reveal,” then, that the ghosts are not a figment of Dani’s imagination, is where I think he loses the strength of the show.
Mirrors have been used in horror movies for as long as we can remember. They are meant to represent something otherworldly, as if you could step through them and find yourself in a new dimension. Flanagan uses mirrors as a way of showing the audience how Dani perceives herself. The ghost of her fiance, unlike Jessel and Quint, is assumed to only be a figment of Dani’s imagination. When she looks into a mirror, or sees her reflection in water, she sees her fiance, glasses lit up with the reflection of truck headlights, leering over her shoulder. This shows that Dani can’t look at herself without seeing a murderer, without feeling grotesque guilt. This imagery is later parallelled with the Lady of the Lake, which I will discuss later. The mirror imagery, in and of itself, is not original, but was powerful. We got a strong sense of character while also experiencing that classic horror tension. However, in episode 4 “The Way it Came,” after Hannah, Jaime, and Owen leave Dani alone at the bonfire, she sees her ghost outside of the mirror. He had appeared outside of the mirror only recently as Dani’s guilt manifested after kissing Jaime — the physical representation of her potentially moving on to a new relationship. She confronts the ghost but the scene ends there never to be returned to. Perhaps, the writers hoped the audience would come to the conclusion that Dani overcame her guilt for Jaime, but without the scene, there is little closure.
Although I do think Dani is a well-rounded character with a past and more character traits than just “scared woman in spooky mansion,” I think the choice to make her gay was a huge let down to the LQBTQIA+ community. Obviously, we want more representation for ourselves, but we are almost always disappointed, as I was at the end of Bly Manor. There is a long history of torturing, conforming, and/ or straight up killing queer characters that is both painful and boring to queer watchers. Flanagan has proved in the past with movies like Hush that he is more than capable of flipping [horror] stereotypes on their head. (Hush -spoiler alert- features a deaf woman who protects herself against an intruder with her own wit, and the cat lives!) When the queer character gets killed off in a story, it often perpetuates the narrative that ‘gay’ is inherently bad or monstrous. The queer character has to die because there can be no happy ending for them. Additionally, when Dani comes out to her fiancé, he is so distraught that he jumps out of the car and gets hit by a truck. I think there are two ways to interpret this. Dani feels as though she has “killed” him or their relationship by being gay, and therefore, has to get over her queer-guilt by facing the ghosts within herself. Or gayness, in itself, is monstrous enough to destroy “traditional” relationships, and Dani cannot escape her monstrous self — as represented by the lady of the lake taking over her and her eventual death. I’m not entirely convinced that Flanagan’s intentions were sinister in this aspect, but I’m not too thrilled about his decision making either.
On the topic of inclusivity, let’s talk about the cast. The number of white men in the main cast is minimal, which is already pretty surprising. In fact we have two black women, two gay women, Rahul Kohli (whose ancestry I don’t know nor do I want to assume), and two kids. The only two important white men, Peter Quint and Henry Wingrave, are abusers and adulterers respectively. Hannah is a powerful and highly intelligent housekeeper who always stands her ground while still being kind. I am not a black person and, therefore, can make no absolute statements about black representation in media, but Hannah is certainly a strong individual. Nevertheless, she has the most confusing death.
In the beginning of the show, following the thematic mystery of James’ novella, the audience doesn’t know that Hannah is dead. There is some foreshadowing when we see Hannah lost in thought or seemingly disappearing for hours. However, the shock doesn’t come until episode 5 “The Altar of the Dead,” the best episode in my opinion. This episode doesn’t follow chronological time, rather, it follows Hannah’s stream of consciousness as she is “tucked away” into her memories. The episode becomes more and more chaotic as the audience is thrown into new and deeper memories. One in particular, when Hannah first meets Owen, repeats several times. The memory begins as it truly was, a simple interview, but each time it is repeated it changes. Hannah begins to realize she’s stuck in her memories. Owen, who is really a part of Hannah, becomes more aggressive and even screams into the camera that something is wrong with Miles. While I adore this chaotic energy and heightening tension, this scene could have been much stronger if we didn’t already know that Peter Quint was possessing Miles. The hamartia of this show is that it reveals too much too quickly. But I digress. At the end of the episode, we learn that Hannah was dead all along after Miles (possessed by Peter Quint) pushes her down a well. Her ghost, which is looking down the well, is entranced for a moment until she is snapped out of it by Dani approaching for the first time. This scene implies that not only does she remember this moment, but she has re-lived this moment, as she has done with all the other memories in the episode. However, in episode 8, “The Romance of Certain Old Clothes,” Peter Quint possesses Miles to “put Hannah back in her place,” by showing her her dead body. I don’t really understand what the purpose of this was. Hannah, like the other ghosts, was often “tucked away” or disappeared into memory. The only difference is that she could be seen all the time. I think what Flanagan was going for was that she acted like a normal person and could function like a normal person because she “forgot” that she died, but why or how she forgot is not well established.
Rebecca Jessel, on the other hand, feels like the complete opposite of Hannah Grose. Jessel is resigned. She is easily caught in Peter Quint’s trap and although she shows signs of wanting to argue, of wanting to be dominant, she just isn’t. She is, and this is the best way I can think to describe her, a sponge. She has no real personality herself other than “Quint’s girlfriend.” The only real character trait I can give her is selflessness because she doesn’t possess Flora like Quint wants her too, but she never fights back or does anything to help herself. Her character falls flat when compared to everyone else. In James’ novella, Jessel and the ghost on the lake are often conflated. They may or may not be the same ghost. Flanagan, taking the liberty of creating a whole new character for the ghost on the lake, I think, was a big mistake. He spends an entire episode (Episode 8: “The Romance of Certain Old Clothes”) giving a background to the lady of the lake and her sister: the no face ghost in the attic who only shows up twice; once, to be shushed by Flora when she’s playing hide and seek, and again to be an example for Peter Quint who is convincing the kids to let him and Jessel live inside them. Episode 8, in my opinion, is the weakest episode of the whole show. It rushes to introduce two new characters who have little importance to the plot. The story is relatively generic: two sisters want to keep their fortune so one of them marries a cousin, but when she falls ill, her sister has to take over. The sick sister lives longer than she should, distressing the younger sister who eventually kills her and marries her widower husband. The older sister haunts the home and kills the younger sister when she tries to sell her old dresses that she left for her daughter. The episode is redundant and long winded. The only redeeming feature is that the episode is in black and white, which I thought was a fun choice for a flashback sequence. However, Flanagan could have sacrificed this entire episode to dedicate more time to Jessel’s backstory. The fact that she didn’t even have the autonomy to kill herself, bothers me so much. She has no narrative motivation. She’s just a tool for Peter Quint’s character, which is so disappointing.
Peter Quint, classic repressed, abused-turned-abuser, white boy, is the worst character of the show. Unlike Jessel, he has a very defined character. That character just sucks. He’s a very realistic abuser, which is terrifying in and of itself. However, I think Flanagan could have used that to his advantage. Real life horror is the scariest thing of all, but as the show went on, I was less and less convinced that Quint was a frightening character. The first time he grabbed Jessel’s arm, I was squirming. By the end of the show when he possessed Miles, the realism was gone, the fear was gone. In the novel (huge spoiler alert), the story ends when the governess kills Miles. In that moment, the audience is unsure if this was an accident or on purpose. Like I mentioned before, the governess is an untrustworthy narrator who has become terrified of the children and the ghosts, which may or may not be real. If Flanagan had stuck to this ending, at least we could have gotten the voyeuristic joy of watching Quint die a second death and remain trapped in between worlds. Wouldn’t that have been an incredible ending? Peter Quint scrambling to escape the manor while everyone else simply leaves? Miles limp in Dani’s arms? But I digress.
At the end of the show, the narrator from the beginning is revealed to be Jaime (why is her hair straight now? Why is her accent different? The world may never know). Conveniently, Owen told Jaime and Dani earlier in the episode that the kids had completely forgotten about Bly, which means that Jaime was free to retell the story without anyone mistaking it for reality. When Jaime finishes telling her story, the woman (Flora, although we don’t know her real name), tells her that “it’s not a ghost story. It’s a love story.” Personally, this ruins a lot of the narrative for me. I’m biased in this aspect because I don’t like unnecessary romance, and, as mentioned above, I don’t like the way the lesbian relationship was presented (or ended rather). Although, Flora calling it a love story does push me to believe that Flanagan was not trying to be homomisic/ homophobic. Nevertheless, this was not, or should not have been, a love story. The last episode was a love story, sure, but it was so disjointed from the rest of the show that it felt like it actually was a different show. I see the appeal of having the horror follow them home because that is a frightening idea, but it was such an unsatisfying ending. Flanagan, in his attempt to subvert expectations, made a boring, generic narrative that falls flat.
I wanted desperately to like this show but, in the end, I can only award it 3 out of 5 stars. Episodes 1 through 5 were gripping and tense. It introduced unique elements of horror and mystery and kept the audience on edge. However, that edge was lost as the mystery disappeared. Too much was revealed. There’s nothing left to think about. Henry James’ novella left so much up to the imagination. You were left wondering if the kids could see the ghosts, if they were possessed by the ghosts, if the ghosts were real at all. In Flanagan’s version, there is a great lack of wonder.
If you want to experience more of this story, there are dozens of adaptations. Obviously, the best is always the source material, but one of my favorite adaptations is The Others (2001) featuring Nicole Kidman and directed by Alejandro Amenábar. In this film, Nicole Kidman plays Grace Stewart the mother of Nicholas and Ann. Grace hires on a housekeeper so that she can spend more time with her kids. The only problem is that the kids are allergic to light. All blinds must remain closed and all doors must be locked. At some undisclosed time when the family is gone, a seance is held in the same home. The Innocents, a film released in 1961 directed by Jack Clayton, is a more direct adaptation of the novel that captures James’ original spooky intent. And finally, The Turning, released in 2020 and directed by Floria Sigismondi, is the most modern film adaptation. I actually haven’t seen this version, but will watch it as soon as it’s available.
With that said, I wish you all a happy Halloween and a blessed Samhain.
EDIT: After some consideration, I want to add that I think Flanagan’s intentions were well-meant. The Love and compassion between Jaime and Dani was very obvious. It was a healthier relationship than the one between Rebecca and Peter. However, I still feel the final episode was rushed and forced. A decade was crushed into the last 30 minutes of an episode which doesn’t convince me of their love story. While the relationship was being built throughout the show, it felt like an afterthought. I don’t know Flanagan’s relationship to the Queer/ LGBTQIA+ community, and I don’t think he was purposely or knowingly falling into the trap of the ‘bury your gays’ trope. However, the overwhelming use of metaphor confuses the meaning of the ghosts Dani sees in her reflection. As soon as she escapes the ghost of her fiancé, she is possessed by Viola, the sick sister. To me this feels like her gayness is a monstrosity that she is unable to defeat or overcome. Gothic literature is typically tragic, so killing off Dani was essentially a given. Nevertheless, I would have enjoyed a twist. I just can’t get over my gut feeling that this is a problematic representation of a lesbian couple. Perhaps if the show was longer and had more time to flesh out the characters and their relationships, it could have been more convincing, but I don’t see how Dani’s death contributed to the narrative in a meaningful way.