The Haunting of Bly Manor review – horror with a chilling lack of shocks

I am no horror fan. I am quite frightened enough in and by real life, thank you, and I stumble too over the large obstacle presented by the fact that ghosts and their ilk DO NOT EXIST THEREFORE CANNOT BE SCARY. The horror of humanity begins a long way before man’s worst efforts – the supernatural doesn’t even make it over the fear horizon. Halloween is the most boring time of the year.

Yet I find myself quite enjoying The Haunting of Bly Manor, Mike Flanagan’s follow-up to his unexpected hit retelling of Shirley Jackson’s classic The Haunting of Hill House. So something’s gone wrong somewhere. And I really do think, natural bias aside, it’s with Bly Manor. It seems to have dispensed with the need for shocks, horror, plot, the doling out of information at steady intervals, and a decent script.

It ramps up slightly in the second half but overall the characters and the viewers wander aimlessly through a welter of semi-hints, uncreepily tinkling background piano scoring and all the paranormal paraphernalia one imposing gothic mansion can hold. There are misty lakes, music boxes springing to life in attics, moving dolls, flitting shadows, shapes in mirrors and windows and mommets bloody everywhere. The place is filled with the unsettling little effigies. You can’t move for mommets. Unless they’re not mommets but the wizened corpses of exhausted script editors. Or dialect coaches. But we’ll come to that.

The basic story is based largely on Henry James’s feted novella The Turn of the Screw. The action is set in 1987. Dani Clayton (Victoria Pedretti, upgraded to lead actor after her scene-stealing turn in Hill House) is a bright young Californian thing who takes the job offered by Lord Henry Wingrave (Henry Thomas, also formerly of Hill House and more formerly than that, of course, ET) of looking after his recently orphaned niece Flora (Amelie Bea Smith) and nephew Miles (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) at the ancestral home, Bly Manor. Their governess has also recently died. “Dani, don’t!” you might cry. But Dani do.

At the manor there is a friendly housekeeper, friendly chef and friendly gardener. You will look in vain for a hinterland, spooky or otherwise, but beyond the housekeeper’s unwillingness to eat, there is nothing to disturb – or engage – the viewer. And the pace is deadly, not in the good way. Very, very slowly we learn that things are amiss. Miles has been expelled from boarding school for unspecified – and when specified, anticlimactic – reasons. Flora is mommet mad, and insists Dani not leave her room at night. Dani herself has A Secret. Even more slowly we learn the nature of the haunting, and long, long after you have ceased to care the conclusion is reached. There’s no propulsion, no sense of peril accumulates, any momentary dread has plenty of time to dissipate. It’s a very restful haunting. It’s not horror.

The only terrifying things are the accents and the language. The problem is perhaps best conveyed by telling you that, according to Thomas, Lord Wingrave’s manor is in “Wissix”, Miles’s teacher – a late-middle-aged man in a dog collar in a posh boarding school in 1987 – tells the class what “the big takeaway” from a gospel story is and assures the boy “this room is a safe space for questions”, and the housekeeper calls Dani “darling”. After that, are we supposed to know whether the children, who say things like “perfectly splendid” and “I sometimes forget myself” are meant to be creepy, possessed or just posh as written by someone with an unEnglish tin ear?

Anyway, if all you’re up for is a relatively plotless bit of atmospherics, enjoy your time at Bly Manor. Fans of Hill House will have to hope for a return to spooky form next time.