The sequel to 2018's surprise hit, the popular horror series The Haunting of Hill House is available to stream on Netflix from October 9. But does it live up to its predecessor? Without further ado or major spoilers, here is our honest take.
The story of Hill House ended almost perfectly, which might make a second series seem quite unwarranted. But even though The Haunting of Bly Manor partly shares both title, cast, and the same creator, Mike Flanagan, Bly Manor is not a continuation. To phrase it differently, Bly Manor has a completely new narrative and shares nothing but the aforementioned external productional factors with the former series, making The Haunting of into an anthology series. However, even though Bly Manor is a standalone medium, it is rather difficult to avoid comparing the two and it might even be through comparison that the new series is most easily made accessible and reviewed to fans of Hill House.
Creator Mike Flanagan is well-known in the genre and exclusively makes either horror films or series, which is easily apparent in Bly Manor. As it was made evident in Hill House, Flanagan clearly knows all the classical tropes, clichés, and traditions as well as how to best incorporate, entertain and evolve them. It is difficult to balance paying homage to the classics without creating something entirely unoriginal and trite but the formula is nearly perfect in Hill House. Even though the series superficially might appear to be a generic horror series, the narrative style felt innovative and the way the episodes were formed around a different member of the family made the entire experience seem fresh and original. Unfortunately, this is not the case for Bly Manor. The clichés are left unchallenged and prevalent to such a degree, that one might even be able to win a game of "horror bingo". Does the series contain living dolls? Yes. Does it have creepy children in it? Yup. Will the main character enter a room she was explicitly told to avoid? Also, yes. Is she wearing a nightgown? Well of course she is... aand BINGO! At times its difficult to not scream in frustration at the screen, as the characters act increasingly irrational. While we are not quite in the realm of Scary Movie, we are getting there.
As previously mentioned, members of the Hill House cast have returned, which is mostly a good thing. Similar to other anthology series, like American Horror Story, this entails that most faces are recognisable, which makes it quite a lot easier to empathise even with the less-developed characters. This is fortunate, as in terms of character development there is not much to speak of, and most characters remain faceless until the very end. The series is composed of nine episodes and recycles the structure from Hill House, which allows certain characters to have an individual episode dedicated to their backstory. The isolated episode is usually a single flashback cut up into pieces and distributed throughout the 50 minutes an episode runs.
Regrettably, a single episode's worth, no matter how crammed, makes a poor substitute for a proper character arc, earned throughout an entire series. This results in most of the characters being immensely caricatured and superficial. It is exceptionally difficult to describe the different characters using more than a single adjective and their profession; Rahul Kohli is a well-mannered chef, Victoria Pedretti is a traumatised au pair, T'Nia Miller is a governess who is also well-mannered, et cetera, et cetera.
Out of the ten main characters, only a few that get their own special. The rest must make do with a forced monologue, where they can tell the audience of their past traumas and justify their imperfections. This is exactly as inorganic as it sounds, and the monologues are not particularly well-written. While the previous series was centred around a family, this time around the story revolves around a cast of characters with no established reason to stay or even like each other. But for some reason (some might say, so the series can happen) they do. Add to this irrational attachments and decisions, as well as an extremely convenient plot, and you have the recipe for The Haunting of Bly Manor. A great example is how two of the main characters magically fall in love after having spent all of five minutes in the same room. It seems a bit peculiar and extraordinarily contrived.
The acting is adequate, although I expect most of us could do without the feigned accents. I cannot comprehend why it is required of a competent actor such as Victoria Pedretti to force such an abysmal valley girl accent and what it's necessary for other returned (American) members of the cast do imitate a British accent. It seems quite a bit easier to simply have the script slightly rewritten or to recast the parts so the series didn't have an American actor in the role of British narrator. On a more positive note, the budget is noticeably bigger than the preceding series, and the dreadful contact lenses have finally been replaced with proper CGI. So at least we know the money reserved for dialect coaches was well-spent.
The tempo of Bly Manor starts off slowly, gradually rises and ends on another stretched note. To put it mildly, the pacing is lacking and there is a plethora of downtime where nothing transpires. Clearly, the first season was written over a much longer period, while the writing of the present season was hurried along to meet a deadline. The story of Hill House is as tightly and elegantly spun as a spider's web where every string is connected across the episodes. Comparing this to the constructed web of Bly Manor makes it seem awkward and inept. The narrative is much less structured and the "discrete" plot twists that are attempted throughout the series feel clumsy.
You can see every twist and turn several episodes in advance which just comes down to shoddy storytelling. The foundations that are required for an effective plot twist must be laid carefully and deliberately. It does not make for an entertaining or effective twist if it has not been earned through a subtle accumulation. Removing twenty blocks from a narrative's foundation and throwing them in the face of the audience at the last moment does not make it feel earned. A proper plot twist is hinted at long before it is unveiled and offers new insight into everything you have already witnessed. In other words, it makes the series worth watching again. Bly Manor does much of the opposite; the reveals and twists are drawn out, easily predicted, without significance and feel intensely anticlimactic when they finally come to pass.
The difference in quality between Hill House and Bly Manor in this respect is similar to the distinction between old and new M. Night Shyamalan scripts. Subtleness has been completely thrown out the window and the themes and morals are repeated endlessly in case you didn't catch it the first time. Everything culminates in the last episode, where the story suddenly decides it no longer wishes to be a horror story but instead concludes as a sickly and overly romantic fairy tale. But to be fair, it is the first horror I have seen that decided to play a Sheryl Crow song and give all the characters as close to a happy ending as can be, which just demonstrates that originality can be quite overrated.
Unlike Hill House, every scene in Bly Manor does not contain a ghost, as far as I can tell, although it might include a doll, talisman, or another kind of Easter egg I have missed. No matter what, Bly Manor seems a great deal less polished and structured than the previous series and it is rather evident that the primary story Flanagan had to tell was already told back in 2018. While I recommended The Haunting of Hill House to every horror fan I know, I will not be doing the same with The Haunting of Bly Manor. Not because it is horrendous, merely because it's disappointingly mediocre.