For lovers of the horror genre, the name of Mike Flanagan will certainly be familiar: author of a small filmography of titles highly appreciated by audiences and critics, a director with a rare mastery in the use of the leivmotifs of horror and thriller cinema, enriched by fresh and complex characters and situations. The transition to the serial format is just as happy, if not more so. The American director brings all the aforementioned elements and a range of trusted collaborators to the small screen to create a series in 2018 Netflix already become a cult, a ten-episode re-adaptation of Shirley Jackson's book, which became a milestone in horror cinema in 1963 (I calmly omit the 1999 pop remake with Liam Neeson and Catherine Zeta-Jones), with great success by public and critics. Also for Netflix, Flanagan again brings a free adaptation of another movie classic and stand-alone follow-up to Hill House, The Haunting of Bly Manor, this time based on Henry James' horror story, The Turn of the Screw, 1898, also already adapted for the big screen in a masterpiece of the psychological thriller Suspense (in original language The Innocents) of the 1961, of which also this time I will omit the existence of the 2020 remake.
The house by the lake
The current year is 1987. In the England of the Thatcher administration, of the triumph of capitalism and yuppism, Dani (Victoria Pedretti) is a young American teacher on the run from the ghosts of a painful past, commissioned by the very rich and elusive lawyer Henry Wilgrave (Henry Thomas) to fill the role of au pair at the former family residence, Bly Manor in Essex. The girl's task will be to take care of the man's two young nephews, the tormented Miles and the very sensitive Flora, who were orphaned of both parents after a tragic accident in India.
The huge and ancient Elizabethan-style mansion is already home to other servants of the Wilgrave family: the patient and empathic housekeeper Hannah (T'Nia Miller), the young and ambitious cook Owen (Rahul Kohli) and the rebellious and nonconformist gardener Jamie ( Amelia Eve). Unbeknownst to Dani, however, the role of au pair was previously held by another girl, Rebecca, who committed suicide after being abandoned and conned by Henry's former assistant, Peter (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), who apparently fled with a large amount of money and of which no one knows anything anymore. Soon, mysterious events and apparitions will haunt Dani, while the children seem to be hiding more than one disturbing secret.
Wide expectations accompanied the release of this sequel to the highly acclaimed Hill House, perhaps too high to fully enjoy a ghost story like this, given that The Haunting of Bly Manor is not a true sequel to the 2018 series, as much as a project on the same wavelength as its predecessor: an adaptation of a classic of the American gothic novel, already adapted for the big screen and already a reference work for many lovers of the genre.
Of course, Flanagan is smart enough to understand that if a formula works it's not worth changing it completely, but he still decides to take creative risks, obviously starting by transporting the story of the book from the 80th century to the end of the XNUMXs (an operation already successfully made for Hill House). The subtext of the novel and the film (the protagonist's sexual repression that turns into a mania of supernatural persecution) is then recalculated with a view to homosexual expression so popular these days. A shame, since this element had made the critical fortune of the original Henry James story, so expertly represented then in the film adaptation of Jack Clayton signed by none other than Truman Capote.
However, Flanagan's effort (not just) was to remodel a psychological thriller into a real ghost story, combining his personal style with a Hitchcockian atmosphere, the gothic to the psychedelic, the phantasmagoric to the phantasmatic. A choice that risks not meeting the expectations of many and putting Hill House fans to the test, ready to watch this stand-alone “sequel” with great attention. And in fact Bly Manor is a very wide-ranging series, where the action unfolds very slowly and the real scares are very few in the nine episodes of almost an hour that make up the series, resulting at times trying for those looking for strong emotions right away.
To gain, however, is the human and sentimental apparatus of the series, with its excellent character development and his attention to the psychological (and at times psychoanalytic) department of the characters, which is so particularly sincere even by the standards of a genre perhaps more sentimental than this one. Flanagan exhausts with this Bly Manor all the romantic potential hidden behind the topos of the ghost story, putting us back in the film department of fear, but earning it in respect of a romantic film with neo-gothic and phantasmagoric tones.