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The Humanity of Mike Flanagan’s Horror

He might not be a household name, but ‘The Haunting of Bly Manor’ reaffirms that Flanagan, who prioritizes empathy over cheap scares, is one of the best filmmakers working in horror today

Netflix/Ringer illustration

You won’t have to wait long for the first jump scare in The Haunting of Bly Manor, the second installment of the Netflix anthology series from Mike Flanagan, which, assuming there are future seasons, could function like a high-grade American Horror Story. The jump scare in question occurs in the series premiere, when Dani Clayton (played by Victoria Pedretti), an American looking to be hired as an au pair for a family living in a sprawling estate in the English countryside, gets a glimpse of her reflection. Standing beside her is a shadowy figure with bright, glowing eyes; one that we soon learn rarely leaves her sight. While legitimately creepy, the best description I can give of the figure is that it looks like Elijah Wood in Sin City.

There’s plenty of connective tissue between Bly Manor and its predecessor, The Haunting of Hill House. The glowy-eyed presence initially feels like Bly Manor’s answer to “The Bent-Neck Lady,” which, coincidentally, was memorably brought to (undead) life by Pedretti. (Like additional entries of American Horror Story, Bly Manor brings back several actors from its predecessor in new roles.) The first sight of this specter in Dani’s reflection will probably cause you to tense up, but it’s nowhere near as frightening as the all-time-great jump scare in Hill House’s eighth episode—which owes a great debt to Pedretti’s screaming her lungs out. To create Dani’s predicament, Flanagan also reaches into his old bag of tricks: The predations of a sinister mirror is the crux of Oculus, his 2013 film that will make you think twice about looking at your reflection.

While he isn’t a household name, Flanagan has quickly emerged as one of horror’s most proficient filmmakers. His movies and TV shows don’t always crack critics’ year-end lists, but they’re largely well-received; he’s like an NBA player who’s carved out a successful career in spite of never making an All-Star team. Bly Manor might not be Flanagan’s apex—in fact, having written and directed only the first episode, it’s a far less strenuous commitment for him than Hill House, for which he directed every episode. But Bly Manor is very good television filled with unmistakable Flanagan trademarks that plays to one of the filmmaker’s greatest strengths: a commitment to empathy in a genre that’s too often deprived of it.

Though getting a job at an English estate looking after two children isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it’s clear from the beginning of Bly Manor that Dani’s choice to become a governess in a new country is her way of running from the past. (The other, less-subtle hint would be the haunting presence of the aforementioned glowy-eyed figure.) There are a lot of mysterious happenings at Bly Manor—some that might be obvious for those familiar with Henry James’s novella The Turn of the Screw, of which the series is a loose adaptation—and the people who choose to work at the isolated mansion bring their own emotional baggage as well. There’s the cook, Owen (Rahul Kohli), who gave up on his dream of becoming a chef in Paris to look after his ailing mother in the nearby town; Jamie (Amelia Eve) the sardonic gardener who loves plants more than people; Hannah (T’Nia Miller), the housekeeper whose mind always seems to drift to another place; and Henry (Henry Thomas), the alcoholic, workaholic uncle of two kids who lost their parents in a tragic accident, who goes to great lengths to avoid interactions with his only kin.

There’s also the small matter of Bly Manor’s previous au pair dying on the premises, and the unsettling feeling that something’s wrong with the children, Flora (Amelie Bea Smith) and Miles (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth), who’ve been around an extraordinary amount of death despite their ages. Flora vacillates between being overly cheery—her tic is describing something as “perfectly splendid”—and looking worryingly over someone’s shoulder when there’s nothing behind them. Her brother, who gives all of us named Miles a bad name, has a light streak of malice when he isn’t trying to flirt with the au pair. Dani might’ve worried about bringing the ghosts of her past to Bly Manor, but the place is already teeming with paranormal activity.

Like its predecessor, Bly Manor jumps back and forth in time, weaving a complex thread that explores how past traumas and regret shape the present. But while Hill House leaned on familial grief—a shorthand I used to describe the show was “if This Is Us was scary”—Bly Manor is a gothic romance at heart: haunting by way of its characters’ yearning for a love that can never be rekindled. Rather than directly tackle hard truths and heartbreak, the inhabitants of Bly Manor turn inward. Sometimes, the characters are tormented by a physical manifestation of their inner demons; other times, aided by the supernatural underpinnings of the estate, they hide by revisiting happier memories from the past. (Christopher Nolan is going to love this show.)

Those hoping Bly Manor would pack as much straight-up horror as Hill House, which had no shortage of ghoulish terrors lurking around every corner of its disordered mansion, might come away disappointed. The series’ tone falls more in line with the ending of Hill House, which traded additional scares for a sentimental coda about how grief doesn’t have to define who we are even if it never truly leaves us. Jump scares in Bly Manor are few and far between—its creepiest creation, the quasi-faceless Lady of the Lake, makes only sporadic appearances. Given how Hill House’s saccharine finale rubbed some viewers the wrong way, Bly Manor seems destined for a lower approval rating.

But the irony is that Hill House—which, it can’t be understated, was seriously frightening for large swaths of its 10-episode run—has always been more of an outlier for Flanagan in terms of sheer scare volume. He’s described his own script-writing process as one in which he throws in genre elements only after he’s satisfied with the characters and the story. That consideration for characters over an onslaught of terrifying moments is reflected in his filmography. It’s not that Flanagan doesn’t make scary movies and shows, but rather that the scariness isn’t usually the reason that they’re etched into your memory.

Consider two of his 2016 releases: Hush and Ouija: Origin of Evil. The former is a clever spin on the home-invasion thriller, where the would-be victim is a deaf and mute writer (Katie Siegel) living in the middle of the woods whose assailant (John Gallagher Jr.) views her as an easy target. While toying with his supposed prey, the dude finds out that she’s more resourceful, and tougher, than meets the eye. Hush is a taut and straightforward exercise in cat-and-mouse suspense, which isn’t meant to slight Flanagan’s approach. It’s a near-flawless execution of a movie that understands exactly what it should be.

Meanwhile, Origin of Evil served as the prequel to a critically panned film about a cursed Ouija board. Flanagan’s film uses the flimsy board-game premise to explore the family dynamics of a widowed mother struggling to raise her two daughters in 1960s Los Angeles. She makes ends meet by conning people as a psychic who “communicates” with the dead, but things get a little too real when a Ouija board is incorporated and her youngest daughter becomes possessed. As undeniably creepy as it is to watch a possessed child scale a creaking house like a spider, Origin of Evil works because it lays the emotional groundwork of a family in crisis: It’s not just scary, it’s devastating to watch. Though Blumhouse Productions intentionally gave Flanagan a blank slate, Origin of Evil has no right to be as good as it is.

If making a critically acclaimed sequel to an objectively terrible movie about a cursed board game wasn’t enough of a flex, Flanagan followed that up by somehow making a good film out of Gerald’s Game. It’s not that Gerald’s Game is a bad Stephen King novel, but it’s hard to think of a King text that’s less suited to big-screen adaptation. Not long into the film, Jessie (Carla Gugino) is handcuffed to a bed by her husband, Gerald (Bruce Greenwood)—a last-ditch effort to add a spark to their failing marriage—before he collapses and dies from a heart attack. While Jessie is tormented by hallucinations of Gerald, as well as a stray dog and a mysterious hulking figure she dubs the Moonlight Man, Gerald’s Game is mainly a one-woman show. Jessie confronts her insecurities, childhood trauma, and the ticking clock of survival—all culminating with a degloving scene captured in all its stomach-turning viscera. Against all odds, Gerald’s Game belongs in the top tier of the long and growing list of King adaptations.

Turning one of King’s most notoriously unfilmable texts into a worthy film was the perfect trial run before tackling Doctor Sleep. Adapting King’s sequel to The Shining meant contending with not only the legacy of the book, but more importantly, that of Stanley Kubrick’s all-time great horror film. King notoriously hated Kubrick’s interpretation of The Shining, which painted Jack Torrance less as a sympathetic figure being preyed upon by the Overlook Hotel’s sinister spirits than as a shining (sorry) symbol of toxic masculinity. With Doctor Sleep, Flanagan found a way to appease both King and the Kubrick estate, which is an incredible achievement in and of itself.

When reviewing Doctor Sleep last year, I admired Flanagan for walking the tricky tightrope between honoring King’s text and Kubrick’s aesthetic sensibilities—unfortunately, the film felt a little flat when it went straight into Shining homage territory. But upon several rewatches, including Flanagan’s improved three-hour director’s cut, Doctor Sleep has a way of growing on you. It’s a movie of great and almost overwhelming ambition—not just hoping to satisfy King and Kubrick acolytes, but thoughtfully examining the way that Danny Torrance’s childhood trauma pushed him toward alcoholism and, eventually, the long road to recovery. And I haven’t even gotten to the hippie cult of psychic vampires feeding off of “Shine” led by Rebecca Ferguson in a top hat, Danny’s tween pen pal who gets stuck in the cult’s crosshairs, an extended Jacob Tremblay torture scene, or the indelible imagery of the film’s astral projection sequence.

There’s so much going on in Doctor Sleep that one could make a credible case that it could’ve been stretched out into a miniseries—with Hill House’s arrival on Netflix the year prior already serving as proof of Flanagan’s small-screen bona fides—but its admirable messiness is like navigating a hedge maze. For a film whose score thumps along like an errant heartbeat, Doctor Sleep has plenty of heart. In the end, its sentimentality wins you over.

Flanagan’s empathetic handling of Danny Torrance’s generational trauma doesn’t come as a surprise: If there’s a through line to the filmmaker’s work, it’s his penchant for finding the humanity in all kinds of horror stories. (As well as, apparently, a willingness to tackle seemingly unworkable concepts like “a sequel to a board game movie with a 6 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes” and “the Stephen King book where a woman is handcuffed to a bed.”) Ideally, then, viewers will go into Bly Manor with the hopes of being emotionally drawn into the story, instead of anticipating how much it’ll make them jump off the couch. (Rest assured, there are still some scary moments sprinkled in.)

With the right expectations, Bly Manor is a worthy follow-up to Hill House, with its investment in haunted characters—in more ways than one—to go with its haunted setting. The series doesn’t reach the highs of its predecessor, and is somewhat hamstrung by the lack of a singular creative vision without Flanagan taking full rein behind the camera. But that should hardly be a dealbreaker: I’d argue that the first six episodes of Hill House is the best television Netflix has ever made, full stop. The series was always going to be a tough act to follow.

If nothing else, the fact that Bly Manor doesn’t totally measure up to some of Mike Flanagan’s best work is a testament to how consistently good the emerging auteur can be. He might not be a household name just yet, but he stands every chance of getting there. In the meantime, and in the spirit of his Netflix anthology series, Flanagan is more like one of the hidden ghosts of his haunted mansions: quietly impressing if you look hard enough.