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Mike Flanagan’s Modern Gothic: ‘The Haunting of… Hill House’ (2018) & ‘… Bly Manor’ (2020)

Created by: Mike Flanagan || Written by: Mike Flanagan, Rebecca Klingel [1, 2], Meredith Averill, Jeff Howard, Charise Castro Smith, Scott Kosar, Liz Phang [1], Henry James, Diane Ademu-John, Julia Bicknell, Michael Clarkson, Paul Clarkson, James Flanagan, Leah Fong, Angela LeManna, Laurie Penny [2]

Directed by: Mike Flanagan1, 2, Ciarán Foy, Liam Gavin, Ben Howling, Yolanda Ramke, Axelle Carolyn, E.L. Katz [2] || Starring: Michiel Huisman, Elizabeth Reaser, Lulu Wilson, Mckenna Grace, Paxton Singleton, Julian Hilliard, Violet McGraw, Timothy Hutton [1], Amelia Eve, T’Nia Miller, Rahul Kohli, Tahirah Sharif, Amelie Bea Smith, Benjamin Evan Ainsworth, Henry Thomas [2], Henry Thomas, Victoria Pedretti, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Kate Siegel, Carla Guigino, Catherine Parker [1, 2]

No. of Episodes: 101, 92 || 1 = Hill House, 2 = Bly Manor

I am not the biggest fan of Gothic Horror on film, though I have obligatory respect for the style’s influence on Western literature throughout the 18th-19th centuries. Authors such as Bram Stoker, Mary Shelly, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Edgar Allan Poe are the Godparents of countless motifs, plot-devices, and monsters that have become pillars of moody, spooky storytelling in numerous media, and their artistic influence has spread well beyond the confines of the Gothic movement itself. Gothic filmmaking, at least in a modern sense (e.g. Sleepy Hollow [1999], The Orphanage [2007], Crimson Peak [2015], Suspiria [2018]), may be defined by thematic undercurrents of sadness, a strong sense of melancholy, which melds with their location-photography’s affection for foggy, overcast woodlands and their set-design’s imposing, often fantastical architecture.

Enter filmmaker Mike Flanagan, a prolific writer, editor, producer, and director of numerous feature-film and limited series horror productions that have achieved an unblemished record with professional film critics and success either at the box office or on streaming platforms. Today’s subject-matter concerns some of his most recent miniseries on the latter, the Netflix-exclusive projects of The Haunting of Hill House and The Haunting of Bly Manor, to be specific.

Top: Amelia Bea Smith shushes a noisy ghost while playing hide-and-seek in The Haunting of Bly Manor. Bottom: In a flashback episode depicting Bly Manor’s past, Kate Siegel (right) suffers from an illness that results in her spirit haunting the grounds for centuries to come.

Hill House and Bly Manor, both standalone installments within Flanagan’s The Haunting (2018, 2020) anthology series, capture the auteur’s singular emotional horror like few other signature projects of any filmmaker. Plenty of creepy vibes, surrealist imagery, and tangible demonic threats lurk about in both seasons, but these narratives’ thematic emphasis is on melancholic turmoil and grief, rather than gore or violent shock. You’ll find few jump-scares or elaborate chase sequences in either Hill House or Bly Manor, which is in stark contrast to most theatrical mainstream horror a la James Wan, James DeMonaco, Jordan Peele, or various subsidiaries of Blumhouse. If you watch any of Flanagan’s work, but especially his Haunting projects for Netflix, you’ll feel as sad as you do scared most of the time.

Hill House is the strongest of Flanagan’s Netflix projects despite being the most longwinded (10 episodes). In terms of cinematography and technical merit, Hill House flaunts incredible, purposeful long-takes most memorably in its signature “Two Storms” episode, which transitions between present and flashback storylines across elaborate sets with dollies and Steadicams galore, as well as tight editing, artistic shot composition, and unforgettable lighting setups in every other episode. The series’ versatile, surgical camerawork and post-production refinement hone the narrative’s considerable 10-hour length to a near perfect pace, with some episodes feeling more visually dynamic and bombastic whereas others feel creepier and quieter.

Hill House’s modulated pace and accentuated visual style coalesce with the aforementioned nonlinear storyline; Flanagan’s narrative shifts between past and present day versions of the main cast to emphasize not only the passage of time, but also character development and the sheer sadness of personal horror over various lifetimes. The show’s first five episodes establish each of the five main characters (Michiel Huisman, Elizabeth Reaser, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Kate Siegel, and Victoria Pedretti as adults, Paxton Singleton, Lulu Wilson, Julian Hilliard, Mckenna Grace, Violet McGraw as youngsters) who were raised in the titular mansion and now deal with the emotional fallout of that house’s supernatural power, while the second half describes their confrontation with a major character’s suicide and their subsequent return to Hill House. Though I prefer limited series in the range of 5-8 50-minute episodes, the overall tight structure of Hill House and Flanagan’s commitment to inventive, stylized photography liven the stale, melodramatic, dialogue-driven nature of Gothic fiction’s Romantic roots

The Haunting of Bly Manor, on the other hand, didn’t work for me the way most other Gothic films don’t: I found the project alternated between depressing, slow, morose sentimentality and over-the-top histrionics. Much of my criticism of Bly rests with its portrayal of “dream-hopping,” whereby individuals — including members of the main cast — die, become ghosts as a result of Bly’s supernatural aura, and then transport between various time periods and memories to the point of repetitive confusion. This plot-device is so incoherent and occurs often enough as to almost ruin the series for me, like a bad riff on the twist of The Sixth Sense (1999).

What did, in fact, ruin Bly Manor for me were the key relationships of multiple primary castmembers and the structure of their arcs. While I appreciate the creepy atmosphere of the eponymous household, most everything regarding the tragic backstories of the main cast I found either uninteresting, tiresome, or superfluous. The story follows a live-in babysitter, or au pair (Pedretti, one of several recurring Flanagan collaborators), of two wealthy but orphaned children (great child performances from Amelie Bea Smith and Benjamin Evan Ainsworth), visiting the English countryside from America, who uncovers the origins of Bly Manor’s numerous ghosts. My problem with the execution of this premise is how much the nonlinear story drags the pace of the present day narrative, unlike Hill House, and how bland the central romance between Pedretti and costar Amelia Eve is. The latter plot-point feels almost ancillary to the titular haunting experience, as well as Pedretti’s more interesting relationship with her child costars; but this corny, trite love story becomes the dominant focus of Bly Manor by show’s end.

No one could criticize Mike Flanagan’s horror for lacking mood or unsettling, creepy ambiance. His visual attention to detail in both The Haunting of Hill House and Bly Manor’s production-design, lighting, and paranormal special FX are as identifiable as the directorial flair of any contemporary horror auteur; most of his works that I’ve seen I’ve enjoyed, but for better and for worse, his Netflix Haunting series represent my extreme positive and negative reactions to his style. If you’re into horror of the emotional, melancholic, Gothic variety, you can’t afford to miss Flanagan’s Netflix works either way, but I strongly suggest you watch Hill House over Bly Manor if you have to choose.

Left: Timothy Hutton (far left), patriarch of the principle Crain family, observes his deceased child in The Haunting of Hill House’s standout episode. Right: Witness the beautiful imagery of the titular dilapidated mansion.

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SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: I hypothesize the consistent emotional potency of Hill House and the disorganized storytelling of Bly Manor are a function of Mike Flanagan’s complete directorial control over the former and more detached showrunner duties of the latter. In any case, I argue Hill House better controls its Gothic melodrama thanks to its stylish, diverse cinematography and ironclad narrative structure, while Bly Manor’s teleplays feel more lackadaisical, reliant on obtuse dream sequences that distract more than they immerse, and tied to a romantic subplot that should’ve remained a background detail at best.

—> The Haunting of Hill House comes RECOMMENDED, while surprisingly, the somewhat briefer Haunting of Bly Manor is NOT RECOMMENDED.

? Carla Gugino with an English accent is nowhere as effective as Henry Thomas with an English accent.

About The Celtic Predator

I love movies, music, video games, and big, scary creatures.

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