I’ve been thinking a lot about The Haunting of Bly Manor this week — ’tis the season, after all. Following the genuine terror of the first season’s Shirley Jackson adaptation — which I wrote about a couple of times — I found this Henry James affair to be a major disappointment. The narrative tricks deployed are all familiar, as most of them were all put to excellent use last time round — how relationships between people are affected by the impositions of their own personal demons, for instance, and how the line between person and demon is not always clear cut — but nothing really hits the mark here.
It could generously be argued that this is an attempt to stay loyal to the source material, echoing James’ quintessentially eerie tale in which the source of the horror seems to be almost entirely subtextual. However, the show also feels like it has suffered from the habits of many a supernatural series in recent years — it has given in, at times, to the fans of the first series, to the point that it occasionally feels written by fan-fiction committee. Moments that stick out are those that could easily be cribbed and poured over by tabloid media sections looking for something to analyse and generate comments about; what could be interpreted as Jamesian allusivity instead looks like a scattering of cheap Easter Eggs for what used to be known as the Tumblr crowd, and often at the expense of the story itself. These hidden objects in the frame give the illusion of depth to, and help generate a marketing buzz for, a show that quickly falls apart when taken at face value. (Truly, despite his rapid fall from critical grace, the shadow of M. Night Shyamalan remains long.) These habits add up and further illuminate the eeriness of the production itself, turning my excitement over subtextual horror into a metatextual revulsion.
This is compelling, in a way. As someone interested in that sort of thing, it has allowed me to watch the entirely of the series with few complaints, but it doesn’t necessarily make for good telly.
These problems are epitomised, I think, by the ineptitude of its location design. Despite James’s original tale being a sort of British-American hybrid, this adaptation totally fails to convince me of its transatlanticism. It’s quite funny, really. How does an American TV show best convey a sense of Englishness? It films in Canada, of course. But The Haunting of Bly Manor‘s vision of Britain is so utterly unconvincing that it feels like an acutely American existential horror despite itself. This isn’t the story of an American woman haunted by the English countryside — this is American TV execs thinking Canada is a good enough substitute for Essex.
This is less an instance of snobbery with regards to a false sense of authenticity, despite how it may sound, but it does make a difference to “foreign” viewer. It is difficult to invest myself in its exploration of outsideness when, semiotically, the show is so painfully insular.
These jarring settings are everywhere. Whilst viewers are no doubt used to McMansions standing in for English country manors, the pubs and high streets that supposedly make up London are so obviously North American as to make the show feel like little more than a cheap exercise in Anglophilia — but, as ever, going to Europe to find yourself reveals more about the superficiality of home than the apparent depth of the old world.
On the surface, this is quite interesting. For a show that is preoccupied with — and eventually becomes wholly entrapped within — screen memories, the Epcot Centre vision of an Essex manor only compounds the ungroundedness of the show’s excellent lead, Victoria Pedretti. (She was the strongest presence in The Haunting of Hill House, so it was only right that we got to see her in her stride here.) However, this ungroundedness does not stay at the surface. It seeps into every level of the show.
For example, the script is so wooden at times — particularly those lines given to Yorkshirewoman Amelia Eve, which genuinely grated on the ears. (Whether she’s actually from Yorkshire or not, I don’t know; again, no interest in authenticity here, but, to be frank, I’m also still not over the abhorrent class drag of Kit Harrington and Rose Leslie in Game of Thrones.) It transforms each of the characters into vague caricatures of Englishness with little depth. Although the show gives the illusion of character development, beyond the actors’ own expressiveness there is very little psychological exploration of the relationships between people here — just a kind of snooker game where blank characters continuously ricochet off each other and occasionally let off a bit of sexual steam.
This kind of hollow personhood is, again, exacerbated by the show’s set-up, which includes cliched horror staples like a doll’s house which mirrors the actual house. The blank-faced dolls that populate this child’s model of home have their (somewhat) material counterparts — the creepy effigies that occupy each room in miniature are representative of the real ghosts that linger around the house — and, at first, this is an interesting set-up but one which barely amounts to anything. On the one hand, that’s an intriguing choice — these faceless ghosts that haunt the manor are barely present but their absence creates a tense atmosphere throughout. They also represent a threat that lingers over the show’s protagonists, caught up in atemporal screen memories, who might become faceless husks themselves if they do not find a way out of their psychic drifting.
Flora, the young girl who lives in the manor, is attuned to these ghosts. She doesn’t fear (most of) them and even seems to successfully befriend a few of them. One scene shows Flora befriending a faceless boy in her attic, for instance. In attempting to humanise him, she gives his blank visage a doll’s face. It is a creepy image, undoubtedly, but again it feels like a metacommentary on the show itself — the hollow nature of the landscapes and the characters that populate them offer us many creepy moments but they end up far less than the sum of their parts. Putting an expressive face on a poorly written character doesn’t do much — in this sense, despite deserving the lead, Victoria Pedretti had little to work with here. This show looks the part but it still feels hollow underneath. Taking its time-warped narrative to extremes doesn’t help matters. In the end, we’re left with a parade of hollow characters who don’t know who they are caught up in a hollow world that doesn’t know where or when it is.
In an era of self-referrential postmodern media, perhaps all of this is intentional; perhaps this is what Henry James looks like in the twenty-first century. As a comment on an America adrift, it would be inspired. But being able to conceptually account for its flawed nature doesn’t make it any less so. It just makes for a compellingly shit watch.
In that sense, maybe it is perfect viewing for this spooky US election season…