REVIEW: The Haunting of Bly Manor

The Haunting of Bly Manor is the latest installment in The Haunting anthology created by Mike Flanagan for Netflix. The series consists of nine episodes, and follows the story of an au pair who arrives at the haunted estate of Bly Manor.

The series uses horror elements in a very understated way; it elects to hide ghosts in the background that often go unseen rather than to have jumpscare after jumpscare. It has an overall eerie tone – a large, old house and two children who advise their governess not to roam the grounds after dark – but it is very slow burn, which becomes one of its faults. The series takes several episodes before a cohesive storyline begins to unfold, but once the inklings of an intriguing plot emerge, it becomes too complicated. Bly Manor has a massive cast: the au pair, the two children, their uncle, the housekeeper, the gardener, the cook, the dead parents, the previous governess, and many other characters introduced through flashbacks. What Bly Manor does well is showcase the talent of the many actors, however it fails to set up a clear, main storyline supported by the side characters. Instead, it gives each character a subplot and while all of the characters are genuinely well-written and interesting, the show does not give itself enough time to fully flesh out each subplot and tie them each into the main storyline.

The second-to-last episode, “The Romance of Certain Old Clothes,” is the weakest episode even though it is supposed to serve as the explanation as to why the estate of Bly Manor is haunted, what happened to the current governess’s predecessor, and why any of this is relevant to the current staff of Bly Manor. It comes across as a filler or even throw-away episode, and it adds another layer of confusion to the story. I understand that Flanagan wants to retain an air of mystery to keep the audience engaged, however when the story is so confusing for so many episodes, it becomes frustrating to watch. Ultimately, the series wastes a decent amount of time keeping the audience in the dark, resulting in a rushed conclusion of the ghost story before moving on to conclude the ongoing story of love and loss. That being said, one thing that Flanagan does well is create a bittersweet ending that emulates the central theme that to truly love someone is to accept that loving them is worth the risk and pain of losing them. However, though the last 15 minutes of the final episode carry the entire show, it cannot be ignored that the majority of the show is too slow, and that Flanagan adds another subplot in the second-to-last episode that only opens up more plot holes.

Finally, I cannot review Bly Manor without discussing its predecessor, The Haunting of Hill House. Hill House is overall a tighter and cleaner story that does a better job of balancing horror and very human themes – grief and guilt, in this case. Flanagan ties in fear as a projection of guilt and trauma in this series – rather than a separate and debatably related aspect – with a satisfying conclusion addressing family and forgiveness. However, Hill House also falls into a lull with the two episodes before the finale, but those episodes act more as a set-up for the finale rather than an entirely new addition to the story like in Bly Manor.

Overall, I expected both series to come to a huge, dramatic, maybe even disturbing conclusion, but what Flanagan choses to do instead is to subvert expectations and craft two conclusions that that are empathetic and wistful. The last fifteen minutes of Bly Manor and the finale of Hill House showcase Flanagan’s ability to depict compelling stories of human relationships, which is ultimately what draws a large fanbase to the two shows.

REVIEW: A. M. I.

I knew this movie was going to be sort of bad before I watched it; Netflix doesn’t put brand-new horror movies on their site unless they’re fairly sub-par. However, for whatever reason, I’m a bad movie junkie: I love anything campy or a little trite and easy to consume. Movies that make you analyze them have a definite place and value, but I’m doing enough schoolwork already.

So objectively, this is not a good movie. The acting was flat, the main character was cast way outside the actress’s age, the fairytale structure that A.M.I. followed to tell Cassie to kill everyone was completely out of place. It’s a step above a soap opera only in that the background music and sound quality are all right. Overall, the thing would have fit better on the Lifetime channel, where it belongs.

But the concept is still interesting; that’s why it caught my eye in the first place. Besides all of the actual cinematic qualities of this movie, the reality that technology is filling every inch of space in our lives is a startling truth, and it’s happening so fast we don’t have the time to reckon with it. Classes on Zoom, delivery of anything via an app, conveniently equipment-free workouts on YouTube, and virtual meetings have made leaving the house a necessity of the distant past. I feel like my body can’t handle sitting in temperatures below 72 anymore; I venture into the outdoors like a Floridian explorer going out into the Antarctic wilderness. I might snag a lungful of fresh air when I go for a jog long after the sun has gone down, but I come crawling back to the comfort of my computer in no time at all. Of course, all of this is amplified by the virus, but it is just a tilt upwards in a long trend with no endpoint. 

For a moment, I’d like you to imagine this movie was done by the producers of Black Mirror, and casted with actors like Daniel Kaluuya and Bryce Dallas Howard instead of a side character from iZombie. All technology-based horror has the potential of becoming gimmicky, and definitely dating itself in a few short years (the first movie in the Unfriended series, which came out in 2014, now looks like a relic of yesteryear with its old Skype interface). Simplicity is everything. It allows imagination to fill in the rest, just hinting at the depth of something gone wrong. If under different direction, and with a different cast, this movie could have made Cassie slower to blindly accept that her dead mother’s personality was captured in a cell phone she found. Her friends could have been a little less one-dimensional; I would have liked less overt direction in whom I should root for. Adding in some good nature or innocence to her victims would make their murders more chilling. Cassie could have periods of lost consciousness, showing us only hazily the work of her disintegrating mind. The audience should be just as bewildered by the events as she is, confusing justice and tragedy. I wanted flashes of the murders, just the creeping edges and muffled violence. Instead I got one or two camera angles of uninspired stabbing. 

I’m sure there will be many more movies like this one in the coming years. Maybe they won’t try to go beyond what they need to in terms of overtness, and will start straying farther from tired story structures. Here’s to hoping.

PREVIEW: A.M.I.

Between online classes, meetings, schoolwork, and arts events, most of us are beginning to resent our forced bond with technology. Still, somehow, staring lovingly at our screens on Netflix remains our go-to pastime (or procrastination habit, if we’re being honest here). Lucky for us all, I have a movie suggestion that might just marry the two conflicting sentiments: A.M.I.

It’s about a gal mourning the loss of her mother, then happening upon a new app with customizable artificial intelligence personalities. She forms a deeply emotional relationship with the voice, but it soon turns much more sinister than sweet mother-daughter talks…

This sounds like an interesting concept, but still an easily consumable slasher flick perfect for the Halloween season and our stressed brains decaying from midterms.

 

REVIEW: The Killing of a Sacred Deer

I always try to go into movies (and, well, most other events in my life) completely blind–I hate to watch trailers or read plots; just knowing basic facts ahead of time, like which actors are in the cast, upsets me. This has become a self-enforced law in virtually all areas of my life. So it wasn’t until a few minutes in that I realized that Colin Farrell, the very man who enchanted me in The Lobster played a main character (I found out later that the director was also the same in both movies). Exactly what I didn’t want to happen happened then: based on this new knowledge gained early in the movie, I began forming expectations. When I first watched The Lobster last year, alone in my dorm room in early spring just before the sun went down, I was floored. After it ended, I walked outside and hung onto a stop sign to keep from blowing away, though the air was still.

The result of comparisons like these is almost always disappointment. To regard a piece only as a continuation of a body of work, rather than its own autonomous thing which works in cooperation with itself, is a mistake that typically cannot be undone. This is probably why I didn’t exit my house at the end to clutch at a telephone pole or something. In fact, I forgot how it made me feel almost directly after, which is completely different from my relationship with other movies. 

Still, at some parts I was taken back to the old feeling, that sick gut high-pitched thing stuck somewhere in a nasal or orbital cavity when your mind bends a little painfully. I got this towards the end, as the children begin competing to be spared. Nothing else was starkly shocking in the same way. Not when Steven forces donuts down his son’s throat, or Anna flatly suggests it’s only rational to kill one of the children. When nothing really strikes, there is nothing to grab onto, nothing that connects us to the story.

Nicole Kidman, despite her brilliance in drama, was out of place in this movie. She thrives in hard-hitting, emotional film, not parts where she needs to seem totally unfeeling. Similarly, the presence of Alicia Silverstone got my goat at first, until I separated her from her Clueless days: as she’s grown up, her glazed-eye stare has shifted from strangely flirtatious boredom to something closer to slightly-conscious paralysis. The way her face moves can be disconcerting, bringing about an inexplicable sense of panic in my chest. And all three of the kids were perfect for this kind of acting, as all children are.

It was also clear the crew put thought into how they played with lighting. Much of the time, scenes were engulfed in golden light, sometimes artificial, but warm all the same. Maybe it was just the presence of Kidman, but it gave me some Eyes Wide Shut sensations. Rather than acting as a contrast to the coldness of the characters, it invited me into readily accepting the social norms of the world Lanthimos creates.

The movie wasn’t bad, but it was forgettable. Instead of still thinking of the questions it raises (it is morally wrong to have a favorite child? Who is most responsible in medical malpractice situations? What kinds of guilt can we handle, and how much?), I’m just flashing back to Martin messily eating spaghetti with a white shirt on. Unfortunate, maybe, but it’s the truth.

 

REVIEW: It Comes At Night

Why is legitimate talent wasted on awful screenplays?

Chuckling a little to myself, I chose thriller about a mysterious disease that forced families to isolate themselves from outsiders. I figured I’d finally be on the edge of my seat after weeks of watching painfully monotonous news coverage of minutely different facets of the same story. Turns out I was in for the same kind of boredom I had grown accustomed to in the past couple of months.

Horror movies (and increasingly, even the most confidently-labeled “cerebral” thrillers) have long been a genre that works with the same materials to build a plot. They use the same monsters, the same dialogue, the same archetypal characters. It is so dreadfully rare to find a horror movie that doesn’t settle for mining the same types of basic fears assumed to be common to all human beings. Sure, writers could start there for some aspects of their work, but all too often they also refuse to go further.  The next time I see another humanoid, tall, skinny shadowy figure drooling black goo from its mouth in a movie, I’m going to lose it, and not in the intended way. 

So anyways, this movie is about a family lucky enough to own property a long ways from the densely-populated city during a mass infection event of some mysterious disease. Already, the lack of context bugged me: where in the sam hill is this house located? Who is this family? What is this disease? How long has it been around? What has its global impact been? I kept waiting for the first rule of science fiction to be honored (a logical explanation of the way the world works in the story), but it never was. While some might argue that the vagueness adds to the scariness of the disease, to me it’s an excuse for lazy writing. There is such little substance in the world building the writers do that it distracts from whatever level of terror I’m supposed to be feeling, and replaces it with annoyance.

Though I shouldn’t have been surprised by the outdated, patriarchal family structure in the movie, I was. The dichotomy between femininity and masculinity was incredibly strong; it was made abundantly clear that the men were protectors, women were caregivers (and meant to be protected), and that these strict roles should be considered ideals. Men made decisions, and women made comments that could easily be dismissed. This is terribly common in horror, pulling on the legacy of the old days of female victimhood (King Kong, Creature From the Black Lagoon, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera). I’d thought we’d made it a little further past that. It’s almost like we need more female horror screenwriters. 

Going into the horror/thriller genre should not be a shortcut into movie making for unimaginative writers. There are some who are raising the standards, like Ari Aster (Midsommer), Julia Ducournau (Raw), and Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster, Dogtooth), but it isn’t enough yet to discourage the countless carbon copies of a basic slasher flick. Still, the future looks bright.

REVIEW: The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires

After finishing this book, my first horror/thriller novel, I can firmly say that I will never read another one. Not because it was bad, but because Grady Hendrix wrote it so well that I was thoroughly terrified. My palms were sweating profusely while reading certain scenes, and I had to frequently take breaks from reading because the story was so intense. I won’t spoil the plot, but I’m going to explain exactly what made this book so chilling to me–and what made it so good.

The title gives away that the “monster” in the story is a vampire, so I expected a certain level of blood, gore, and other classic vampire-related themes. Hendrix delivered on all of those. What he also incorporated into the horror of this story were psychological spooks and very relevant political issues. Yes, the vampire figure is making children disappear, but what made the vampire figure so scary was that you could replace it with literally any white man (think Ted Bundy, to whom the main character, Patricia, frequently compared the vampire figure) and the entire story would still be intact.

The actual plot started out kind of slow. It was only until a third of the way through the book that the thriller action really started to pick up. The first third of the plot was dedicated to meticulously crafting a world in which the reader’s attention was drawn to all of the problems within it, without explicitly stating them in the text. It laid the groundwork for truly horrific things to take place later on in the story. For this, I applaud Hendrix.

Patricia is made aware of the first child disappearances when she visits the woman who takes care of her mother-in-law, Mrs. Greene. Mrs. Greene lives in a predominantly black neighborhood, where everyone is scared that their child will be the next to disappear. Naturally, anyone would be scared, but Mrs. Greene’s neighbors are particularly distressed because their children are black and the police don’t seem to care. On one of my breaks from the story, I was looking at Goodreads reviews, and someone said that they thought the story was tone-deaf to make the only children targeted by the predator black, and that it was wrong to create a neighborhood of poor black people and have an exclusively rich, white suburb. I feelthat this reviewer missed the entire point of the author drawing our attention to race in the story. Hendrix casually dropped little details regarding race throughout the exposition. It was this attention to detail that made me realize how good of a writer Hendrix is–part of the horror of his novel was the revelation of how black people were treated in the 90s, when the story takes place, and even more scary is that Hendrix allows his readers to recognize that America still has the same issues today. The vampire figure was able to keep using black children as his victims because nobody in a position of power would care. Patricia, who knew what was happening, was able to retreat back into her normal life and ignore the problem because it wasn’t directly affecting her or anyone in her rich white neighborhood. I don’t believe it’s tone-deaf to present race in this way, especially because the book takes place in the South. It’s both important to the plot and the construction of its horror genre.

Like the issue of race, Hendrix weaved other really important and relevant topics into the horror elements of his novel: gaslighting, drug abuse, sexual assault, friendship/betrayal, disease stigma, and MORE. I was impressed with how well Hendrix created his story. I fear that including any more details would spoil the novel, because the details are so integral to the thriller plot. However, one major issue I did have with the book was the ending. It was wrapped up very neatly, with an imaginary “we’re all safe” bow on top. While it calmed me as a (terrified) reader, I don’t think the ending holds the same value as the rest of the book. It almost felt like Hendrix didn’t want to write that ending, but was running out of time, so he wrote down the words he thought would please his readers rather than continuing to rattle them to their core. Overall, I encourage anyone and everyone to read The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires, even if they don’t typically reach for horror/thriller novels. It’s written *that* well.