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Mike Flanagan’s best works are built on the hit-or-miss horror of his early experiments

The Hill House creator is coming into his own as a horror master

Mike Flanagan stands in front of a wooden house with antlers and a lifesaver on it. He leans against the railing. Photo: Eike Schroter/Netflix
Zosha Millman (she/her) manages TV coverage at Polygon as TV editor, but will happily write about movies, too. She’s been working as a journalist for more than 10 years.

If you watch enough — or even just a few — Mike Flanagan productions, you’re bound to see some familiar faces. As Flanagan moves from each of his sensational horror worlds, a cast of players follow him, reslotting themselves into new set-pieces as a different sort of father, or a wayward teacher, or going from an estranged wife to a religious zealot. In Hollywood this is often a good sign; great directors have not only good ideas but healthy working relationships with their actors.

But it’s also indicative of Flanagan’s relationship to his own work: Watch enough (or even just a few) Flanagan projects and you’ll see the way he winds back to the same structures and themes, shoring them up and getting more confident with each pass. It’s no surprise that over the course of his career he’s become one of the great interpolators of our time, remixing horror classics with his own distinct spin and leaving a bit of his own spirit everywhere he goes. With each new work, you can see him not only working out those ideas, but digging deeper; where they were once the set dressing for his house of horrors, they’re now the core of what makes it all tick.

You can feel his hand on the wheel from the jump: Across his movies and shows, Flanagan loves an opening that puts you immediately in it, whether you understand what “it” is or not. Absentia, his Kickstarter-funded first full-length feature, gives a brief, haunting, and silent flash of a pedestrian tunnel, telling us almost nothing but inspiring dread nonetheless as it fades into darkness with the title card. As Midnight Mass starts, the camera holds on an ichthys decal catching the police lights after a drunk driving accident. It swiftly sets the tone for Mass’ exploration of the passiveness of modern Christian faith, an immediate dilution of its values repeated with glimpses of religious trinkets in the establishing shots around Crockett Island. When compared to the depth of Midnight Mass’ opening, Absentia’s detail is more of a glance than a promise; an unpolished neon sign to evil rather than an evocative car light.

Often these details are most telling in retrospect, the sort that makes a rewatch feel rewarding. The Haunting of Hill House confidently dances through timelines and perspectives in the first half of its season. But the way it builds its characters and their familial relationships through the impressions of those around them is a compelling backbone to the ghost-story structure of the whole thing. Just like every family is unhappy in its own way, each haunting — be it a ghost or family memory — is reflected in a different way through each of the children. What could be a bug becomes a feature: Steven’s childhood home was not the same place as Nell’s.

Nell standing with her back to the camera looking at her family in the foyer; they are standing at the base of the stairs holding flashlights and looking at her, while the dad is off to the side holding a lantern also looking at Nell Photo: Steve Dietl/Netflix

You don’t have to wait too long for Flanagan to clue you in. Perhaps his most well-known hallmark is the monologue, a force of self-definition so powerful that not even Hush, a movie about a deaf and mute woman fending off a serial killer, could escape. It’s a tic you’ll see his characters fall into all over the place, from Midnight Mass all the way back to Oculus: Chapter 3 – The Man With the Plan. That short would go onto become Oculus in 2013, starring Karen Gillan and Brenton Thwaites as two adult siblings struggling to defeat the haunted antique mirror that wrecked their lives. But in its early form (so named because it was planned as a single entry in a series about the mirror), it’s a one-man show, a monologue descending into madness as one man squares off with the cursed mirror. In the years since, Flanagan’s films and TV shows have strayed away from such solo performances, but you’ll still catch his characters explaining things to themselves, or going long at almost every opportunity (The Haunting of Bly Manor notably kicks off with two speeches that are functionally monologues, delivered by separate characters back to back).

There’s a sense Flanagan shares some of the same impulses as his characters in this respect. (Perhaps most tellingly, miniatures make appearances in several Flanagan joints, one of many ways he mimics his process on screen.) His protagonists are very interested in control — over their electronic devices, their narratives, and over life (or death) itself. In a similar way, Flanagan’s scripts often over-enunciate so he’s not misunderstood: Hill House’s final episode underlines the show’s themes around loss a little too forcefully; Midnight Mass slows to let two characters go long about what faith and the afterlife means to them.

These are the stories of people who are innately logical, and suddenly thrust into a world in which circumstances and feelings beyond their control force them to find a better balance between those two sides. It’s not hard to see how someone like Flanagan, who has spoken and written about his issues with alcohol abuse, might be drawn to stories that make something orderly out of a gnawing void of swirling emotions. Like Flanagan, his characters seem to crave a structure to what they’re seeing, a way to make sense of the yawning horrors that have reshaped what they know about the world.

Erin and Riley sitting on the couch half facing each other; you can see her kitchen and dining room in the background Image: Netflix

And yet, for as much as these monologues certainly give you a bright red arrow to what he’s trying to say, they free him from the usual horror explanations of how we’re seeing all this. In both his Oculus films he never says (or even really explores) what makes the mirror so evil. Though he can make sense of what happens once your life has been rocked by such an eldritch horror, he stops short of trying to account for its existence. Instead, the haunted malignancies in his world are just a given.

In Flanagan’s work, hauntings are often already literal far before they are actualized with a ghost or a demon. The boundaries between what is an actual spiritual presence and what is merely the resonance of some deeper emotion — most often grief, guilt, or sorrow — is just as delicate as the veil between our world and the next. You’ll certainly see this in his supernatural works, how houses become barely malevolent conduits that trap ghosts within them. But again and again he shows a fascination with how things, even those not supernatural in nature, represent not only hauntings, but memories and manifestations in their own right. When Jessie (Kate Bosworth) touches the guardrails recently installed on her tub in Before I Wake, she gets flashes of her son’s hand flailing in its absence, casting about for something to save him from drowning. As Absentia’s Tricia (Courtney Bell) tries to pack up her missing husband’s belongings, she starts to see him as an apparition far before she understands the danger lurking outside her door. And in Gerald’s Game, a wife left handcuffed to the bed after her husband dies finds herself haunted by specters of those she knew, in a way that skirts the line between paranormal activity and hallucination.

These hauntings are the point of what Flanagan is doing here; he’s a horror guy. But in his hands they provide a remove, an ability for characters to refine, process, explore, and experience what they’re missing. It’s part and parcel with his routine use of dreams and lucid dreaming (and even sleep paralysis as haunting) — a window into another, warped world that lets us see our own more clearly.

Perhaps that’s why so many of his stories entwine perspectives of children and adults. You first see it in Oculus, where it arose from necessity. As he told MoviesOnline in a 2015 interview, “Especially dealing with a monster that’s an inanimate object, it’s the only way you can sustain tension over a long period of time, which was a big concern coming off the short. I felt like we had pushed the limit at that point. It was interesting for a half hour, but how were we going to triple that?” And so Tim Russell gets a sister, and Oculus trades in Oculus: Chapter 3’s interest in filtering reality through detached screens in favor of a timeline braiding the present (the two children trying to fight the mirror) and the past (the mirror first entering their family home 11 years prior). The result is efficient, slyly finding the places the stories echo each other, and folding the whole plot in on itself. Tim and his sister Kaylie of course get more than they bargained for, but they also gain some perspective, a supernatural exposure therapy session that allows them to better understand how they got here (and, yeah, the depths of evil the spooky mirror has wrought unto their lives).

From there, Flanagan returns to this structure repeatedly, teasing out new ways into — and out of — telling stories across time. His films deal with the alternating currents of horror and violence as its own generational trauma more straightforwardly: Doctor Sleep lets Danny Torrance reframe his own youthful trauma as he cares for a young girl who’s also developed the shining; Before I Wake explicitly deals with how supernatural gifts might complicate a parent-child relationship between each other and their respective grief. As our heroes in Gerald’s Game or Ouija: Origin of Evil go on, they are, in their own way, forced to evaluate what adults owe to children.

But it’s television that’s given Flanagan room to shake up and settle into a more formal style, particularly as it comes to portraying the child and adult perspectives on horror. In both Hill House and Bly Manor, Flanagan filters the hauntings through the experiences of kids and their grown-ups, allowing room for each to respond in their own way and from their own story. Hill House, in particular, feels like a more mature version of Oculus as it slowly unravels the ids of a whole family across a handful of episodes, and packs a bit more into its gut punch on coming of age. While Oculus has to work really hard to get the perfect mirror in the end beats of its dual stories, Hill House cleanly establishes what are essentially 13 separate players (with young and older actors for every character but one) and a few timelines with remarkable ease. It turns its use of time and viewpoint into a strength, coloring everyone’s stories through the lens of those around them, inspiring a dimension to the season beyond just what’s on screen.

Hill House is far from a perfect show. But it’s as clear a case study as you’ll get that Flanagan is just more confident with time, and deservedly so. You can see this in the growing self-awareness laced into his stories — whether it’s the fake cigarette burns, split diopter, or Shining-patterned curtains in Ouija: Origin of Evil that exist to remind you of the artifice of the world, or the constant feints toward a more traditionally grisly horror in the opening segment of The Midnight Club, his latest series for Netflix.

With such self-assurance, his stories feel more solidly built. Early Flanagan works are littered with elements that invoke deeper meanings as set dressing, but those elements don’t do much more than simply exist (the in-film explanation as to why Hush’s protagonist is mute asks more questions than it answers). They’re in these worlds shallowly and undermine the structure of the horror, often leaving both sides feeling too distanced from each other.

But his later works — particularly Midnight Mass and the director’s cut of Doctor Sleep — don’t let the horror feel ancillary at all. They are family dramas as horror, and they are as intricate as they are drenched in dread. Danny’s compartmentalized journey through Doctor Sleep is only possible through the paranormal elements, and his curative revelations (and, yes, even the monologues that underpin the whole thing) are so sound because it’s all intertwined with his understanding of the supernatural forces preying on our world. Midnight Mass’ central analogy is almost too obvious at first. But as the series spirals out he finds the individual terror and reaction in almost every citizen of Crockett Island, speaking volumes about the care with which he lobs this metaphorical grenade at the institution he was a part of.

It’s almost odd, then, that Flanagan got to create what he calls his “most personal” work smack in the middle of a series of interpolations as adaptations (Doctor Sleep, Gerald’s Game, Hill House, Bly Manor, The Midnight Club, and the upcoming The Fall of the House of Usher). His alterations often take such a license on the material as to be only tangentially related, a total reassignment of characters and their motivations. It’d be just as easy to do a regular haunted house as more of an homage, or simply rejigger the Are You Afraid of the Dark? concepts guiding his Midnight Club adaptation. But this many years in, it’s become clear that is part of the fun for him, and part of the beauty for his audience: He’s getting better at shining a light to bring out new facets of the work, using his own natural interests and style to pull interesting things out of the piece. As his projects go bolder and deeper they become something wholly new, almost unrelated, and always utterly Mike Flanagan. There, evil isn’t just bad or spooky, it’s emotionally scarring. And this far in the game, he finally has time to unpack that.


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