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While every Mike Flanagan movie and TV show is rife with inventive scares and thrilling twists, some of the filmmaker’s projects are more successful in their scares than others. Praised by the like of horror author Stephen King and Oscar-winner Quentin Tarantino, Flanagan is an accomplished artist not just because of his ability to evoke terror, but because of his filmmaking prowess. Instead of relying on the cheap jump scares that litter the horror genre’s more mainstream blockbuster fare, The Haunting of Hill House creator builds suspense and terrifies thanks to his skillful direction and singular vision. However, despite his string of impressive releases and the anticipation for The Fall Of The House Of Usher’s release, not all of Flanagan’s horror projects reign supreme.
Using his 2006 short film, Oculus: Chapter 3–The Man with the Plan, as a proving ground for his merits as a horror director, Flanagan saw success at film festivals. However, no one wanted to produce his planned series of Oculus shorts, nor did they want him to direct a feature-length adaptation of the material. After finding surprise success on streaming with his 2011 indie horror feature Absentia, Flanagan returned to Oculus, helming a feature-length version that was released in 2014. After stints directing popcorn horror films like Ouija: Origin of Evil and a few Stephen King tie-ins, he finally debuted The Haunting of Hill House, which kicked off Mike Flanagan’s seven-year Netflix domination and cemented his status as the streamer’s go-to horror series creator.
11 Before I Wake (2016)
Directed and edited by Flanagan, who also serves as co-writer, 2016’s Before I Wake is easily one of the filmmaker’s least memorable projects. While it still earns a passing grade, and boasts plenty of entertainment value, the supernatural horror film merely checks the boxes of its genre. Admittedly, it does so expertly, but that doesn’t make up for its boilerplate narrative. A couple, Jessie (Kate Bosworth) and Mark Hobson (Thomas Jane), foster the eight-year-old Cody (Jacob Tremblay) in the wake of their biological child’s accidental death.
As the Hobsons navigate their grief and a new beginning, they also confront a nightmarish figure that haunts Cody: the Canker Man. That said, experienced horror viewers can probably map out many of the film’s sources of minimal scares, from dark, spooky basements to dark, spooky bedrooms. Of course, the cookie-cutter feel doesn’t make the movie less entertaining — it just dials down the terror. That said, despite some compelling performances and Flanagan’s ability to elevate kids’ points of view, which are often dismissed in horror movies, Before I Wake struggles to find inventive, abiding horror.
10 The Midnight Club (2022)
Coming off the successes of The Haunting of Hill House, The Haunting of Bly Manor, and Midnight Mass, The Midnight Club had a lot to live up to. The resulting one-season show, which wasn’t renewed for a sophomore outing by Netflix, was met with mixed reactions. While some viewers enjoyed everything from the acting to the scares, others deemed it not-so-scary. Adapted from a 1994 young adult novel of the same name, The Midnight Club was also unfairly maligned for centering on teens. While a stark contrast to Midnight Mass’ heavy, biblical plot, Flanagan’s fourth Netflix series is successful in its own ways.
In many ways, The Midnight Club serves as an introduction to horror, not unlike the Fear Street series. There’s nothing wrong with that approach, but it can’t be denied that the series’ merits don’t make up for its lack of consistent scares. Set at a hospice center, the show follows terminally ill teens who meet up to tell scary stories in the titular Midnight Club. There’s also a mystery unfolding around them about the history of the hospice center, but the storylines don’t quite meld successfully. Despite breaking the Guinness World Record for the most scripted jump scares in a single episode of TV (via Deadline), The Midnight Club just doesn’t keep up that scare-a-minute pace.
9 Absentia (2011)
Written, edited, and directed by Flanagan, Absentia marks the filmmaker’s first feature-length outing as well as a pivot from his previous attention-garnering short, Oculus: Chapter 3–The Man with the Plan. The 2011 indie horror film was largely crowdfunded, and, despite a $70,000 budget, managed to impress viewers and critics alike. At horror-centric film festivals like Shriekfest, Absentia took home top honors for its thought-provoking, unsettling tale.
In the sure-to-be-cult favorite, Courtney Bell stars as Tricia, a pregnant woman who’s finally ready to accept her husband’s fatal disappearance after seven years. Just as she signs the death certificate, however, a bloody Daniel (Morgan Peter Brown) appears at her home. Absentia manages to deliver some good scares, even if it’s more about loss than terror, but its indie-size budget works against what could have been a potentially more frightening (and satisfying) climax.
8 Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016)
In the past, Mike Flanagan has made his “allergy to sequels” abundantly clear (via Esquire). Even so, Jason Blum, the founder and CEO of prolific horror studio Blumhouse, approached Flanagan to write and direct Ouija: Origin of Evil. A prequel to Ouija, 2016’s Origin of Evil trades the first film in the franchise’s formula for hallmarks of Flanagan’s work. For starters, it’s a period piece that’s set in the late 1960s, and it interrogates family dynamics via the supernatural. Flanagan’s Hill House collaborator Elizabeth Reaser stars as Alice, a widow, mother of two, and spiritual medium. To spice up her offerings, Alice brings the titular Ouija board into her home-run business, which results in a spirit possessing her youngest daughter, Doris (Lulu Wilson).
The rare horror movie sequel that’s better than the original, Ouija: Origin of Evil still forces Flanagan to incorporate jump scares and other elements audiences expect from a mainstream horror venture. As a result, it’s not Flanagan’s most terrifying tale. Although the film is certainly bolstered by strong performances, a richer atmosphere, and some inventive (and horrifying) images, it feels like several movies stuffed together. That said, Ouija: Origin of Evil might be a solid horror entry, but it isn’t Flanagan’s top project.
7 Doctor Sleep (2019)
After Mike Flanagan’s mega-success with 2018’s The Haunting of Hill House, he signed on to write and direct an adaptation of Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep. A sequel to The Shining, the story centers on the now-adult Dan Torrance (Ewan McGregor), who’s haunted by his traumatic childhood experiences at the Overlook Hotel. Despite favorable reviews, the 2019 Shining sequel was a box-office flop, which has no doubt clouded its legacy. That said, it’s definitely worth revisiting, namely because it contains many hallmarks of Flanagan’s best projects.
In order to suppress his supernatural ability, the “shining,” Dan turned to alcohol. Flanagan notes that while King and Stanley Kubrick’s takes on The Shining story are both about addiction and obsession, Doctor Sleep illustrates Dan’s attempts to live with his substance use disorder. By borrowing from Kubrick’s classic, Flanagan sets himself up for comparison — it’s even more unavoidable. That said, the movie manages to play to Flanagan’s not-so-borrowed filmmaker strengths. Ultimately, Doctor Sleep might not be the writer-director’s scariest flick, but it does boast some truly hair-raising thrills that are sure to haunt viewers long after the credits roll — even if the Doctor Sleep sequel was canceled.
6 Gerald’s Game (2017)
Gerald’s Game is based on the Stephen King novel of the same name, which has long been deemed “unfilmable.” Clearly, however, Mike Flanagan was more than up for the challenge. Frequent Flanagan collaborator Carla Gugino stars as Jessie, a woman who goes on a romantic getaway with her husband, Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) to a remote countryside home. While there, the couple engage in one of Gerald’s sexual fantasies, which involves handcuffing Jessie to the bed. After some uncomfortable moments, she withdraws her consent.
The ensuing argument results in Gerald having a fatal heart attack, while Jessie remains tethered to the bed. A psychological horror film, Gerald’s Game sees Jessie hallucinating versions of herself and Gerald, all while struggling to survive and escape her current entrapment. The terrifying situation pushes her to confront the traumas and abuse of her past, though there’s also a twist involving a character known as “the man made of moonlight” that, unfortunately, takes away from the film’s power and Jessie’s story. While this character certainly adds to some of the movie’s more chilling moments, he also detracts from the work’s overall success.
5 The Haunting of Bly Manor (2020)
The second entry in Mike Flanagan’s The Haunting anthology, The Haunting of Bly Manor is the creator’s take on the gothic romance sub-genre of horror. For the most part, Bly Manor adapts Henry James’ 1898 novella, The Turn of the Screw — a story that’s proved time and again to be difficult to translate to screen. Like its source material, Bly Manor sees an au pair, Dani (Victoria Pedretti), traveling to a remote estate to care for some orphaned children. Soon enough, Dani begins to see apparitions and unearths more about Bly’s disturbing past and present, all of which sets up some of Victoria Pedretti’s best scream queen moments.
While The Haunting of Bly Manor has seen its fair share of criticism simply because it doesn’t live up to Hill House’s absurdly high bar, it remains one of Flanagan’s most compelling and fully realized works. It’s also the far-and-away best adaptation of James’ novella. While the first few episodes of the standalone show build impeccable suspense and atmosphere, the series doesn’t sustain this momentum, in part because the narrative sees the characters discovering more about the beings that haunt them. Even so, the compelling performances, inventive images, and sparingly used jump scares make Bly Manor a strong entry in Flanagan’s filmography.
4 Hush (2016)
Co-written by Flanagan and his frequent collaborator Kate Siegel (who’s also married to Flanagan), Hush is one of the most inventive slasher films in the history of the genre. Siegel stars as deaf-mute horror novelist Maddie, who hopes to pen another great work after the success of her first novel, Midnight Mass, and trades disruptive city life for a remote cabin in Upstate New York.
Of course, things aren’t as peaceful as Maddie imagined: a masked killer (John Gallagher Jr.) attacks her neighbor and then tries to break into Maddie’s house. An incredible game of cat-and-mouse, Hush portrays a horror-film protagonist who actually makes smart decisions. This makes it all the more thrilling to watch the pair outmaneuver each other, and, even though Hush isn’t a supernatural tale, its scares are on par with Flanagan’s best.
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3 Oculus (2013)
It took Flanagan quite a few years to finally realize one of his visions for Oculus, a project he’d initially pictured to be a series of short films. To that end, his film festival darling, Oculus: Chapter 3, was meant to entice prospective producers and studios back in 2005. While that didn’t pan out, Flanagan moved on to other projects, and those successes allowed him to return to a feature-length version of Oculus, which hit theaters in 2013. The film stars Karen Gillan and Brenton Thwaites as adult siblings who are convinced that a cursed, antique mirror caused all the tragedy that plagued their family.
To help stretch the short’s premise and capture the siblings’ sense of disorientation, Oculus covers two timelines. Moreover, Flanagan has expressed that the movie borrows from the Lovecraftian notion that, “Evil in the world doesn’t have an answer” (via Den of Geek). Refreshingly, Oculus chooses crushing dread over bloody gore, an approach that also makes the eerie narrative even more blood-curdling. A solid entry in the horror movie pantheon, Oculus stands alongside the likes of The Conjuring and Insidious, both in terms of its smarts and scares.
2 Midnight Mass (2021)
Around the time of Bly Manor’s successful debut, Flanagan signed an exclusive deal with Netflix, ensuring he’d continue to bring his beloved brand of horror to the streamer. That said, his next project wasn’t another Haunting installment, but the seven-episode miniseries Midnight Mass. The 2021 series centers on the residents of a small island community, who start to experience a rash of supernatural events after a charismatic priest (Hamish Linklater) arrives to reinvigorate their church. Although much of Flanagan’s work is filled with meditations on grief, addiction, death, and free will, this show adds another weight to these explorations due to its biblical lense.
Even so, Midnight Mass manages to be approachable and accessible, thanks in large part to its ensemble cast’s strong performances and Flanagan’s meticulous attention to detail. There’s a reason Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun-Times dubbed the series “the best Stephen King story Stephen King never wrote” — and it’s in part due to the many types of horror and dread it evokes. For example, Flanagan sets big-picture nightmare into action, which comes to a head in the series’ climatic conclusion, all while providing a fresh, incredibly haunting twist on the vampire genre, even if Midnight Mass never uses the word. It may not pack the most jump scares, but Midnight Mass weighs on viewers long after it cuts to black.
1 The Haunting of Hill House (2018)
Some viewers have dubbed The Haunting of Hill House a show that’s too scary for TV. Created and directed by Mike Flanagan, the series put the horror filmmaker on the mainstream map when it hit Netflix in 2018. A loose adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s classic novel of the same name, the Hill House covers two timelines. In the present, the four remaining Crain siblings —Steven (Michiel Huisman), Shirley (Reaser), Theo (Siegel), and Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) — navigate their past and present dramas after their youngest sister, Nell (Pedretti), is found dead at Hill House. Years earlier, when the siblings were just kids, their mother Olivia (Gugino), died in the titular house.
While Nell and Olivia were always the ones most impacted by the paranormal terrors of Hill House, the other siblings and their father, Hugh (Henry Thomas), weren’t immune to its horrors. In the present, the surviving adult Crains have also found ways to live with their trauma — some more successfully than others — though none of them have truly grappled with all the loss and tragedy. Nell’s death pushes them to do so, but it’s incredibly painful, making the horror backdrop fitting for the Mike Flanagan exploration of grief, loss, addiction, and avoidance. The show’s jump scares and unsettling images upend moments of relative calm, proving that terrifying moments come when least expected — and that the past is ever-present, especially if not confronted.
Sources: Deadline, Esquire, Den of Geek, Chicago Sun-Times