Mike Flanagan’s ghosts | Daily News


Mike Flanagan’s ghosts

Doctor Sleep
Doctor Sleep

Mike Flanagan’s reputation largely rests on seven films made between 2011 and 2019. Save for the mixed reviews the first of them got, his work has been well received by critics, even though at the box-office they’ve fared only moderately well.

Flanagan’s achievement has been nothing less than the resuscitation of an entire genre. By the time he entered the field, the horror film had seen a comeback, having spent more than a decade (or two, if you count from the 1990s) in limbo. It needed a fresh set of minds to make that comeback possible. Thus 2013, the year that saw Flanagan’s second film Oculus, also saw World War Z, The Conjuring, remakes of Carrie and Evil Dead, and Willow Creek. Of their directors Flanagan’s the only guy still hanging around. His reputation has soared since then, and continues to soar. He is what you’d call a whiz-kid.

In 2018 I wrote a sketchy piece on the new horror film. I traced the twists and turns of the genre in terms of the predominating fears of the eras: Communism in the 1950s, Vietnam in the 1960s, and the pressure to conform in the 1970s. “As the 1980s came to a close,” writes David Church, “the American horror film seemed locked into an endless loop of formulaic repetition.” Crossovers, sequels, remakes, and comedy horror became the order of the day. The situation changed somewhat in the 1990s, particularly with an influx of slasher thrillers, a subgenre first worked out, then filmed over and over again, in the late 1970s.

That era ended with a bang: The Sixth Sense (1999), which led no less than Newsweek to proclaim its director, M. Night Shyamalan, as the next Steven Spielberg. 13 films (not a lucky number) later, of course, we know he’s anything but.

The new millennium seemed hardly better, and in many respects actually worse, for the genre. “Ask fans, and they will tell you that American horror film in the last decade.... has fallen into a slump.” This was not because fewer audiences were going out to feast on these films – their box-office returns made it clear that they were still at the top of the league – but because they had become self-referential and self-perpetuating: either tied into never-ending franchises (Scream, Saw, Final Destination, and Resident Evil) or transposing Asian, particularly Japanese, flicks into the American landscape without any cultural adjustments (can anyone, for instance, watch The Grudge without wondering what relevance it has to the American suburban middle class?) Be it slasher, J-horror, remakes, or almost-remakes-of-remakes (The Thing, 2011, which gradually turned into a prequel to the 1980s classic – itself a remake of a 1950s classic), horror clearly had to be salvaged.

By 2005 and 2006, after years of investing in J-horror and neo-slashers, Hollywood turned to domestic remakes: Assault on Precinct 13 (2005), Black Christmas, The Hills Have Eyes, and When a Stranger Calls (all 2006), and Halloween and The Hitcher (both 2007). These, in their own special way, provided an impetus for horror directors to break through the mould: thus having made two comic book fantasies (Blade II and Hellboy), the great Guillermo del Toro directed Pan’s Labyrinth in 2006, his best until The Shape of Water 11 years later.

By now Mike Flanagan was 28. He had made his last film as a student: Oculus: Chapter 3 – The Man with the Plan, the basis for his second movie seven years later.

Flanagan was both within and without the era he emerged from. An 80s kid (born in 1978), he had grown up in Salem, Massachusetts, which given its association with witch trials and burnings made quite an impression on him. In sixth grade at high school, he had picked up Stephen King’s IT, and in Maryland, where he attended Towson University, he graduated with a BA in Electronic Media and Film. Surprisingly for someone who relished Stephen King and obtained a degree in film, though, he never interweaved these two interests for some time. “Why I spent so many years working on indie relationship dramas is beyond me,” he once reflected. “I wanted to make a movie that was scary.”

Oculus: Chapter 3 – The Man with the Plan was made for a mere $1,500; it was his first real foray into horror. Absentia (2011), his feature-length debut, cost him $70,000, and though it initially got tepid reviews, it gained a following on Netflix. Two years later he turned Oculus into a feature-length film; in 2016 he released no fewer than three movies (Hush, Before I Wake, and Ouija: Origin of Evil); in 2017 and 2019 he returned to his childhood fascination with Stephen King with Gerald’s Game and Doctor Sleep. These have been in addition to his work on Netflix: The Haunting of Hill House and The Haunting of Bly Manor; a seven-episode series, Midnight Mass, is still in production.

To point out that all these projects have been in horror would be redundant. What’s more interesting, and pertinent, are what brings them together.

Dark pasts, shady antiheroes, unreliable narrators, and the intermingling of reality and fantasy: these are just some of the motifs that feature in Flanagan’s work. But then, as at least one critic has pointed out, correctly, when you look hard at them, many of the stories he comes up with are “absolutely bonkers and brutal.”

This is certainly true of his debut. Absentia revolves around the disappearance of several males from a California suburb (Glendale, where Flanagan lived in a rented apartment for some time) who may or may not have fallen victim to an unknown entity. The premise, as it stands out, is at one level ludicrous, bordering on the wildly improbable even within the bounds of supernatural horror; it’s almost like an X-Files episode. But still it works. The same can be said of Oculus, the premise of which is as ridiculous as that of another horror flick based on a short film that came out three years later, Lights Out.

The director’s execution hence invariably helps transcend the limitations of the plot. This, of course, can be said of any young visionary filmmaker: at one level it was true even of Night Shyamalan, and before him, Brian De Palma. What’s special about Flanagan is that unlike Shyamalan and De Palma, he’s never let us down. He keeps us waiting for the payoffs, and delivers something that hits us and actually makes us think.

Even in as pretentious a story as Oculus – pretentious because it’s difficult to believe the setup, with the protagonist sparing no expense at investigating the mirror at the centre of her tragedy – you feel the director trying to defy its limits. Shyamalan did that too, and for a while – from The Sixth Sense to Signs (2004), plus Split (2016) – it worked. But like De Palma, he dictated too much to the material. In the end, he lost his way.

Flanagan’s biggest strength is that he doesn’t lose his way. Consider Before I Wake, arguably his least liked film. (It went by unnoticed so much that Brian Tallerico wrote his review of it for rogerebert.com long after those of Hush and Gerald’s Game had been published on that site.) It has very little dialogue. Its emotional authenticity comes from the performances, from what’s left unsaid: Kate Bosworth as a mother who’s lost her child, Thomas Jane as her husband, and Jacob Tremblay as a “gifted boy” who dreams of wonderful things and makes them come alive, but dreams also of nightmarish things and makes them come alive too. The setup is more ludicrous than Oculus. To make matters worse, halfway through the story the director seems to have sacrificed the emotional content of the plot – the mother’s and father’s shared bereavement – for the villain of the piece, a “boogeyman” summoned up by Tremblay from his darkest nightmares.

The line between emotional authenticity and contrived fear is almost impassable in Before I Wake. That is Flanagan’s main weakness. But it becomes less and less so once Flanagan employs all the tricks of his trade to make us forget that there’s a trade-off between the emotional core and the contrapuntal fear in the plot. This is true, to a great extent, even of Oculus. But by Hush and Ouija: Origin of Evil, he lets this trade-off go. That is why the latter two are so effective and don’t seem manipulative. Origin of Evil was so chilling, in fact, that people readily forgot it was a sequel to a much more inferior film made two years earlier. It’s the kind of work that can only be followed by something better.

And with Gerald’s Game and Doctor Sleep – both based on Stephen King novels, the latter based on a sequel to a masterpiece, The Shining, which had been filmed by the great Stanley Kubrick in 1980 – Flanagan seems to have gone as far as he can in the realm of supernatural horror without breaking our trust. In this he is equalled by only two other contemporaries working within the genre: Robert Eggers (The Witch, 2015, and The Lighthouse, 2019) and Ari Aster (Hereditary, 2018, and Midsommar, 2019).

The challenge in Doctor Sleep isn’t, as one friend of mine put it, its excessive duration (even at three hours, it felt well structured and hardly overlong to me). The challenge is the fact that it’s BOTH an adaptation of a Stephen King novel AND the spiritual successor to another adaptation, of the novel that precedes it, which King famously hated.

By squaring the circle – King loved Flanagan’s take on Doctor Sleep, while Flanagan made it as a part homage to Kubrick, who directed the film of The Shining – the man has shown that much of the credit for the resuscitation of the horror genre in recent years must go to him. He is, in the final analysis, the whiz-kid that M. Night Shyamalan could have become, and yet didn’t. That’s as close to a summing up of the man I’m going to get. Whether it stands up to the test will depend on how much farther he goes.

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