2nd February 2019
Mike Flanagan is a fascinating director. Seemingly arriving out of nowhere with the brilliant Netflix double-bill of Gerald’s Game (2017) and The Haunting of Hill House (2018), he has in fact been working away for the best part of ten years making excellent feature films with a horror bent.
After dipping his toe into a variety of sub-genres, Flanagan has built up something of a repertory company over time. However, there has always been one constant within his films; his use of the home.
We are all raised to believe our home is a safe space, a sanctuary, a place to relax and be oneself, free from the stresses and dangers of the world. Horror cinema has always manipulated this idea to its advantage. Nothing is more terrifying than something awful happening somewhere it shouldn’t, and films ranging from Rosemary’s Baby and The Innocents to The Purge and Hereditary capitalise on this insecurity through the setting of the home.
In The Haunting of Hill House (a television retelling of Shirley Jackson’s classic novel, which Flanagan shot “like we were doing a ten-hour movie”) it is clear how integral the central family space is to the drama and, of course, the horror. Much has been written about Hill House and the home that stands at its centre, but all of Flanagan’s films are set, at least partially, in a home of some sort, and this environment is used in a variety of ways depending on the story. By taking a look at Flanagan’s previous work, it becomes clear how powerful the home – and destroying the concept of it as a safe space – can be in horror.
Home is where the start is (Absentia and Oculus)
Flanagan’s full length debut genre piece is 2011’s Absentia, a creepy little low-budget supernatural horror made with funds raised by a Kickstarter campaign. After shopping an Oculus treatment around Hollywood and getting no bites with himself attached as director, Flanagan decided to make an “extended reel” as a calling card to submit with the treatment. With no expectation of releasing Absentia, he made a personal film that subsequently received lots of positive reviews and, to his surprise, he even managed to sell. Needless to say, the Oculus treatment with Flanagan as director was then instantly snapped up.
Absentia focuses on sisters Tricia and Callie, who meet up for the first time in years at Tricia’s home as she prepares to sign ‘death in absentia’ papers seven years after her husband’s mystifying disappearance. The estranged sisters provide an early example of what would become a recurring trope in Flanagan’s films (and is central to The Haunting of Hill House); that of the broken family, a trope that goes hand-in-hand with the home. Their already fractious relationship is tested when Tricia’s husband Daniel reappears bloodied and malnourished.
A large proportion of the action takes place at Tricia’s house, and early scenes set here suggest that she hasn’t moved on from Daniel. Many of the initial scares come from her visions of his ghost – she hasn’t been able to let him go. Callie continues to push Tricia to pack her things and find a new place to live, but before Tricia has a chance to move forward, Daniel returns from the hospital and things take a turn for the supernatural.
Making the home a safe and calm place to help Daniel recover ends up being harder than the sisters think, especially as an ambiguity over whether it was ever a harmonious abode to begin with hangs over every scene. But try they do, until things get truly strange one evening when Callie and Daniel are alone in the house. Throughout the film Flanagan keeps the audience guessing as to what is real and what is a figment of characters’ imaginations; Tricia isn’t the only one who sees things. Callie claims to have seen a monster scuttling around the house trying to take Daniel away. Unfortunately for her, these ‘visions’ are blamed on her research into a number of local disappearances combined with her history of drug abuse. It turns out Daniel isn’t the first person to vanish mysteriously in the area (Doug Jones plays a small role as another unlucky soul), but the stories she tells seem very far-fetched. Whether Callie is telling the truth or not, it is clear that something, or someone, has interfered with Tricia’s living space and upset the normal home environment, once again breaking the family apart.
Flanagan combines a simple story of one man’s disappearance and the family he has left behind with a supernatural tale to create a horror on two levels. He has discussed his desire for his films to work as dramas even if the genre element is removed, and Absentia certainly adheres to this. Nestled neatly within this story is a warning of the dangers of the home. What is usually seen as a safe space in which to raise a family (Tricia is actually pregnant when Daniel returns) is intruded upon and becomes a site of pure horror. In his subsequent film films Flanagan employs this device in different ways, always effectively.
Off the back of Absentia, Flanagan swiftly turned his other treatment into a second feature. Starring Karen Gillan, Oculus (2013) is a neat little haunted mirror movie set almost entirely in one house. It’s a clear step up for Flanagan in terms of filmmaking and scriptwriting, and is in many ways an obvious precursor to Hill House.
Much like Absentia, the film focuses on siblings (Kaylie and Tim) attempting to deal with an incident from the past. As children, their family move into a new home, along with a newly purchased antique mirror. This mirror sends both their parents insane, and ultimately results in their deaths. Eleven years later, Kaylie tracks the mirror down, and with the help of her brother, fresh out of a mental institution, tries to prove that it killed her parents. But things don’t quite go to plan.
Oculus marks the first appearance of two of the ‘Flanagan Players’; Annalise Basso, who returns in Ouija: Origin of Evil, and Kate Siegel, Flanagan’s wife who has had roles in all of his subsequent productions. The film is a clear stepping stone for a director on the rise, bringing in elements from his first feature (a history of people dying in a very specific place or specific ways, the death of a family member, and his trademark ghosts with gaping black holes for mouths) while using, for the first time, other tropes he has continued to utilise since (unbelieving family members, clever transitions between time periods, and the home as a prison).
It may be the mirror that is haunted, but Oculus adheres to the rules of the classic haunted house movie in that the ghosts are never seen outside of the home and the family are practically imprisoned there too. This time, Flanagan truly makes the home an integral part of the story. It is only when the family move home and put the mirror up that the horror starts.
Breaking from tradition, Flanagan has Kaylie bring the mirror back to the house where the terror began in order to get her revenge. This is an unusual take on the haunted house story, in that it is not the ghosts who want payback, but the person being haunted. The use of the same home as a setting throughout not only keeps the film focused but also allows Flanagan to transition from past to present, seamlessly giving light to the siblings’ memories and, in the third act, increasing the tension by blurring the action of the two timeframes. These kinds of transitions are developed brilliantly in Hill House, as action switches between the 1980s and the present day.
Oculus clearly works as a companion piece and forebear to Hill House in many respects, none more so than the use of the home as a catalyst for ghostly and psychological horror. In both cases, the home is where the family bond and ultimately where family members die. Grief is an emotion Flanagan taps into time and again and in both pieces characters deal with their grief by assuming their own ‘natural’ reasons for the deaths. In Oculus, Tim’s time spent under psychological supervision has influenced his belief that human psychology is at play (the fuzzy trace theory). In other words, that as children he and Kaylie derived false memories from inaccurate associations. For example, rather than there ever being the ghost of a mysterious lady, their dad actually had an affair and the lady was the mistress. Or, rather than being killed and eaten by the mirror, their dog was put down. Their father’s actions mirror those of Jack Torrance in The Shining, another film where the home/hotel is a place of horror, and a film to which Flanagan has directed a sequel (Doctor Sleep) due for release in 2019. In Hill House, Steven (contrary to the words of his book) essentially wants to believe the same thing about his mother’s death; that rather than deal with whatever mental illness led her to kill herself, the children misremembered events and even invented a haunted house to cope.
Before I Wake
Ghosts, or spirits, return in two of the three films Flanagan released in 2016 – Before I Wake and Ouija: Origin of Evil, his first sequel. Familial trauma and the loss of loved ones hang heavy over both films and these themes are explored in similar ways.
Before I Wake stars Kate Bosworth and Thomas Jane. It tells the story of a married couple, Jessie and Mark, who adopt a young boy called Cody whose dreams come to life. When Cody dreams of butterflies they manifest in dazzling displays around the house, and when he dreams of the couple’s dead son Sean, he too appears in the living room. However, it is not just his dreams that come to life, but his nightmares too. Nightmares involving a terrifying being he calls the ‘Canker Man’.
Marketed as an all-out horror, Before I Wake is actually a psychological drama about familial grief (once again) and the lengths to which people will go to overcome it. As a loving and caring child Cody wants to see his new parents happy and so begins dreaming of Sean who, Jessie explains, died by drowning in the bath. When Jessie realises the possibilities of Cody’s ability, she supplies him with photos and videos so he can manifest a more realistic version of Sean. Taking advantage of her adopted son, Jessie deals with her grief by effectively bringing her dead son back. While, Sean is neither real or a ghost, his appearance nonetheless has a profound effect on Jessie and, to a lesser extent, a more concerned Mark.
As with his earlier supernatural films, Flanagan places much of the action in the family home and, as before, it is a home where a family member has died. Ultimately, it turns out that Sean’s death was accidental and there was nothing mysterious about it. In Before I Wake, Flanagan plays with the audience’s perception of the supernatural by initially showing Cody’s powers to be a positive force before reverting to the more common horror trope that the supernatural is scary. Enter Canker Man.
The home begins as an almost empty place that Jessie and Mark do little more than exist in. When Cody arrives, it is filled with light, love and promise. But when the nightmares come, the newly restored sanctuary of the family home is destroyed. Although he may have the ability to kill, the Canker Man is ultimately a figment of Cody’s imagination. Thus the only way to defeat the ‘evil’ is for Cody, with Jessie’s help, to address repressed memories of his mother who died of cancer when he was very young. Once again the home and the family are a catalyst for action in which Flanagan can explore the psychology of grief as well as the horror of the supernatural.
Ouija: Origin of Evil
Somewhat unsurprisingly, the set-up of Ouija: Origin of Evil bears resemblance to the film that came before it; a mother takes advantage of her child’s supernatural gift in order to communicate with a deceased family member. In this case Elizabeth Reaser (Hill House’s Shirley) plays Alice, a medium/fortune teller who works out of her home fooling customers with fake readings and the help of her two daughters Lina and Doris (‘Flanagan Players’ Annalise Basso and Lulu Wilson – young Shirley in Hill House). Recently widowed and running out of money, Alice decides to incorporate a Ouija board into her readings and somehow calls forth a spirit that begins to possess Dora. Dora then uses the board to contact her dead father who claims he can help the family through their financial troubles. This in turn excites Alice who is desperate to once again speak with her husband. But this is a horror film – they are not speaking to her dead spouse at all, but a malevolent spirit.
Whereas Before I Wake is much more of a drama with genre notes and tropes, Ouija: Origin of Evil is a proper old-school jump scare horror. Flanagan makes great use of his gaping mouthed spirits, loud noises and 1960s setting - the big family house is the perfect location for the action; filled with dark corners, endless rooms and hidden spaces. In this setting, scary children will inevitably become terrifying. This film combines the psychological horror of using the supernatural to deal with grief, with traditional haunted house horror to create an intelligent and far superior sequel (or rather, prequel) to 2014’s Ouija.
Once Dora has been possessed, much of Ouija’s story focuses on the history of the house and how it impacts the current occupiers (which is one of the many ways Hill House is used in the television series). Henry Thomas (the young Hugh Crain of Hill House) plays Father Tom, who uncovers the truth that the malevolent spirit died in the basement after being kept captive by a sadistic doctor during the Second World War and wants some sort of revenge. Were it not for what happened in the house many years before, and information gained more recently by the spirits who have always been watching the house, the family would have carried on with their lives making money from false hope. Ironically, they would also have not been given false hope by the spirit. Ultimately there would be no horror of any kind.
Here the safe familial space of the home is fractured due to the death of Alice’s husband – the family are still dealing with grief, and it is this weakness upon which the spirits prey. These intruders are granted a way in through bereavement.
The first of Flanagan’s 2016 trio was Hush, a home invasion-cum-slasher film co-written by and starring Kate Siegel. Here there are no ghosts or spirits and no known family tragedies (though the protagonist Maddie is deaf, having lost her hearing at the age of 13). The idea of the home as a safe space is once again tested, but the intruding evil Maddie has to deal with is human. The plot is thus; Maddie is a writer living on her own in a secluded house deep in the middle of the woods because, she says, “the city is too loud…”. One night a masked killer appears to terrorise Maddie, who does her best to defend herself and escape. This simple plot will be very familiar to fans of the horror genre. A murderer in a mask chasing someone around a house recalls slasher films such as Black Christmas, Scream, and more recently, You’re Next.
Hush maintains many of the slasher and home invasion tropes, while adding an extra level of difficulty for the ‘final girl’ – namely her deafness. Unable to hear where the killer is, Maddie utilises the home in a much more intelligent way than the typical slasher film character. She does not run around screaming, or make obviously poor decisions (such as immediately running upstairs to a dead end). Rather she considers the ways in which she can use her knowledge of the environment for her own benefit.
Unlike Flanagan’s supernatural films, Hush is much more about the physical space and the properties of the home as a building. No background is given to ‘The Man’, as the intruder is credited, and once he has removed his mask neither character recognises the other so it can be assumed he isn’t familiar with the house or surroundings. There are also moments where he is seen to be casing the house for the first time, and so in one respect Maddie has the upper hand.
Almost the entirety of the 82-minute running time is focused on this battle. Unlike the more traditional slasher where the final girl emerges after a group of friends or family are killed one by one, Maddie is on her own. The only other character she interacts with in person is her neighbour Sarah (Samantha Sloyan, seen later as Steven’s wife in Hill House) who pops by briefly only to die early on.
The Man effectively turns Maddie’s house into a prison from which she must escape, and so she uses her knowledge of the house and its contents, the placement of windows and her deaf-specific alarm system to outwit the intruder and even turn his own weapons against him. But despite this, Maddie’s ultimate strength comes from family; the voice in her head that helps her write is her mother’s and it is this voice that enables her to weigh up her options and choose the best course of action. In Hush, Flanagan makes use of the home in a much more physical way, and despite the lack of actual family members, the idea of the home as a place for family remains crucial to the plot.
Another strong female character leads Flanagan’s adaptation of Stephen King’s supposed unfilmable novel, Gerald’s Game. Carla Gugino (later seen as Olivia Crain in Hill House) plays Jessie, who heads to a remote lake house with her husband Gerald in an attempt to get their marriage back on track. To spice things up, Gerald handcuffs Jessie to the bed and pops a couple of Viagra before suffering a heart attack and dying, leaving Jessie stuck. The story then follows Jessie’s memories and thought processes, and how they combine to ensure her survival.
Gerald’s Game is a film essentially set inside the main character’s head as she deals with past and present traumas, but the one physical location setting is also crucial. As with Hush, the home being very remote is key to the horror. If something were to go wrong (as it very much does) there is no one nearby to help. The secluded cabin once more becomes an unsafe place, a classic horror trope allowing for any number of awful scenarios to take place without restriction. But The Evil Dead or Funny Games, this is not. Jessie is alone and the most pressing matter is how she can break free before dying of dehydration. Like Maddie, she is very resourceful and even as time marches on and she starts to fade, her mind stays sharp, and she thinks through how the physical space and the objects within reach can help. The most shocking moment of the film comes once Jessie begins the final process of escaping the handcuffs and fleeing from the house. The moment of degloving (no definition or description necessary) proves how strong Jessie is both mentally and physically, just like Hush’s Maddie, who remains mentally strong even after her right hand gets mangled.
Unlike most of Flanagan’s other films, Gerald’s Game doesn’t use the home in as crucial a way. It is used as a catalyst for the ensuing drama, rather than being key to it. However, family does play a substantial part. Being stuck alone in this unfamiliar house gives Jessie the chance to reflect on her awful family life and marriage, which in turn provides her with the motivation and confidence to escape. Her thoughts of family (albeit negative ones) are what ultimately saves her life. This may not be a supernatural film, but the ghosts of Jessie’s past family traumas and betrayals still haunt her.
By looking at Mike Flanagan’s film career to date, the ubiquity of the home becomes clear. In almost all of his films it is integral to the plot either as a physical presence or as the centre of family drama. Flanagan uses the home to explore psychological ideas and notions of grief as well as to act as the setting in which more straightforward horror can occur. Flanagan clearly has a penchant for stories about family; indeed he has been quoted as saying he has “always been very drawn to familial stories”. Using the horror genre (to greater or lesser extents) to tell these stories makes for fascinating viewing. His films are often more intelligent and layered than they may seem from the little piece of advertising artwork on Netflix, and thus he should be regarded as one of the best horror film makers currently working. To fit his own themes, he has even built his own family of actors who almost all come together in his finest work The Haunting of Hill House, a masterful creation in which the home is never a safe space and truly is central to the horror.