Mike Flanagan

How do you adapt an unadaptable Stephen King novel into a movie? The answer, apparently, is to hire Mike Flanagan.

Flanagan may not be the type of household name horror director the way John Carpenter, Wes Craven and George Romero once and still are, but over the last several years, he’s been quietly rising to prominence as one of the most efficient craftsmen in the horror genre. As a horror filmmaker, Flanagan seems to have a knack for taking unlikely, or unworkable, concepts and finding the humanity in them. Gerald’s Game, Flanagan’s adaptation of a seemingly unfilmable King novel, has already earned high praise from early screenings and hits Netflix today, possibly launching the filmmaker to even greater prominence. The film is exemplary, but it’s just another piece in the greater puzzle that is Flanagan’s growing filmography.

Absentia

Absentia (2011)

Flanagan’s first feature length foray into horror came with the ultra low-budget chiller Absentia. A moody, foreboding work, it succeeds at making the seemingly mundane seem alien and uninviting; short tunnels on walking paths became gateways to other dimensions, darkened rooms hold the prospect of lurking, unspeakable things.

Tricia (Courtney Bell) has yet to fully come to terms with the disappearance of her husband Daniel (Morgan Peter Brown). Seven years ago, Daniel vanished without a trace, and Tricia has seemingly spent every single moment of those last seven years searching for him. She replaces old MISSING posters with new ones. She runs fantasies, some violent, through her mind about what could’ve happened to Daniel. She grieves, but it’s a unsettling, unstructured grief, because it’s the not knowing that keeps it from being fully formed. Not knowing is worse than knowing – at this point, it would be better if she had definitive proof that Daniel was dead rather than no trace of him at all.

Tricia’s sister Callie (Catherine Parker) comes to live with her, and soon Tricia finds herself pressured to declare Daniel dead in absentia. It’s a chance to finally move on. But it’s as if fate itself won’t let Tricia fully move on. Callie finds herself drawn to a tunnel near the house, and some digging reveals that the tunnel may be responsible for other disappearances. And that something may be lurking, just out of view.

Absentia is a quiet film. It slowly builds towards bigger and more supernatural horrors, but the horror at the center of it all is a very human one. Grief, and loss, and uncertainty are what truly pepper the mood. It’s a prime example of “less is more.” It takes some time before Flanagan even gives the audience a hint that something supernatural is afoot here, yet through the entire film, the feeling is there. The feeling that something is very wrong here, as if the very center of the universe has curdled and is beginning to spoil.

“The ‘less is more’ aesthetic is certainly something that was intentional,” Flanagan said of the film. “I really believe it makes for a more frightening experience if the viewer is an imaginative person. Of course budget played a big part in that, but people have asked if we’d do it different if we’d had more money, and I really feel like we wouldn’t have. Not much, anyway. Maybe we would have shown just a little more, but keeping the horror mostly unseen was a major philosophical decision early on, and truly ingrained in the DNA of this story.”

Flanagan was using what he had at hand to make the film. The ominous tunnel that plays such a large part in the film was just simply a tunnel across the street from his house. The cast and crew were friends. All that was missing was a story. “[I]t was all about looking at the ingredients I had at hand,” the filmmaker said. “How could I combine these actors, that tunnel, and a barebones production package (no lights, no dollies, no nothing) into a story that would maximize all of those elements? The script and story were the last things to fall into place…The moment I had a mental image of a Missing Person’s poster in front of that tunnel, the rest fell into place fast. It was easy to write, on one hand, because I knew I couldn’t put anything into the script that I didn’t have immediate access to.”

The “less is more” approach works greatly in Absentia‘s favor. Because the film, and by extension the characters, primarily deals with every-day concerns, not supernatural ones, the film becomes more unnerving, more frightening. We can easily put ourselves into the headspace of the characters here, which makes the sudden shift into the supernatural all the more disturbing. We’re so invested into these individuals as real people inhabiting a real world that to find them suddenly dealing with unearthly elements makes everything so much more scary.

Even as Flanagan’s career continued onto bigger films with bigger, and even more outlandish, scenarios, his commitment to keeping things grounded is what helped make the films truly effective.

oculus mike flanagan

Oculus (2013)

Stop me if you heard this one before: there’s a mirror, and it’s haunted.

Okay, in all honesty, that’s not the most common of ghost stories. Stephen King wrote a short story in 1969 called The Reaper’s Image, about an antique mirror that some people claim to have seen the grim reaper in if they look close enough, but beyond that, haunted mirror stories don’t get much traffic. Probably because the concept sounds rather silly.

Yet Flanagan found a way to make it work, and effectively so. Oculus originally began its life a short film before the filmmaker developed it as a feature for Blumhouse. The feature finds siblings Kaylie (Karen Gillan) and Tim (Brenton Thwaites) reuniting after years and returning to their old family home. Waiting for them at the house is an large, ominous antique mirror that played a part in a traumatic event in the siblings past. An event that took the lives of their parents (Katee Sackhoff and Rory Cochrane). Kaylie firmly believes there’s something supernatural about the mirror; that it opened a portal of some kind and slowly destroyed their family.

Flanagan plays around with timelines here, cutting back between present day and the events that occurred when the siblings were children. Through it all, Oculus never winks at the audience. It never stops and says, “Isn’t this silly? A haunted mirror?” Instead, it plays its supernatural elements straight. But like Absentia, it again takes its time. It’s not outwardly concerned with jumping into the supernatural.

“One of the things that was really important to me was looking at movies like The Exorcist which give you like 47 minutes before anything really overtly supernatural occurs,” Flanagan said around the time of the film’s release. “It was like, OK, the thing that is going to make the genre elements and the tension really land for that second half is only if we feel normal with that. And a lot of horror movies don’t want to go that way, because they assume the audience doesn’t have the patience for it.”

There are plenty of supernatural moments in Oculus, some of them quite extreme. Yet at the center of all is the family dynamic, and the theme of a broken, abusive home. You could just as easily remove the ghosts that haunt this film and it wouldn’t be any less horrific. Slowly, in flashbacks, we watch as Kaylie and Tim’s father loses his grip on sanity. There are shades of The Shining here, and Jack Torrence’s descent into madness. And just like Absentia, grief plays a part in the horror. Both Kaylie and Tim have been dramatically affected in different ways by the deaths of their parents, and in many ways, neither has ever taken the time to grieve. Obsession, and the mental blocking out of certain events, have colored their lives since the traumatic past.

“I’m a natural born skeptic,” the filmmaker said, “and for myself I think the ghosts and monsters in our lives come directly from our past or from our losses and that we all relate to this feeling of being haunted because in a lot of ways we all are. I think horror gives us a chance to explore that in a highly metaphorical way so I tend to tell stories where the supernatural or horror elements come from past trauma or things that are buried in the character.”

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