Mike Flanagan is quickly becoming one of the most iconic horror creators of our time, largely due to the success of his Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House. He had written and directed films prior to Hill House, of course, but that was the show that really captured our imaginations (and hearts).
What makes the films and series of Mike Flanagan so special to people who enjoy horror? To start with, there are plenty of scares sprinkled throughout, along with great, compelling storylines. But, what really makes his work stand out among a sea of horror is the emotion that saturates nearly every frame.
Mike Flanagan leans heavily into the themes of grief and trauma, and most of the horror stems from that. Many of us have experienced grief and/or trauma during our lifetimes, so these themes resonate on a deeper level than what we see in a typical horror movie.
Not every horror fan enjoys the same type of movie (a fact that is often missed on social media), but for me, spending time on character development pulls me into the story. Actually caring about the characters ups the suspense level…and makes it hurt when they suffer (or die).
Hush is basically a slasher film, but it doesn’t follow the standard formula of throwing together a bunch of characters that you don’t have time to get to know, then killing them off one-by-one. Instead, we are introduced to Maddie (Kate Siegel, who co-wrote the film, and is married to Flanagan), a very sympathetic potential victim. Maddie is deaf and mute, making her extremely vulnerable to a killer who delights in tormenting her.
In The Haunting of Hill House, each member of the Crain family has suffered long-lasting effects from the trauma they experienced while living in the house. The youngest children are the most damaged; Luke always felt like none of his siblings believed him, and became a drug addict as an adult. Nell, who was haunted by “The Bent Neck Lady” from childhood, felt like she was invisible and unappreciated. Still, she is able to forgive her brothers and sisters in the end, finally able to accept that they all love one another, and “the rest is confetti.”
Were Steven and Shirley irritating at times? You bet they were…but, we always understood that their issues stemmed from the horror of that house, so we could forgive them and hope desperately that they would be able to escape the pull of Hill House and live happy lives.
The Haunting of Bly Manor was set in the UK, where we met an au pair named Dani (Victoria Pedretti). She was hired by Henry Wingrave (Henry Thomas) to care for his wards Flora and Miles. When she arrives at the spooky, sprawling Bly Manor, she meets the cook, housekeeper and gardener, all warm, engaging people played by warm, engaging actors.
As the story of Bly Manor unfolds, we are again entranced by the very real characters who are put in mortal danger by Peter Quint and the supposed villain of the story, The Lady of the Lake. But, then we come to episode eight, which gives us the story of The Lady (A/K/A Viola), who sleeps, wakes, and walks. She has been submerged in the lake for so long that she no longer has a memory (or face), but her back story actually makes us feel for her.
That’s the beauty of Mike Flanagan’s story telling, he can even make us feel sympathy for a terrifying ghost who is prone to grabbing the throat of anyone in her path before dragging them to her own watery grave.
All of this brings us to Midnight Mass, which may be Mike Flanagan’s most emotional story of them all. Crockett Island is small and isolated, but in the first couple of episodes, we get to know a handful of the damaged souls who reside there. Riley (Zach Gilford) is returning to the island after serving four years in prison, and he is filled with regret and sorrow.
The island folk we meet each have their own sorrows to bear: Joe Collie (Robert Longstreet), an alcoholic who accidently shot a young girl named Leeza (Annarah Cymone), who is now confined to a wheel chair; Erin (Kate Siegel), who also recently returned, pregnant and alone; Sheriff Hassan, who is mourning the death of his wife with his teenage son; the island doctor (Annabeth Gish), who is caring for her elderly mother, and so many more.
When the mysterious Father Paul (Hamish Linklater) shows up, claiming to be temporarily filling in for elderly Monsignor Pruitt, the townspeople are drawn in by his charisma, and by miracles that he appears to bring about.
But, this is a horror series after all, so things go south eventually, and many of the characters we have learned to love have to endure trials and tribulations, including death. It’s a heart wrenching, blood soaked story by the end, so I tell people to keep tissues handy when watching it for the first time.
The answer to why all of this works so well is simple: Mike Flanagan is a brilliant, engaging writer and director, and he chooses his actors extremely well. There is definitely a bonus in hiring the same performers for multiple projects, because they know Flanagan well enough to trust him and to put in their best work.
Mike Flanagan has entered into an agreement with Netflix, so we are sure to see another series from him fairly soon. And hopefully he will also create new films along the way as well, so we will just have to wait patiently to see what he has in store.
Hush, The Haunting of Hill House, The Haunting of Bly Manor and Midnight Mass can be streamed on Netflix.
Which Mike Flanagan series or film is your favorite? Tell us why in the comments section.