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Director Spotlight: Mike Flanagan cements his name in the horror genre

Warning: Spoilers for “Gerald’s Game,” “Doctor Sleep,” “The Haunting of Hill House” and “The Haunting of Bly Manor.”

There is no doubt that horror has had a bit of a renaissance in recent years, and one of the frontrunners of it has been Mike Flanagan. He has written and edited multiple projects, but is mostly known for directing horror films and, more recently, miniseries. His cinematic directorial debut began with 2011’s “Absentia,” a film that received moderate success despite its low budget. This was shortly followed up with “Oculus,” which also was moderately successful.

He began to receive greater critical acclaim and popularity with the release of his 2016 films “Hush,” “Before I Wake” and “Ouija: Origin of Evil.” These were shortly followed by the well-received “Gerald’s Game” in 2017 and “Doctor Sleep” in 2019, acting as a sequel to the horror classic “The Shining.”

However, in 2018, Flanagan began to work on several series. In that year, he produced the smash-hit “The Haunting of Hill House,” followed by “The Haunting of Bly Manor” the next year. These were also followed by “Midnight Mass,” “The Midnight Club” and most recently, “The Fall of the House of Usher.”

But the sheer volume of his work is not what propelled Flanagan into the spotlight. Rather, the quality of his work is what has given him a name in horror filmmaking and showrunning. 

Much of his work centers around specific themes, with each movie and series serving as an allegory for something else. 

For example, consider “Doctor Sleep." It follows a grown-up Danny Torrance decades after the events of “The Shining,” which have obviously left him quite traumatized. He is followed by the ghosts of the Overlook Hotel, particularly the ghost of Lorraine Massey (the old woman in the bathtub) and the ghost of his dad. Throughout the movie, he locks these ghosts in boxes inside of his head, as a way of repressing traumas, but eventually opens it, which serves as a metaphor for him facing his trauma. 

This is also seen in “Gerald’s Game,” where the main character Jessie Burlingame is left handcuffed to a bed in an isolated cabin after her husband dies before they get intimate. Throughout the film, she is haunted by the ghost of her dead husband and visions of her father, who assaulted her when she was young. She is also haunted by a serial killer and necrophile, who she sees as her father at a court hearing after her eventual escape, serving as another image of a person facing her traumas.

Flanagan’s thematic choices surrounding trauma continue with the concept of love, both familial and romantic, touched on in “The Haunting of Hill House” and “The Haunting of Bly Manor.”

In “The Haunting of Hill House,” a family who spent a summer in a haunted house (and lost their mom because of it), come to face the traumas the house gave them, and cope with the sudden death of their youngest sister. However, the show focuses on the idea of love between parents and children, as well as between siblings. For example, the two youngest, Luke and Nelly Crain, share what they call “the twin thing,” where they can feel and experience things the other feels and experiences. As a result, they have an incredibly strong bond, and even in death, Nelly still cares for him and tries to save him from the house. 

On top of this, their father does everything in his power to protect his family from the house and the media scandal that rocked the family after their mother’s death. He allows the children to continue feeling strong negative emotions towards him in adulthood because of what he kept hidden from them to protect them. In the last episode, he quite literally gives himself over to the house in order to save his children, performing the ultimate act of love. 

On the other hand, “The Haunting of Bly Manor” plays on the idea of romantic love through two main relationships. Rebecca Jessel and Peter Quint are toxic, and he constantly tries to control her and belittle her in order to keep her with him, to the point where he tricks her into letting him possess her after he dies in order to kill her, thus spending the afterlife together. 

This can be contrasted with Dani Clayton and Jamie, who display a much healthier relationship. Even after the tragic events at the house, they remain together for several years. However, Dani is slowly taken over by the ghost she let possess her to save a little girl. As she realizes she might hurt Jamie, she takes her life in the same way that Rebecca’s was taken, sacrificing herself to save her girlfriend, and even in death, preventing Jamie from joining her. 

Not only is the theming of these films and series fantastic, but the cinematography is outstanding. Flanagan employs color symbolism and camera work throughout his work incredibly well. 

Another great example is “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Each sibling’s death is represented by a certain color to symbolize their personality and issues. Prospero, the youngest of The Ushers, is represented by red. He is a notorious playboy, driven by sex and the red represents his lust and passion. 

Furthermore, Camille is represented by white. She does many of the public relations campaigns for The Ushers, trying to clean up the media messes. On the positive side, white can represent cleanliness and a purer image, which is what Camille tries to uphold throughout the series. 

However, white can also represent coldness, isolation and emptiness, which better describes her character. She is cold and bitter towards everyone, including her interns. She is also the only Usher without a designated partner --- or partners in Prospero’s case --- instead opting to have sex with her assistants who will leave immediately after, painting a picture of isolation. 

Several camera tricks also add to the films and series. One of the most well-known is the uncut shot in  “The Haunting of Hill House.” It pans between a funeral home and Hill House, lasting for 17 minutes without a single obvious cut. The show also makes use of the camera by blurring parts of the background and playing with shadows, making the viewer believe they saw something they didn’t (even though there are countless ghosts in the background of many shots). 

Flanagan has cemented himself as a name in the horror genre through fantastic theming and production work, spinning stories that might have already been written by other authors, such as Stephen King and Shirley Jackson, into a modernized version that does not feel cheap. 


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