Hill House, Doctor Sleep… Mike Flanagan, master of fear and crying

The Mirror, Do not fall asleep, jessie, The Haunting of Hill House, Doctor Sleep, midnight sermons : a look back at the filmography of the fascinating Mike Flanagan.

After a few melodramatic films made during his studies (makebelieve, Still Life), director Mike Flanagan flies to Los Angeles and launches into genre cinema. His first horror feature film, Absentiastood out at festivals, leading the filmmaker to find critical success alongside the production company Blumhouse (The Mirror, not a sound) before becoming popular with the general public on Netflix (The Haunting of Hill House, The Haunting of Bly Manor, midnight sermons).

Productions systematically produced for studios, Mike Flanagan’s creations blend perfectly with the expectations of the entertainment industry with generous and technically unstoppable works. But from the high-concept trips of its debut to its richer and more expansive Netflix series, Mike Flanagan’s jitters often conceal a rare emotion in the contemporary horrific landscape.

Artisan goldsmith or moving author? While his new Netflix series, The Midnight Clubshould not take long to land on the platform at N rouge, a look back at the career of one of the most exciting supernatural artists of his generation.

Journey to the End of Hell

little shop of horrors

With its surprising jumpscares and disturbing off-screen, Mike Flanagan’s horror staging isn’t all that different from his contemporaries from Blumhouse or the Conjuring-verse. However, unlike his worst colleagues, the guy does not use the surge mechanics in an outrageous or systematic way, using his sense of proportion to offer bursts more hard-hitting than those of a annabelle.

A style all the same quite flexible which can be combined with various forms of tones and universes. Uninhibited pulp delirium of Ouija Board: The Origins behind closed doors, toxic and black jessiepassing through the onirism which tends to the tale of Do not fall asleep and the romantic flight of The Haunting of Bly Manor, Mike Flanagan surrenders with enthusiasm and sincerity to each narrative architecture he invests.

Not a sound: photoA tension that leaves you speechless

This is particularly significant when he realizes not a sound, a behind-closed-doors horror thriller where a blind woman faces alone a psychopathic killer who tries to break into her home. The feature film surprises by the purity of its device and the deep confidence of its author in it. Degreased from imperatives of protagonists, stakes and adventures, not a sound simply has five characters, a location, a clear guiding line and the technicality of its filmmaker to create a solid tension.

It is the same when Mike Flanagan rubs shoulders for the first time with the serial form with The Haunting of Hill House. The series opens with five episodes, each of which takes on the point of view of one of the children of the Crain family, before a sixth chapter which brings them together in a virtuoso ballet of sequence shots and a final part which gradually disentangles the different issues in the story. By fragmenting his narration in this way, Mike Flanagan accepts and completely digests the soap opera possibilities of the series.

The Haunting of Hill House: PhotoMike Flanagan, one of the few creators of Netflix to really embrace the serial form?

From this internal coherence in each of his works, the director nevertheless allows himself to surprise his viewer with the astonishing deaths of central characters (Do not fall asleep, midnight sermons) and wicked and/or bitter ends (The Mirror, The Haunting of Bly Manor). A way to constantly update its issues and not let its audience rest on its laurels.

This violence, coupled with brutal narrative bifurcations – like the gore turn of jessie which contrasts with the composure of the rest of the film – steadily reinvigorating its storytelling and copiously heightening the experience. Nothing revolutionary in itself, but a way of measuring its effects that makes its work particularly effective and stimulating.

Despite everything, his distant filming of the ghosts of The Haunting of Hill House and of Doctor Sleepwho sometimes goes as far as deep disinterest when he barely films the monster ofAbsentiashows that if his cinema is indeed populated by disturbing creatures, something much more terrifying still haunts the filmmaker.

Jessie: photo, Bruce GreenwoodBefore it goes wrong…


Speaking of creatures, between the glowing-bezel shadow that erupts from Dani’s repressed past in The Haunting of Bly Manorand the woman with the face disfigured by the accident caused by Riley in midnight sermons, Mike Flanagan’s monsters are often manifestations of traumatic memories. Some are past fears that resurface, but others are inevitable prophecies, as evidenced by the woman with the twisted blow of The Haunting of Hill Housedeath that resonates in time and traces the thread of the existence of the protagonists.

Sequels of the past or omens of the future, time is broken at mike flanagan. But more than a mechanism of flashbacks disconnected from the story, the filmmaker invokes multiple temporalities in the present, anchoring these fragments in the very structure of the sets of his works. Witness the hallucinations of jessie which invite the character’s childhood into the very room where it is locked up, or else the doors of the mansion of Bly Manorwhich allow you to move from one memory to another, from one loop to another.

The Mirror: Photo, Rory Cochrane…when things went wrong

The climax of The Mirror is also revealing: the mirror of the title parasitizes the reality of the characters by plunging them back into their traumatic past. The face to face of Kaylie and Tim against the evil object is then seen penetrated by the memories of the night when their life changed ten years earlier. A movement of the camera, a reverse shot or even a simple connection at the bend of a corridor then brings together the adult actors and their child alter ego.

Just as many staging tools that come picking up the pieces of a completely unstructured temporality. It is the same in the famous pivotal episode of The Haunting of Hill Housewhere the camera has fun in a succession of sequence shots going from Nelly’s funeral ceremony to the protagonists’ childhood mansion.

Combining present and past, Mike Flanagan does so visually and thematically, but also by drawing on a rich artistic heritage, mainly literary (Shirley Jackson, Henry James) and film (The Devil’s House, Innocents). Doctor Sleep is undoubtedly the richest example, but also the most unequal, by making the bridge between the shining directed by Stanley Kubrick and the sequel written by Stephen King in opposition to the same feature film from 1980.

Doctor Sleep: photo, Ewan McGregorHome Sweet Home

The result is a work that is certainly heterogeneous, but which takes the risk of reconciling these contradictory legacies to create a common universe who wakes the dead, and confronts them with the living. This new coherence found by the movement and the story indeed captures characters lost in these temporal labyrinths.

Sensitive figures caught in a continuous and fatal flux against which some try to fight by remaining in denial (jessie, The Haunting of Bly Manor) or outright death-defying (midnight sermons), while others delight in the utopian comfort of memory (Do not fall asleep, Ouija).

The Haunting of Hill House: photo, Timothy Huttonfamily defeat

fire walk with me

But nothing is forgotten at Mike Flanagan, and time does not let itself be fooled. The characters also become aware of this by being almost systematically confronted with a pivotal moment that conditions their journey. The fate of Cody’s biological mother in Do not fall asleep and the red eclipse of jessie are so many key sequences that irrigate the existence of the charactersand therefore the architecture of the filmmaker’s stories.

Evidenced by the character of Hannah Grose in The Haunting of Bly Manor whose visions of cracked walls are just resonances of his dark discovery at the bottom of the property’s well in episode 5. This single shot contaminates the rest of the series, on the one hand revealing that some characters are actually stuck within the walls of Bly, and on the other hand by amassing the dramatic stake of Hannah in an essential segment which becomes the heart of her journey. A very particular attention often reinforced by the impetus of a final resolution.

The Haunting of Bly Manor: photo, T'Nia MillerBly Manor’s most moving character?

The emphasis of the climax of Do not fall asleep is much more about acknowledging Cody’s trauma than confronting the Canker Man. Similarly, the intimate confession of the priest in the last episode of midnight sermons is far more central than Erin’s duel with the creature terrorizing the village. The culmination of Mike Flanagan’s stories is mostly uninterested in the spectacular confrontation with the antagonistin favor of the outcome of the intimate journey of its characters.

That is why his stories sometimes overflow into important epilogues. The conclusion of the journey of the eponymous character of jessie is not to free herself from this room where she was handcuffed, but to be confronted with the strange individual played by Carel Struycken and to become aware of her humanity. Ditto for the last episode of The Haunting of Bly Manorwho quickly moves away from the manor to finally follow the daily life of these lovers who choose to accept each other’s ghosts, and to live with them.

Midnight sermons: photoScares and tears at Crockett Island

This way Mike Flanagan has of tightening the dramatic stakes of his characters in a handful of sequences stems froma writing that always returns to the individual as the main emotional vector, implying a high potential for identification. Hence the special attention given to the dialogues.

From the smothered horror ofAbsentia to the long confessions of midnight sermonsMike Flanagan never stopped leave more and more room for dialogue in his creations, calming his outbursts for the benefit of the interpretation of his actors and the strength of his writing. This is particularly evident in midnight sermonswhere the horror is almost completely set aside for a whole part of the series, leaving more room for the verb, treated as a particularly strong source of feelings, reflections and tension.

Alongside his unstoppable horrific craftsmanship and virtuoso staging of existential fear, it’s knowing constantly returning to the triviality of the word and to a refined sensibility that the cinema of Mike Flanagan releases a rare and precious emotional force in the contemporary cinematographic landscape.


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