Happy First Friday of Fall!
Despite the lingering heat where I am, the air smells cooler, the leaves are crispier, pumpkin reigns supreme, and cars are stuck behind school buses again. Halloween is on the horizon, so for the next few weeks, scary movies will pour into streaming services and horror habits will be socially acceptable, at least until all the (fake) blood washes off.
Today is also the release date of Mike Flanagan’s latest project, Midnight Mass, on Netflix. To celebrate its debut, I’m revisiting Flanagan’s previous work and ranking his nine available horror features in order of great to good enough. What can I say? He’s one of my favorite directors. Even his “worst” is palatable; it just pales in comparison to the rest.
Now let’s rewind.
Description: A group of estranged siblings are reunited by tragedy, forcing them to confront their mixed accounts of what took place during their childhood at the mysterious Hill House property.
Why It’s Great: The first installment of Flanagan’s “The Haunting” anthology series is widely popular for the simple reason that it’s brilliant. Shirley Jackson’s novel of the same name is one of my favorite books, and while Flanagan’s adaption borrows the character’s names and the titular setting, most everything else about the plot is reimagined, with the exception of a few memorable scenes. The book and series are deeply unsettling in starkly different ways, but perhaps its standout scare is Flanagan’s inclusion of ghostly figures in background shots who are never acknowledged until they’re introduced formally in a subplot. It’s a neat alternative to jump scares and gives fans a reason to rewatch it and play a ghoulish version of “I SPY.”
Description: A pregnant woman is visited by her troubled sister as they make arrangements to declare the former’s missing husband dead in absentia. When he makes a sudden reappearance, an investigation leads to an otherworldly tunnel in the neighborhood.
Why It’s Great: Absentia was funded through Kickstarter with a budget of only $70,000—something that works in the film’s favor. The settings are simple and the actors are believable in appearance and dialogue, grounding the fantastically dark storyline in reality. It’s a scruffy, scary deep cut that I wish more people knew about.
Description: An American nanny moves to a large estate in rural England that’s haunted by generations of secrets and devastation.
Why It’s Great: While it’s much less frightening than Hill House, the second season of The Haunting leans deeply into gothic romance, giving it space of its own to exist outside of the haunted house comparison. It’s also fun to watch many of the first season’s actors return with new identities, especially Victoria Pedretti, whose chemistry with the lonely gardener (Amelia Eve), is so consuming that their dynamic has become iconic in the queer community.
Description: A Deaf woman who lives alone in a wooded cabin is tormented by a masked assailant lurking outside.
Why It’s Great: Flanagan loves a strong woman ready to kick some ass, and often, these women are played by his wife (Kate Siegel, but Flanagan’s first wife Courtney Bell also starred in three of his films.) Siegel’s performance as the Deaf Final Girl is powerful, never pitiful, as she creatively navigates a murderous home invasion without any sound.
Description: After the death of their young son, a couple fosters a little boy who’s terrified of going to sleep. They soon discover that boy’s dreams—and nightmares—manifest physically in their home.
Why It’s Great: There’s a level of fantasy imbued in much of Flanagan’s work, and Before I Wake afforded him the opportunity to create dreamscapes inside and outside of the child’s head. Even when it’s creepy, there’s still a high level of beauty.
Description: Looking to spice up their marriage, a middle-aged couple travels to a cabin in the woods for a kinky retreat involving handcuffs. Once the wife is cuffed to the bed, the husband promptly dies of a heart attack, stranding her.
Why It’s Good: This movie delivers on the squeamish sensation. I watched it very hungover the night after Halloween while eating a plate of pizza bagels and the moments of gore made me regret the combination. While the movie could have ended a couple scenes earlier than it did, that critique is directed more at Stephen King than Flanagan’s adaption.
Description: A brother and sister reunite after their parents’ death when they were children to confront and defeat the malevolent object that the sister deems responsible—a haunted, antique mirror.
Why It’s Good: Mirrors manage to be creepy regardless of what kind of film they appear in, but this kicks it up one hundred notches, and I praise Flanagan for not utilizing jump scare after jump scare with such an object that invites them. This film also marks where Flanagan revealed the frightening things he can do with eyes, a skill he mastered in subsequent projects.
8. Doctor Sleep
Description: As an adult, Danny Torrance is still haunted by his childhood and the shining powers he possesses only torment him further. He is forced to confront this side of himself when another little girl with the shining is kidnapped by a cult who feeds on children with the same ability.
Why It’s Good: This movie will resonate the most with those who have already seen Kubrick’s The Shining, whether or not they’ve also read King’s novel. Make no mistake, this is Flanagan’s version, so it’s more fantasy than horror. Flanagan pays homage to Kubrick by putting noticeable effort into casting actors who bear strong resemblances to the original cast for flashback sequences. When Danny makes his eventual return to the Overlook as an adult, he’s greeted with an uncanny valley-like rollercoaster through the past.
Description: A scam artist psychic decides to boost her business through the inclusion of a Ouija board, inadvertently unleashing an evil spirit that possesses her daughter.
Why It’s Good: Jason Blum made a good call when he let Flanagan come aboard production of Origin of Evil, the prequel to the already released (and critically panned) Ouija. Flanagan’s originality helped break Blum’s concept free of the big-box-office boredom. The story is set in the 1970s and, for an authentic feel, the production team used only filming equipment that existed in that time period. You know what I said about Flanagan’s CGI manipulation of eyes? Watch this one and see what he does with mouths.
Midnight Mass is streaming on Netflix.
About the Author
Melaina Kris is a lifelong lover of horror and the founder of The Final Girl Reviews. She lives in Chicago where she manages an architecture magazine by daylight.