WRITER/DIRECTOR MIKE FLANAGAN!
Say friends, how many of you put your hands on the planchette and were tossed around by OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL this past weekend? A damn good time, right? Hell yes! A large reason for that has to be the man in charge, Mike Flanagan, who wrote the script with pal Jeff Howard and directed the flick to tense and terrifying T. And frankly, if you've followed Flanagan's budding career over the last half decade or so, you already know the success of OUIJA comes as no real surprise. With ABSENTIA, OCULUS, HUSH, BEFORE I WAKE and now ORIGIN OF EVIL, Flanagan has submitted a handful of bona fide horror/thrillers that, at the very least, proves his filmmaking acumen and demands our attention moving forward. As a buzzed-about student filmmaker who spent a good year or two directing television, it's precisely this kind of low-budget-horror niche Flanagan seems to thrive in most.
Below we try to assess why this is, and what about Mike's five films so far has put him on such a promising trajectory in the horror genre. You fools and ghouls down with that? Good, let's Dissect Mike Flanagan and see what makes the sumbitch tick!
Supposing time will turn in the ultimate verdict of verity, we feel quite confident claiming, here and now, that OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL will sturdily tower among Flanagan's hopefully lengthy filmography. Subjective I know, but for a presumable throwaway PG-13 studio horror prequel that warranted the lowest of expectations, OUIJA 2 not only proved pleasantly positive, it also demonstrated that present and future movies are still capable of holding a candle to the halcyon horror days of yore...if the material is treated thoughtfully and crafted carefully.
Seriously. There's no reason $6 million studio horror films can't aspire to, and reach this high quality, if taken the requisite time, effort and given the considerable craftsmanship they deserve. As an obvious fan of the genre, it's quite clear that Flanagan attacked the OUIJA mythos with the same respect, dignity and authenticity one would an outright drama, bucking the instant gratification of most studio mandated horror beats and instead slowly, wisely revving the engine with a measured pace that, in the end, speeds up and throttles the audience with an incendiary eruption of abject evil. No shortcuts, no circuitous routes, in OUJIA Flanagan drives to the heart of what makes a horror movie work: empathetic human drama!
How many of you have seen the movie HUSH? No, not the sexy-ludicrous Jessica Lange flick from the 90s, we're talking about the tense and terse two-handed micro-thriller Flanagan made with his wife Kate Siegel for Netflix earlier this year. More of the same. They wrote the script together, she starring as a deaf-mute writer holed up in her isolated cabin to pen her new novel. Once there, she's soon stalked, teased and tormented by a whacked-out masked maniac (John Gallagher) with indefatigable intent to kill. Empathy is instantly felt for a character that does not use her handicap as a crutch, but as a reason to prevail. This is a strong, independent woman who, precisely because of her sensory foibles, must compensate in other ways in order to outwit her underestimating assailant. One location, only a handful of characters, and long stretches of pure silent cinema - showing not telling - all beautifully staged, set and played by those involved. Flanagan time and time again executes the simple things as well as you'd hope for: well paced and tightly scripted action, credible characters, exquisite camerawork, etc. HUSH demonstrates all of the above!
Given such a limited sample size, it's a bit tough if not unfair to locate a truly empty chamber in Flanagan's canon. So, to simply defer to our man Chris Bumbray by relaying a quote from his middling Fantasia review of BEFORE I WAKE, it's precisely this yet to be released film of Flanagan's that is said to be "an interesting failure...but not without some strong redeeming points." This seems to be the prevailing sentiment from audiences and critics alike, as the film currently boasts a lowly 20% favorable on Rotten Tomatoes.
Perhaps most interesting is how the film was apparently slated for release way back in the fall of 2015, but right as Relativity Media went bankrupt, the fate of the film has been floating in a sort of purgatorial limbo ever since. A PG-13 "supernatural drama," as Flanagan puts it, adamantly differentiating it from an out-and-out horror yarn, the film follows a little boy (ROOM's Jacob Tremblay) whose sinister somnolence begins manifesting in reality. In fact, the original title of the flick was Somnia, in what would have been the third Latin title in a row for Flanagan after ABSENTIA and OCULUS. Thomas Jane and Kate Bosworth play the conflicted parents of the troubled 8 year old, Dash Mihok, Annabeth Gish and Scottie Thompson lend support. As of now, BEFORE I WAKE is set to open in early 2017. As always, keep it close for release news as we become abreast of it.
Tough to say after only five pointed genre joints, but if we had to single out a qualitative constant among them, it just might be the fact that Flanagan tends to, in tandem with co-scribe Jeff Howard, conceive of and write his own material. We can't tell you what an advantage it is directing films from your own screenplays, and how far it truly goes toward realizing your own uncompromised vision. Hell, only the best directors can take someone else's script and still make a great movie...Fincher, the Scotts, etc. Not saying Flanagan can't achieve that status, but for now, because he does originate his own scripts, he doesn't need to.
There's also an economic imperative at play. I don't think it's a coincidence that Flanagan can deliver a handsome horror movie that he writes himself on the relative cheap ($5-6 million at most). By knowing exactly what you want to see on screen, largely due to the fact you've dreamt it up in your head, you need not waste a ton of money, time and resources in order to achieve such onscreen. Now, it hardly ever 100% matches from mind to screen, but at least by writing your own material you have a far firmer idea of what you want and need to capture visually. I hope, moving onward, that Flanagan continues to relish in the writing process and continue to protect the writing by directing his own scripts.
When you fund a movie as sure-handed as it is enigmatically arresting, doing so for a mere $70 on Kickstarter the way Flanagan did with ABSENTIA - not only is the final result underrated, it's a goddamn underdog success story. Real shite. If you've not gotten down with the mystifying experience that is ABSENTIA, please do so stat, as it perfectly remonstrates this sort of DYI bootstrapping Flanagan seems to thrive in most. Dude produced, wrote, directed and cut the film himself, and since the story is so captivating, you'd never guess it. This doesn't feel like a cheap, glorified home-movie as it had every right to be, it shows the less-is-more modality Flanagan uses to his advantage. In a weird way the movie reminds me of PRIMER in that regard.
The story of ABSENTIA is a simple one. Two sisters who notice that a tunneled stretch of road seems to be the disappearance point for a spate of abductees decide to investigate further. What they uncover is for you to find out on your own, but suffice it to say, if you're a fan of Flanagan's genre sensibilities, it's no reach to think you won't revel in the maddening mystery. In our two DVD reviews of the film, Dave Murray gave ABSENTIA 4/4 stars, Pat Torfe gave it 3.5/4. The film culled a slew of festival honors, including the 2011 Fangoria Chainsaw Award. Most impressive to us though? The way Mike stitched his head-turning short film into the ABSENTIA narrative before taking us right through the looking glass of OCULUS just two years later.
How many of you saw OCULUS in theaters? F*ck yeah! I know the film was deemed a relative failure commercially based on what good word of mouth it garnered critically, but check the facts. Made for just $5 million, the film doubled that amount in grosses in the opening weekend of U.S. box-office ($12 million). Still, we don't think nearly enough eyeballs landed one what was clearly one of the more original and superior horror flicks of 2013. Normally, when a movie is elongated from a buzzed-about short to a feature length film, the narrative inevitably peters out in a laborious stretch to the finish line (I'm leering squarely at you, LIGHTS OUT).
Not the case with OCULUS. In fact, we'd argue the feature length adaptation of his short OCULUS 3 - THE MAN WITH THE PLAN actually grows stronger as it unfolds. The story, again rife with empathic action and sympathetic characters, follows a teenage girl intent on proving her convicted brother's innocence of a murder he did not commit. And just who or what did? A deleterious djinn or sorts who uses a family mirror as a portal to vacillate between the ethereal and material worlds. And in so doing, lets a whole lot of motherf*cking blood! Both our head honcho John The Arrow and fellow Canadian critic C.Bum both bestowed a 7/10 rating to OCULUS, cementing the budding talents (at the time) of Flanagan as a formidable horror director.
Not resting on his laurels one bit, Mike's moving from one deeply diabolical plaything to another. Even better, he's turned to the master of horror fiction himself, Stephen King, for his latest inspiration via the upcoming adaptation of GERALD'S GAME, which Flanagan is currently filming for Nextlfix and Intrepid Pictures. If you aren't already aware, the premise outlines as follows:
When a harmless game between a married couple in a remote retreat suddenly becomes a harrowing fight for survival, wife Jessie must confront long-buried demons within her own mind - and possibly lurking in the shadows of her seemingly empty house.
Flanagan's wife and frequent collaborator Kate Siegel (HUSH) and OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL star Henry Thomas have boarded GERALD'S GAME, doing so alongside the always radiant Carla Gugino and ever-dependable Bruce Greenwood. I personally cannot wait to see how Flanagan and longtime co-writer Jeff Howard handle King's inimitable writing style while still bringing their own authorial voice to the story. I do believe this will be the first horror outing Flanagan did not conceive of on his own (with Howard), so it'll be interesting to see how he handles another writer's work, how much he changes, alters, defers, or ultimately leans upon in order to still fashion something that feels like a legit Flanagan fright-flick. And honestly, given his past five titles, GERALD'S GAME seems to boast a perfectly tailored plot to elicit exactly what Mike does best. As effusively extolled as Flanagan has become, expectations ineluctably raise. Understanding such, we'd be mighty surprised if GERALD'S GAME doesn't turn out a winner!
Not to wax hagiographic, but it's damn nice to see in Mike Flanagan a relatively young new horror director burst on the scene and shake things up. Five years, five films...and the arrow is clearly trending directly upward. ABSENTIA, OCULUS, HUSH, BEFORE I WAKE and OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL are proof positive of such an assertion, and in a way, so too is the fact he's found inspiration from Stephen King for his next project. Here's hoping GERALD'S GAME is more of the same from a man who's stock is clearly rising in the world of the cinematic macabre. Take the reins Mikey, own that shite, and keep on keeping the f*ck on. We appreciate ya!