All 6 of Mike Flanagan’s horror films, ranked (Movie commentary)

I was so impressed with “The Haunting of Hill House” that I immediately checked out writer-director Mike Flanagan’s previous horror work, which is easy to do in these days of streaming services. Although his IMDB goes back to the turn of the century with student films, Flanagan didn’t enter the mainstream until this decade, when he directed six horror (or horror-adjacent) films. All are worth checking out to see the progression of an emerging genre talent. It’s interesting to look at rankings of Flanagan’s films on the web and see that there’s nowhere near a consensus on the order, but here are my personal rankings:

1. “Hush” (2016) – Today, “straight-to-Netflix” is no knock, but a couple years ago, such films had to be defended with “Yeah, but trust me, it’s really good.” Such is the case with “Hush,” about deaf woman Maddie (Kate Siegel, who plays Theo in “HOHH” and co-writes this film), who is alone at her house in the woods that is targeted by a masked home invader. “Hush” is structurally in the vein of “The Strangers” or the final act of “Halloween,” but it’s less horror and more of a gripping survival tale as Maddie overcomes her disability (she needs to be quiet, but of course can’t hear if she’s being quiet) and sometimes cleverly uses it and the deaf-resident-equipped house to her advantage. (Available on Netflix.)

2. “Ouija: Origin of Evil” (2016) – This feels like a conscious apology for 2014’s “Ouija,” the first Hasbro-approved movie based on the “supernatural” board game, following an insane amount of unofficial adaptations. Whereas that movie is rote and unengaging, “Origin of Evil” is the opposite, and since it’s a prequel, you don’t even have to watch the original. Admittedly this 1967-set film likewise doesn’t have a plot that stands out from the horror pack (people get possessed), but it is grounded by a nice story of a poor family trying to make ends meet. It has a creepy, secret room in the basement and achingly sympathetic characters that stand in sharp contrast to the throwaway teens from the first “Ouija.” The red-haired sisters are played by Annalise Basso and Lulu Wilson, and the mom is played by Elizabeth Reaser; all are Flanagan regulars. (Not on subscription streaming at the moment.)

3. “Gerald’s Game” (2017) – The premise is so simple it might be a turnoff: Jessie (Carla Gugino) is stuck handcuffed to a bed when her husband Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) has a fatal heart attack during their sex game. So she has to figure out how to get free, or she will die. When Jessie escapes into her memories, it could be a reprieve, but this being a Stephen King adaptation, it’s another type of horror. The most memorable flashback is an event between 12-year-old Jessie (Chiara Aurelia) and her dad (Henry Thomas). She notes that what her father did to her in the bedroom has haunted her, even though he never touched her – and then we see a sequence that lives up to that promise. “Gerald’s Game” also uses our expectations against us in a surprising twist. “HOHH” fans might get a kick out of seeing Gugino, Thomas and Siegel arranged into a different family dynamic. (Available on Netflix.)

4. “Before I Wake” (2016) – This meditation on the grief of losing a young child might draw in people who are starting a family, and it might feel slow and overlong for others. The child actors and dad (Thomas Jane) are great, but mom Kate Bosworth is the main character, and she’s a bit bland. This is the latest riff on “The Tempest,” as young Cody’s (Jacob Tremblay) nightmares become reality. But it’s not pure horror: Cody’s pleasant dreams are also manifested, and Flanagan uses modern CGI to good effect for pretty scenes of butterflies. It boasts some decent jump scares, but “Before I Wake” is borderline as a fright film, so a viewer’s enjoyment will depend on their patience with the slow pace and emotional connection to Cody. (Available on Netflix.)

5. “Oculus” (2013) – A remake of one of Flanagan’s student films from the previous decade, “Oculus’ ” big draw might be the actors: It has early turns by Karen Gillan (“Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” and Nebula in the Marvel Cinematic Universe) and Basso as the younger version of Gillan’s Kaylie. The premise is satisfying right off the bat, as Kaylie – rather than giving up or going crazy – decides to prove the existence of supernatural evil with rigid experimentation and defenses. She surrounds the mystical mirror that she knows possessed and killed her parents with cameras, thermometers and alarm clocks to make sure she and her brother, Tim (Brenton Thwaites), don’t get tricked by it. But of course the mirror isn’t going down without a fight, and the final act is a confusing romp that eschews linear time and, as far as I can tell, makes no logical sense. (Available on Netflix.)

6. “Absentia” (2011) – Flanagan’s calling card is a low-budget, Kickstarter-funded film shot with video cameras and starring B-to-D-level actors. A viewer has to look past that to notice the solid script that could’ve been reworked into one of those great “X-Files” horror episodes, with Mulder on hand to explain the pseudo-science. Despite the low budget, there is a creepiness to the centerpiece location, a tunnel that allows joggers and cyclists to cross under a highway. People keep disappearing in the neighborhood, including Tricia’s (Courtney Bell) husband, who has been gone for seven years and therefore has legally “died in absentia.” This film is begging for a remake where the theme of trying to move on without closure and the tensions between the sisters (Katie Parker, as Callie, is the strongest actor here) get punched up to a level worthy of the script. (Available on Amazon Prime.)


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