Tag: mike flanagan

Absentia


Absentia (2011)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Writer-director Mike Flanagan’s debut feature film proves that showing the monster completely is not necessary to construct an effective horror film. Instead, he drowns the viewer in tense and portentous atmosphere, creepy folklores, and genuine humanity. Only ten minutes into the picture—opening credits included—already we are presented with an emotional hook: Tricia (Courtney Bell) confesses to her younger sister, Callie (Katie Parker), what she forces herself to think or imagine in regards to what might have happened to her husband since his disappearance seven years ago. Here is a portrait of a woman so lonely, so sad, and so desperate to have some semblance of closure in her marriage that she is unable to move forward with her life. Her husband is not the only thing that disappeared seven years ago. So did her own light.

We meet Tricia putting up new missing person posters and right away we detect a melancholy about her. She moves rather slowly not because she’s pregnant but because she is pulled between past and future. The present is unbearable; she lacks purpose. It is quite possible she’s depressed. Bell portrays Tricia as a motherly and sisterly figure with seeming ease. We wish to get to know her character even though she is clearly not at her best. Flanagan makes the correct decision to allow Tricia and Callie to talk deeply—about Daniel’s disappearance, Tricia delaying to find a new place to live and start a new chapter, Callie’s history with drug addiction. What’s brilliant is the fact that these personal details are not simply utilized to garner our sympathy. These are tied into the mystery at hand: What is going on in this neighborhood, especially its track record of people suddenly being spirited away?

There are numerous creepy and downright chilling images, from bug-like shadow creatures skittering about, a shower curtain moving just a little bit when nothing is supposed to be behind it, ghostly Daniel appearing in the background when Tricia closes her eyes—and sometimes right in front of her when she opens them. Couple these with Flanagan’s expert use of silence. We learn to brace ourselves when all we can hear are footsteps and the sounds of our characters breathing. Notice, too, that when the unsettling score is employed, it is also overpowering. It is interesting that at times the score booms and we are forced to listen closely at the subtler sounds of a scene. Clearly, Flanagan wishes for us to engage with the material, to use all of our senses and turn on our brains—the opposite of many modern horror movies.

I enjoyed there is no explanation offered about the origins of the monsters. To do so would have eroded their mystique, possibly made them less scary. I would even go as far to say that going down that route would have made the story more pedestrian. Instead, we are given time to absorb and process the lies the characters tell themselves in order to try to make sense of seemingly inexplicable paranormal phenomenon. Because are provided rich character details, the various puzzle pieces can be put together so that rationalizations are pragmatic, “conclusive.” This is true to life, I think. We are biologically wired this way so that we can move on from tragic and/or traumatic events. The goal of this film is to put that idea into context.

“Absentia” may be low on budget but it is high on ambition, imagination, and entertainment value. Obviously a fan of the horror genre, Flanagan is aware of the usual rhythm and beat—he uses them as they are sometimes and there are instances when he turns them upside down. But most of his effort is put into creating humanistic and deeply flawed characters so that we care about them as if we know them personally. I grew so attached to Tricia and Callie, I found myself wanting a sequel… even though I know deep down that the story is complete as is.

Before I Wake


Before I Wake (2016)
★★ / ★★★★

“Before I Wake” combines dark fantasy and horror with mixed results.

On the one hand, there is an interesting story involving a foster child, Cody (Jacob Tremblay), who has the ability to turn his dreams into reality, but he is not yet able to control it. There is a curious dynamic between the boy and his most recent foster parents (Kate Bosworth, Thomas Jane) because there is immediately a question in our mind whether the couple would choose to use Cody’s double-edged gift so that they could see and interact with their recently deceased son (Antonio Evan Romero). The screenplay by Mike Flanagan and Jeff Howard, the former directing the picture, does not shy away from human nature—even at the expense of putting a child in danger.

The picture invites the viewer to look at it closely, especially during dream sequences. We are provided peaceful images of butterflies fluttering about in well-lit, well-decorated rooms yet the tone can pivot just as quickly toward darker territory. This is where horror elements come in. Silence is used effectively, particularly during tension-building early in the picture when the audience does not yet have an idea of the threat Cody mentions: The Canker Man, how it appears in his nightmares sometimes and eats people. Notice the careful use of shadows to prevent the viewer from seeing too much too soon. Flanagan has an understanding of how horror pictures work—not a surprise considering he helmed the excellent but largely undiscovered “Absentia.”

On the other hand, the film can be quite repetitive. Jessie and Mark trying to stay awake in the living room by drinking loads of coffee just in case Cody dreams of their son suffers from diminishing returns. Must we really endure yet another discussion regarding how much the couple misses their son? Must we look at yet another family picture with the smiling dead child in it? Perhaps the point is to establish a molasses-like pacing in order to communicate the crippling depression of the household. Repetition can work but the wrinkles in the formula must be introduced with great energy to keep the material from becoming stale.

Although the screenplay gets to it eventually, there is not enough investigation into Cody’s interesting past in order for the mystery to be resolved. For example, the reason why Gore Verbinski’s interpretation of “The Ring” works so well is because it works as a detective story. Time is utilized to soak us into its deepest secrets. Here, only about fifteen minutes is dedicated to stealing official documents, talking to the right creepy people, and going through red tape. As a result, the final third comes across as rushed and superficial.

With a few more passes of revision, “Before I Wake” might have offered a superior experience. The right elements are there, but fat needs to be shed in order to make room for meaty details. As is, it is tolerable but not particularly memorable.

Doctor Sleep


Doctor Sleep (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

In many horror movies, there is almost always an assumption that the antagonist is evil. It has become an awful habit not to tell us how evil the villain can be and thus why it must be vanquished at all costs. About a third of the way through in writer-director Mike Flanagan’s occasionally impressive “Doctor Sleep,” it proves to be more potent than its contemporaries: it takes the aforementioned extra step. It dares to show a child murder that includes all the details: how he is targeted; how he is lured; how he is kidnapped; how he is handled; the precise moment the boy realizes he will die that night; the blood gushing from his small frame; the screaming, crying, and begging due to extreme pain; the terror in his last breath. It creates a level of urgency so high, that when the enemies finally get their comeuppance the viewers are inspired to yell at the screen, “Get him!” “Shoot her!” “Don’t let them get away!”

The work is a solid sequel to one of the most iconic horror films, Stanley Kubrick’s unforgettable “The Shining.” However, it does not start strong. In its attempt to bridge the gap between the terrifying events that took place inside the Overlook Hotel in 1980 and 2011 when mid-thirties Dan Torrence (Ewan McGregor) has become an alcoholic in order to suppress his shine (psychic powers), the work relies far too often on familiar imagery such as patterns on walls or floors, word-for-word dialogue taken directly from the previous film, its use of primary colors, how the hair of Danny’s mom (Alex Essoe) tend to fall a certain way so that attention is drawn to her ears.

On the surface, those who have seen Kubrick’s picture multiple times may find some enjoyment from spotting every reference. On the other hand, these images and lines of dialogue pale by comparison against the original. There is a sense of preternatural discipline in the predecessor that this one lacks. The mimicry is amusing twice or thrice, but one wonders eventually when the work will forge an identity of its own. Auspiciously, the story moves at a brisk pace; it does not feel like a two-and-a-half-hour movie.

Perhaps because the film, based on the Stephen King’s novel, is interested in expanding the story in ways that are curious and magical. For example, shine, as turns out, tend to vary from one person to another—not only by degrees as “The Shining” implied but also in terms of nature. One person’s shine can mean having the ability to read minds, while the next person’s shine means having the ability to control individuals’ actions by mere suggestion. We usually learn the advantages and limitations of these abilities. We meet about a dozen characters with the shine and so we become curious about their specific talents. It is refreshing that our central protagonist, Danny, is not the most powerful. His experience makes him formidable, but there is least one who we feel has mastered her abilities. She is named Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), the leader of a cult who feeds on children’s shine. Cult members aim to prolong their lifespan.

The story is about finding the courage to move on from one’s past—nothing fresh. Dan is haunted by literal ghosts. Eventually, he lands a job at a hospice and we learn how he earns the titular nickname. (It involves a cat.) Meanwhile, the highly gifted Abra (Kyliegh Curran) must come to terms with her strange abilities by overcoming her fear of being regarded or treated as a freak. Her parents are aware of her abilities, but it is never talked about directly. Why? Because there is shame there. (I wished the screenplay delved into this further.) The template is unimpressive, but there are enough jolts and plot twists that make for an intriguing watch. Dialogue can be as revealing as overt action.

McGregor and Curran share terrific chemistry. Flanagan’s script consistently underlines the big brother/little sister relationship, the connection between the mentor and the mentee. It never syrupy, just sweet enough to hint a possible happy ending for haunted Dan. He deserves it. Curran embodies the role with gusto; she is not simply required to look scared or cute. She possesses a natural knowing look and so we believe the character is beyond her years. I hope Curran would choose character-driven work in the future, rather than just another role for a child or pre-teen that can be played by anyone.

“Doctor Sleep” is not composed merely of cheap jump scares. Horror is often situational—which is an example of a great nod to its predecessor. It is interested in how people relate to one another, what scares them, how they attempt to find solutions. Flanagan understands why Kubrick’s film works and, for better or worse, he dares enough to modernize the scares while putting his own stamp on what or how a horror movie should be like. He is confident of his storytelling, the craft propelling the scares, and the capable cast. It is a worthy follow-up.

Ouija: Origin of Evil


Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016)
★★ / ★★★★

Despite improving upon the original, “”Ouija: Origin of Evil” is a disappointment given that Mike Flanagan, the director and co-writer, knows how to construct and execute effective horror and thriller pictures (“Absentia,” “Hush,” “Oculus”) without relying on standard third act tropes that plague inferior works far too often. The film commands an intriguing exposition and rising action, but all the effort and energy lead up to a finale so unnecessarily flashy that one could not be blamed for considering that perhaps it is simply following the lead of James Wan’s “The Conjuring” rather than striving to become an example.

Genuine scares are present and a few are effective. So many movies involving characters playing a Ouija board come across as silly, slow, even detached at times because of the editing; they often take the time to show the fingers on the planchette moving from one letter to another as if we couldn’t understand how the game worked the first time. Here, the difference is noticeable. Cuts are generously employed—not only is the pacing faster, the message is quickly spelled out, and so when shocks are delivered, we tend to get caught off-guard because we are still absorbing or reeling in from the given messages, weighing what they could mean. Editing controls the timing; timing delivers the type of scare.

It takes the time to get the audience to relate to the family living in the haunted house. Alice (Elizabeth Reaser) is a single mother who must raise her daughters (Annalise Basso, Lulu Wilson) on her own after her husband’s death. Bills are piling up, and Alice’s parlor tricks of telling fortunes and contacting the other side are not enough to make a living on. It is very likely that they could lose the house. It is important that we understand their financial situation since they choose to stay in the house despite the discovery of active spirits within.

Humor is involved from time to time. For instance, there is an amusing scene where the mother reads the palm of a boy who is romantically interested in her elder daughter. Moments such as this not only function as a reprieve from the escalating tension but also a way to highlight the humanity of the characters. We must believe that those on screen being terrorized are actual people who might respond the way we do given a set of circumstances and so we relate with them all the more.

Less interesting are instances in which visual effects are employed—a possessed person walking on the ceiling, cloudy eyes, bodily contortions. Since the images are obviously made using or with an aide of a computer, we are taken out of the reality that the filmmakers worked so hard to establish. This approach is too commonly used during the final act to the point where the images are no longer scary, just gratuitous and unnecessary, an exercise of what they can do to wring out cheap jump scares.

“Ouija: Origin of Evil” works when it presents creepy details like a little girl being able to write in Polish even though she has no command of the language whatsoever. Even the history of a person who used to live in that house is fascinating. After all, at some point we’ve all wondered about the former people, once living, who used to reside in our homes. (Well, I have.) I wished Flanagan had picked his brain some more and had come up with a more inspired approach to end this story in a way that matches the identity of the kind of horror film he set out to make.

Hush


Hush (2016)
★★★ / ★★★★

“Hush,” directed by Mike Flanagan, understands the difference between and how to balance thrills and suspense. Its minimalist approach is exactly right given that everything that the protagonist must undergo is believable and convincing.

Maddie (Kate Siegel) is a writer who relocates in a secluded house near the woods with the goal of finishing her second novel. During the night she attempts to decide the ending of her book, a masked stranger (John Gallagher Jr.) shows up to play a deadly game. The intruder claims that he will only kill her once she can no longer withstand the torment and gives herself up to him. The predator underestimates his prey.

The protagonist’s handicap makes her especially vulnerable. When Maddie was thirteen, she had contracted bacterial encephalitis and the disease left her unable to hear and speak. However, she is a heroine worth rooting for because she is intelligent, resourceful, and determined. She is put in a number of situations where she must fight, not simply yell at her stranger to project false confidence or scream so that we would end up feeling sorry for her.

Siegel is well-cast especially because she has Angelina Jolie-like traits. She has the body of an athlete, at the very least someone who is in shape. And so when confrontations get physical and she must make haste to acquire an item or she must wrestle the stranger, we believe that she can actually obtain the object or extricate herself from a prickly situation. Furthermore, she is present in the eyes. We feel her character’s desire to fight and live.

Score is utilized sparingly given that silence is one of the film’s themes. We are allowed to hear the rapid footsteps as Maddie runs to lock every door and window. Because there is no score or soundtrack that serves as warning, the tapping on the glass is all the more alarming. The creaky doors pose danger. Every shadow or a blank background is a threat.

The violence is brutal, but it is used sparingly, too. When it is front and center, one cannot help but wince or flinch. Nicely done here is we are made to understand that Maddie must take risks in order to get the upper hand. Sometimes her gamble pays off. But there are times when she gets more than she bargains for. The element of violence is predictable but the execution forces us to be in the moment and craving for more.

Clearly inspired by Terence Young’s masterful “Wait Until Dark,” which has a protagonist who is blind, “Hush” is creepy, unsettling, and inspired. Flanagan constructs tension so well and so confidently, we are forced to react to what we are seeing rather than think about what we could have done if we were in Maddie’s shoes.

Oculus


Oculus (2013)
★★ / ★★★★

Tim (Brenton Thwaites) is deemed fit by his psychiatrist to be released from a mental hospital so his sister, Kaylie (Karen Gillan), comes to pick him up. Over lunch, Kaylie tells Tim that she has found it—the antique mirror that ruined their family eleven years ago—and the time has come for them to fulfill their promise.

Director Mike Flanagan has shaped one of the most effective and creative horror independent pictures in the past five years with “Absentia,” about two sisters and a tunnel with terrible secrets. In a way, “Oculus” follows a similar skeletal framework in that it is about a brother-sister pair and a mysterious, possibly sinister, object. The siblings in both films are separated by time and space. The latter, however, pales in comparison because its premise never moves beyond its structural conceit.

While it is always daring that a horror film is injected with dramatic elements through a parallel storytelling, the present and the past melting through one another like milky memories, much of the tension is sacrificed. A predictable pattern is created. An example is a would-be scary scene involves Kaylie seeing a supernatural figure and the camera quickly cutting to this entity in order to get a reaction from the audience. When the camera returns to the protagonist, we now see her younger self (Annalise Basso) which means we are transported to the past. There is screaming and hullabaloo around the house. About two minutes later, we are transported to the present. This gets exhausting after a while.

The mistake is placing more emphasis on the past. Obviously, the two children, although traumatized, made it through their terrible ordeal. Early in the picture we are told that their parents (Katee Sackhoff, Rory Cochrane) are dead. Thus, it becomes a matter of simply waiting to see when the parents will die. We are even informed how they will die. With the exception of the strange mirror, there is very little mystery left. Why is the focus not on the present? More importantly, since the mirror is also a character, with the exception of Kaylie going over its owners’ track records throughout four centuries, why are we not provided more information about it?

Although the picture draws some inspiration from Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” in terms of imagery, the father’s personal work space and how he sits in front of the computer all day, what Flanagan should have taken away from Kubrick’s work is how to establish an increasing sense of impending doom. The 1980 classic, also telling a supernatural story, consists of consistently high-risk and very calculated rising action. This one, however, barely gets off the ground. Because it gets stuck—or is willing to get stuck—in trickeries involving perspectives and memory, the dangers and repercussions rarely come off as tangible. I found it gimmicky and off-putting.

The supernatural figures look uninspired. Are ghosts with lights emanating from their eyes supposed to be scary? It certainly did not work for me. Instead, I thought about how similar images worked better in movies like Anton Leader’s “Children of the Damned” and John Carpenter’s “Village of the Damned.”

It is clear that the director, who also helmed the screenplay with Jeff Howard, has not found a way to turn his inspirations into his own. What results is a mediocre film with some good ideas but is only decent during the first twenty minutes because a hypothesis is presented. Kaylie’s goal is to gather physical evidence that a supernatural entity is responsible for destroying her family. I would have liked to have seen that movie because it offers a classic template for good old-fashioned scares.