Netflix has found in the creator of ‘Midnight Mass’ one of its great creative assets: this is how Mike Flanagan’s mind works
Mike Flanagan lives devoted to terror. To a very peculiar way of understanding terror, which is becoming more and more sophisticated and personal, but to which from the beginning of his career he has shown unwavering loyalty. Currently, and against all odds, he is one of the main and most successful authors of the genre.
The last sample of this we have in ‘Midnight Mass’, a chilling miniseries set on an island awaiting the return of its regular priest, and that receives one much younger and whose actions will transform the faith and the lives of those who live there. A piece of claustrophobic and psychological horror that is nothing more than the natural step after two previous hits on the platform, such as ‘Hill House’ and ‘Bly Manor’. This is how Flanagan has come to become a must-have creator for Netflix.
Modest but significant beginnings
Although he also shot a couple of student projects more geared towards melodrama, right out of film school Flanagan wrote and directed ‘Ghosts of Hamilton Street’, a film that already anticipates some of the themes that he would deal with in more ambitious films. In it, a writer sees how people in his life disappear without leaving a trace, which sends him to versions of his life where those people do not exist. He soon determines a logic for the phenomenon and sets out to save those around him and who matter to him from this strange fate.
His next project would be a horror short. ‘Oculus: Chapter 3 – The Man with the Plan’, from 2006, has that curious title because, not getting funding for what he wanted to be a series of short films, he shot only the third, in which the full story is explained thanks to the use of flashbacks. However, even though there was interest on the part of film producers to turn it into a film, they wanted to impose a found footage style on it, by then very fashionable, and Flanagan did not yield.
Three initial bullets in the heart of terror
Little by little, Flanagan’s career was reorienting itself to the purest genre, and he demonstrated it with ‘Absentia’, which he financed through Kickstarter and that despite its limitations, he got two hundred percent of the party from his disturbing concept: a pair of sisters investigate a series of disappearances from their environment, mysteriously linked to a passage tunnel looking as sinister as it is bland. Flanagan’s happy relationship with Netflix began here, since it was the platform that catapulted the very modest proposal to success a few years later, turning it into a cult film.
His next film, already with much looser means, was the marvelous ‘Oculus’, a true carousel of scares that competes with the proposals of James Wan in the most verbenera side of the genre, and with a story also in the same vein as recent horror film hits: a girl tries to prove that an enchanted mirror is responsible for the crimes for which her brother is in jail. The result already demonstrates Flanagan’s narrative resources when it comes to sowing concern in the viewer.
In 2016, and also under the auspices – such as ‘Oculus’ – of Blumhlouse, the production company of ‘Paranormal Activity’ or ‘Insidious’, would sign ‘Ouija: the origin of evil’, a more traditional supernatural horror film, but where Many of the constants that he would later develop on Netflix are already settling. Under a family history harassed by supernatural forces we have a dark and melancholic vision of the afterlife, which permeates not only the dead but also the behaviors of the living. ‘Ouija’ cost 10 million dollars and raised more than 80.
With Flanagan already enshrined in Netflix, the director and screenwriter would return to theaters to premiere his second adaptation of Stephen King after ‘Gerald’s Game’, the ambitious ‘Doctor Sleep’, a late sequel to ‘The Shining’ that gets the most unlikely: reconcile the universes of Kubrick’s film, Stephen King’s original book, and the writer’s own literary sequel. A film in which the past, as usual in Flanagan, falls like a stone on the characters in the form of contacts with the afterlife that are more disturbing than terrifying.
Flanagan on Netflix: the new face of horror
Before the premiere of Ouija, while filming this one, Flanagan secretly prepared and shot ‘Hush’, a film that after passing through festivals would end up exclusively premiering Netflix in 2016, becoming a viral bombshell thanks to the conciseness of her argument: a deaf woman isolated in a cabin in a forest is harassed by a dismal masked man. Connecting with classic thrillers in the style of ‘Alone in the dark’, sometimes it pulls too much of the clichés, but it is a very neat device of suspense that works like a shot thanks to its honesty and its way of putting the cards on the table.
The success encouraged Netflix to produce a new horror movie, in times when they were not so focused on fantasy series (the ‘Stranger Things’ phenomenon had only just exploded) with ‘Gerald’s Game’, a splendid adaptation of one of Stephen King’s most tense and dark books. Flanagan exceeded the expectations of ‘Hush’ by chaining Carla Gugino to a bed for an hour and a half, in a film that does not renounce lurid images or ultragore tension, but above all it re-delineate Flanagan’s vision of the fantastic: melancholy, uncertainty, loneliness and helplessness.
But the real before and after Flanagan on Netflix would be with ‘The Curse of Hill House’, in which a fully mature author would enshrine one of the best horror fictions on the platform. Closer to the more funereal ghost stories of Stephen King than to the original Shirley Jackson on which it is supposedly based, it is a perfect ghostly narrative that recovers the sad and spiritual airs of the British and literary tradition of the genre, and that defines the Flanagan’s visual personality without the need for easy scares, based on an oppressive atmosphere, sad appearances and a taste for the macabre and tour de force narratives.
The second season of the series, very intelligently, did not choose to continue a story that had been wonderfully closed, but instead use ‘The Curse …’ from the title to go to another haunted house: Bly Manor, from ‘Another Turn of the Screw’, the great classic of literary ghosts that, in fact, already permeated the first season. Although inferior due to the fact that Flanagan only directs and writes the first episode, it is a very estimable ghost story, very classic and full of details and references to multiple spectral fictions. It lacks the risk and crushing integrity of season one, but it still makes it clear that Flanagan is a talent to watch.
By the way, before ‘Ouija’, in 2013, Flanagan had shot ‘Somnia: Inside your dreams’, but his production company went bankrupt and its premiere was delayed year after year. Netflix ended up buying the rights in 2018, the year ‘Hill House’ released. After the sophistication of ‘Hill House’, ‘Somnia’ supposes a small decrease in intensity, with a story also, not very interesting: a boy’s dreams and nightmares materialize while he sleeps. While Netflix tried to herd Flanagan’s popularity with the late release, Flanagan and his regular producer, Trevor Macy, announced an exclusive contract with the platform to produce more horror content.
‘Midnight Mass’: descent into the darkest corners of faith
‘Midnight Mass’ is the first result of that contract, and it couldn’t be more exhilarating. Superior in many ways to ‘Hill House’, more concise and direct thanks to its strange length of just seven episodes, unfolds a story that at first seems like a melodrama with slightly supernatural overtones. Based on notes on guilt for past sins and the darker side of the Catholic faith, he soon unfolds other themes that we will not reveal here but that immerse the series in a stimulating reformulation of certain myths of the fantastic.
The series tells how a small and isolated island community sees its daily life and its revolted faith when a new priest arrives to take care of the parish. Their true identity and intentions display a series of tentacles in almost experimental scenes ranging from pure horror (Flanagan has no problem bowing at the feet of B-series imagery when necessary) to long dialogues and sermons that have been highly criticized, but that work perfectly, exposing themes and displaying the author’s own suffocating atmosphere.
Curiously given its theme and its immersion in Catholic mythology, ‘Midnight Mass’ is Flanagan’s more earthly story, more in connection with the humanist Stephen King of ‘The Store’ or, above all, the recent ‘Revival’, which with traditional ghost stories. A macabre surprise that ends up certifying Flanagan (and what remains: he is already preparing a future series called ‘The Midnight Club’, based on a successful literature young adult) What one of the most personal and essential creators of the Netflix team.