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Mike Flanagan double feature: ‘Oculus’ and ‘Before I Wake’

I don’t know why it took me this long, but I finally decided to catch up with the two Mike Flanagan joints I hadn’t seen yet (not counting the dramas he made during and immediately after college, or the TV series The Firefighter Combat Challenge). He made his entry into horror in 2006, with a shot-on-video-in-one-room short called Oculus: Chapter 3 – The Man with the Plan. Like George Lucas with STAR WARS, his story was bigger than his resources so he started with the most exciting chapter and filled in the rest later.

The short is about a guy who has obtained a haunted mirror that he plans to destroy. It’s a cool idea for a short with acting and visuals that require a certain level of forgiveness. But it apparently went over well at film festivals and inspired some interest in a feature version. The trouble was that producers all wanted to make it a found footage movie and/or give it to a director other than Flanagan. So instead he set the evil mirror aside and did a Kickstarter campaign to finance his $70,000 debut horror feature, ABSENTIA (2011). And once that was under his belt he got Intrepid Features (WAIST DEEP, THE STRANGERS) to let him direct a non-found-footage OCULUS, which filmed in 2012.  And they must’ve been pretty happy with it, because now he’s a partner in the company.The feature version is still centered on the story of Chapter 3, but it’s more complicated now. Like, it has more than one time period. But also more than one character. And more than one room. It centers on Kaylie Russell (Karen Gillan, IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE), who works for a high end auction house that sells a very valuable old mirror which, we learn, she’s been trying to track down for years since it ruined her life when she was a kid. Using her position she lies about how the buyer wants the item shipped and brings it to her childhood home. Then she goes to pick up her brother Tim (Brenton Thwaites, MALEFICENT) as he’s discharged from the psychiatric hospital he’s been in ever since whatever fucked up shit happened with the mirror eleven years ago. He’s been working hard to get past what he believes were delusions of supernatural events, so it’s kind of a bummer when his sister wants to bring him straight to destroying an evil mirror. I’m sure he would’ve rather gone out for pizza or something.

The story from the short is the best part of the movie: Kaylie explains the elaborate plan she’s come up with to destroy and document this thing. It involves having a bunch of surveillance cameras, her unknowing fiance Michael (James Lafferty, S. DARKO) calling to check on her every hour, surrounding the mirror with houseplants that she believes it will kill, and having an anchor attached to the ceiling ready to swing down into the mirror if they don’t periodically reset a timer (though I didn’t fully understand that part, since she seems to believe it’s unsmashable). Part of what I love about it that even if all this somehow works out she’s gonna be out of a job and owe a ton of money not including whatever lawyer fees she’ll need to defend herself for stealing the mirror. But I guess she figures she’ll cross that bridge when she gets to it.

I only discovered Gillan from GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, I haven’t watched Doctor Who, so she really impressed me with her performance in DUAL. This one is earlier, of course, and takes advantage of some of the same qualities – the contrast between how cute she is and her ability to convey an unsettling oddness. She’s like a sad Elle Kemper. It’s perfect for this character who unveils what seems like an increasingly unhinged plan. At one point Tim has to free a dog she has in a cage to feed to the mirror.

He tries very reasonably (and sympathetically) to convince her that they just saw their parents fighting, it was confusing and traumatic, now they remember it mixed with things they imagined. And he gets to ask her, “What’s more likely: that you’re mis-remembering events from your childhood, or that the mirror eats dogs?” But we know he’s gonna be wrong because number one, this is a horror movie, and number two the movie keeps switching back to childhood and the events with their mother (Katee Sackhoff, RIDDICK) and father (Rory Cochrane, HOSTILES, ANTLERS). There’s some interesting stuff where their mom thinks their dad is having an affair because young Kaylie (Annalise Basso, OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL) saw a woman in his office (Flanagan regular and real life wife Kate Siegel), not knowing it was a ghost.

It gets real good when they start playing back the videos and seeing things they don’t remember, convincing even Tim that the mirror is causing them to hallucinate.

The logos at the beginning are a trip because we get Blumhouse after the prestigious WWE Studios banner. Unfortunately they did not follow my rule that all WWE Studios releases must have wrestlers in them, even if in minor roles (the guys delivering the mirror?). But Wikipedia tips me off that at the auction they say the mirror came from “the Levesque estate,” because that’s Triple H’s last name.

As always it’s easy to notice parallels to other Flanagan works, especially my favorite thing he’s done, the limited series The Haunting of Hill House. Both jump back and forth between the past and present, with grown up siblings sharing the damage of, but disagreeing about the reality of, a fatal supernatural event they witnessed as kids. Both have them blaming their father and mourning the tragedy of their sick, sad mother. Both have them returning to the site of the event to confront the evil power. And I thought at first Tim was a recovering addict but maybe I misunderstood their reference to “recovery.” At any rate, he’s similar to Hill House’s Luke in that he’s been in a hospital working very hard to reach a healthy place and that’s being risked by him having to deal with this shit.

In this case, unfortunately, the similarities work against OCULUS, since I’ve watched all of Hill House twice and this comes off as something of a rough draft – similar ideas but as he grew as a filmmaker he was able to develop them further, polish them and go more in depth. Same goes for these glowing-eyed ghosts, which are recognizably his style, but not nearly as cool as what he accomplished later. As the shit gets more ghosty it feels more generic than the earlier part of the movie, and when things turned (implied spoiler) tragic it didn’t feel as earned to me as it does in that show where I really get to love the characters so much I wouldn’t even need it to be a horror movie.

So I liked this one, and I recommend it, but I think I missed out by not seeing it when it was fresher.

BEFORE I WAKE, though – this one really got me. This was Flanagan’s followup to OCULUS, shot in 2013, but distributor Relativity Media, who were experiencing financial difficulties, repeatedly delayed its release until they finally sold the rights several years later and it was released on Netflix in 2018, by which time Flanagan had done HUSH, OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL, and GERALD’S GAME. Maybe more notably, BEFORE I WAKE’s young star Jacob Tremblay had become a sensation starring with Brie Larson in the best picture nominated 2015 film ROOM. Flanagan had given him his first major role and it was an incredible child performance just sitting on a shelf that whole time.

I’d heard an interview (maybe on Post-Mortem?) where Flanagan recounted the whole ordeal, and warned that it was an unusual movie, not straight ahead horror, trying to get people to watch it with an open mind. That kinda scared me off for a while, but it shouldn’t have. No, this is definitely horror, and it’s scary, and it’s pure Mike Flanagan without feeling too much like the other ones to stand on its own.

It stars The Boz #2 Kate Bosworth (THE WARRIOR’S WAY, HOMEFRONT) and The Punisher #2 Thomas Jane (THE CROW: CITY OF ANGELS) as a couple who lost a young son some years ago and are now taking the big step of becoming foster parents. Cody (Tremblay, THE PREDATOR) is an eight year old whose mom died when he was 3, and since then he’s had two sets of foster parents who didn’t work out.

I think Bosworth is an undervalued actress, and she carries both the parenting and the movie, doing so much with subtle expressions in close up. Her character Jessie works very diligently to be a sensitive and supportive foster parent. When she discovers that Cody has a stash of cola and caffeine pills to avoid sleeping (some Nancy Thompson shit) she has a non-confrontational talk with him about “your stimulants” and then confides to her husband Mark that she felt like an asshole taking them away.

The supernatural shit starts late one night when first one, then many colorful butterflies flutter through the living room. Jessie and Mark marvel at them for a while, try to capture some, but then they disappear like smoke. After more incidents it becomes clear that Cody has been avoiding sleep because the things he dreams about materialize in the real world, and can be dangerous. He says there’s someone called “The Canker Man” who eats people. We will see the Canker Man in a few different forms, but my favorite is when he’s butterflies swarming in the shape of a man with two bright lights for eyes. Classic Flanagan.

What makes this more than a variation on a Freddy situation is that it’s less about this dream stalker than about Cody’s strange power bringing out Jessie’s human weakness. In the second dream incident Jessie and Mark see not only the butterflies, but their deceased son Sean (Antonio Romero). He just stands there smiling and wearing the same outfit as the family portrait on the wall, because that’s all Cody has seen of him. Jessie is able to hug him before he dissipates, and instead of just treasuring this moment she gets greedy for more. Next thing you know she’s showing Cody home videos of Sean, pointing out the nuances like the kisses he gave her, trying to get all that into his dreams. And Mark is torn between recognizing that his wife his lost it (sort of like the brother in OCULUS) and sharing her yearning for what they’ve lost.

Of course it also works as a metaphor. These grieving parents have taken on a new foster child in good faith, but they’re using him to recapture some piece of their son, an unfair thing to put on him. It can only work when they let go of trying to hollowly re-create past memories, and allow Cody to be himself. “It’s about grief” is second only to “it’s about trauma” in the current horror-movies-trying-to-be-classy subject matter popularity charts, but this is one that genuinely engages with the topic in a smart and observant way that works as both horror and exploration of humanity.

At this point in the movie I realized I was completely on board, and I’m happy to say it didn’t take my interest for granted, continuing to escalate in exciting ways and build to a solution that’s really satisfying for the premise and the characters. (I’m sure some will complain about an aspect that I was able to vaguely see coming, but I won’t*.)

Some of the thrilling turns: as in A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, Cody becomes so tired from avoiding dreams that he starts dozing off at school. But instead of being attacked by his Freddy, that means he’s manifesting him in the school to endanger other people. Also Jessie starts to look crazy and loses custody of Cody, and has to turn into an investigator. This includes tracking down one of the previous foster parents (Dash Mihok, who was the lead vampire in I AM LEGEND and I’m told was a pretty funny character on something called “Felicity,” but only in season 1 they say? not sure) who, of course, is in a psychiatric hospital being told he imagined all those butterflies. An amazing moment in his story is when he tries to re-create his wife through dreams but Cody doesn’t remember her face well enough and she comes out looking strange.

A really smart touch is that we learn all kinds of important emotional and backstory information from Jessie speaking up in group, but also there’s important horror-rules type information established when her therapist tries to convince her that seeing her son was a dream. I totally didn’t see it coming and was like “Flanagan, you did it again, you sonofabitch!” when it all came together.

Of course the group therapy scenes are a Flanaganism, as is the cold open with an adult pointing a gun at a child, just like OCULUS. And the score by the Newton Brothers is very reminiscent of their later work on Hill House. Some of it also reminded me of the really emotional parts of EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, but I was still surprised to see on the credits that yeah, actually the real Danny Elfman provided additional music. I wonder how that happened?

So it is now time to update my Flanagan rankings. I’m going to go ahead and say that BEFORE I WAKE (which by the way he wanted to call SOMNIA, which would be a better title) is my #2 Mike Flanagan feature film, topped only by DOCTOR SLEEP. In overall rankings I definitely have The Haunting of Hill House at #1, with Midnight Mass at a tentative #2, in contention with DOCTOR SLEEP at #3, and then BEFORE I WAKE after that. So congratulations, BEFORE I WAKE, for making my Flanaverse top five.

(No joke, Netflix does label BEFORE I WAKE as “Part of the Flanaverse Collection.” But you can’t click on it to find out what exactly the Flanaverse entails, so I guess it’s up to interpretation.)

*SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER. Yeah, I know, I immediately guessed that The Canker Man had something to do with his mom dying of cancer, but I didn’t figure out exactly how it would work, so it didn’t bother me.

This entry was posted on Monday, October 10th, 2022 at 7:12 am and is filed under Horror, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

18 Responses to “Mike Flanagan double feature: ‘Oculus’ and ‘Before I Wake’”

  1. Okay, can someone advise me where to (sort of) start with this Flanagan character??

    I say “sort of” because I attempted to make a start when Vern’s #1, The Haunting of Hill House, was new. The hype around him had been strong for a while, it was being released, so I thought it would be a good time to board the train.

    I did value the viewing because it really, really, really made me appreciate the Wise version of the… ‘lore’, I guess (‘story’ doesn’t seem like the right word). Wise’s version was lean, mean, and super-effective. The Flanagan version certainly wasn’t lean, wasn’t mean (I’m a little foggy, but I seems to remember it being completely stuffed with every ‘prestige tv’ cliché about ‘healing’ imaginable), and wasn’t very effective (I remember exactly one scare involving a dumb waiter in like eight hours of television)

    But then, Flanagan-ians have since told me it actually wasn’t the best place to jump into the Flanaverse, and seeing that he seems to produce about 60 hours of entertainment a year, I don’t know where I should even begin at this point.

  2. HUSH is a pretty simple and effective slasher story. If HILL HOUSE was too flabby for you, this one is much leaner and meaner.

  3. I liked MIDNIGHT MASS. Will probably check out the rest of his work.

  4. Great review, love Flanagan! For clarification, Danny Elfman’s daughter Mali was a producer on Before I Wake, which is why he contributed a few cues.

  5. Huh. I did not register Before I Wake was Flanagan’s, somehow completely slipped by when I watched it – despite having seen Oculus and, I think Hush by that point. It’s a good one!

    Jojo, I’m not a fan of his take on Hill House either, despite thinking the funeral episode and a few other bits were phenomenal; the rest really wore me down. But Dr Sleep completely blew me away- it’s weird, cool and utterly terrifying at points; one of the rare examples of a movie being a lot better than the book. I’ll also second the recommendation for Hush, it’s a badass little slasher movie.

  6. Jojo – It may sound silly, but I never really thought of Haunting of Hill House as an adaptation of THE HAUNTING. They’re both loosely based on the same thing but not really going for the same thing at all, are they? I guess I would’ve warned not to expect it to be similar if it had occurred to me. If you’re up for another series, Midnight Mass is his other masterpiece, and is more about religion than the other ones are, but still – pretty much everything he’s made deals with addiction and childhood trauma in some way, which seem to be his obsessions, so if you thought it was a cliche in Hill House I’m not sure you will like any of his work.

  7. Okay, I guess I try Hush and Doctor Sleep since they’re just regular movies. Maybe do Midnight Mass if I’m still intrigued.

    It may sound silly, but I never really thought of Haunting of Hill House as an adaptation of THE HAUNTING. They’re both loosely based on the same thing but not really going for the same thing at all, are they?

    That’s why I kind of didn’t really know what the correct word was. Honestly, I went into Hill House expecting something not at all the same, but it was so crammed with ‘callbacks’ or whatever you call them (I call them “member dis?”) to the Haunting, it just made really wish I was watching it instead.

    And I have nothing against addiction and childhood trauma in stories, but I find the prestige tv practice of “hmmm, this character needs some problem… Hows about pill addict? And the other character? Mom killed herself when she was 8. Yeah, that gives the actors lots of opportunities to give haunted looks. He’s jonesing for pills, she’s remembering her mom’s suicide. Okay, we got ourselves a TV show going here…” a bit tedious at this point.

    Again, I think of the Wise version: “You mean the chick is JUST a miserable shut-in?? Shheeesh! Talk about low stakes! Let’s make her a ex-crackhead who once threw her newborn in a dumpster, and in times of stress, she can STILL hear the kid cry! Now that’s some good television”

  8. I think you’re right about Bosworth. She has a new one out called House of Darkness that I liked and she’s great in. It’s a Labute too.

  9. Kind of still really like Occulus. It’s up there with The Marine as the best WWE Studios production!

  10. For most of Flanagan’s Hill House, I could not get past the Shirley Jackson novel. Her writing is so darkly cynical, and his adaptation is much more melodramatic and even hopeful. Wise’s film is a much better adaptation. You really have to get disconnect the miniseries from the novel and the 60s film to get any kind of enjoyment out of Flanagan’s version. Usually, I couldn’t care less about this stuff, but the miniseries is such a terrible adaptation. It really goes in the complete opposite direction in tone and approach from the novel. Wise seems to understand how mean spirited Jackson can be, but Flanagan just loves his characters too much.

    If you get past the fact that Hill House is a loose adaptation, then I think it’s pretty good. But I wish Flanagan had just severed the connection entirely. I mean, he could have just claimed it was a House on Haunted Hill adaptation, and I don’t think anyone would have cared and he wouldn’t have had to change a thing.

  11. I think Wise’s version is terrific and scary, but Flanagan manages to trip all of my most deep seated terrors so easily. I think his work is good, as well. The funeral episode was so well done. But I have to psych myself up for watching his stuff. I watched something like 2 episodes of Hill House and got so scared I had to put it aside for months before I could try again. I’ve watched Bly Manor and Midnight Mass but haven’t tried any of his movies. These sound good but I really want to see DOCTOR SLEEP and probably HUSH, although that one looks triggering.

  12. Without the HILL HOUSE connection, I doubt I’d have made it through the series, or even attempted it, really. I don’t consider it an adaptation or a remake at all, but more of a remix, sampling some of the story’s essential elements and utilizing them in vastly different contexts. I thought it worked well, and the bits of HILL HOUSE arcana that popped up here and there helped me power through the standard streaming TV miserablism. I thought it was a scary and affecting ride–until the last ten minutes or so, which I thought diluted Hill House’s power with some namby-pamby spiritualist sentimentality. I like my ghosts mean and my haunted houses merciless. Save that happy afterlife crap for the Del Toro movies.

    One of these days I should at least try MIDNIGHT MASS, even though its subject matter doesn’t interest me. One of these days I’m gonna start giving Flanagan the benefit of the doubt.

  13. Hill House won me over in the end because it’s hard to deny that it was an extremely well put together story, and that episode made to look like a single shot was pretty damn cool. But if you were just lukewarm on Hill House, I can’t imagine Midnight Mass would win you over. I also liked it, but he puts in these monologues that go on forever. I like to think I’m tolerant of that sort of self-indulgence, but it definitely tips into parody. There’s a scene where two characters talk about what they think the afterlife is like, but it’s not even a conversation. They’re just monologuing to each other. I almost got up and left the room because I found it so frustrating.

    At the same time, Hamish Linklater puts in a hell of a performance and Bev is a great villain.

    I like everything I’ve seen by Flanagan, but I also think he’s better at movies than TV. I haven’t watched Doctor Sleep yet, but Hush and Oculus might be my two favorites by him.

  14. I was surprised to see which film really played for you, Vern, and which didn’t, as I had the opposite reaction. To be fair, I saw OCULUS a long time ago, before Flanagan was a name I’d heard. It doesn’t hurt that I have the fondest memories of watching it for the first time. I saw it while I was on week one of paternity leave, and I most certainly picked it because Karen Gillen starred in it and my little tiny infant daughter is partially named after her DOCTOR WHO character. My brain was already mush from new-dad nerves and lack of sleep, but even still, I was super impressed with it. The way he blocked and planned the cuts and hand-offs between the two timelines just screamed “I’M A REAL FILMMAKER!” He was committing to choices and trusting in his structure. This clearly wasn’t a movie over-shot with coverage and then assembled in the edit room.

    I didn’t catch-up with BEFORE I WAKE until about a year ago. I had a similar reaction that Vern did to OCULUS: I’ve seen Flanagan do this before and I’ve seen him do it better. This was his first foray into really leaning into the melodrama of it all, and he’s just not quite there yet. Even the scares and the creepy characters seemed like a step back from OCULUS and ABSENTIA. My girlfriend (a gigantic fan of HILL HOUSE) also felt similarly. The problem might just be that after HILL HOUSE, DOCTOR SLEEP, and MIDNIGHT MASS, going back to BEFORE I WAKE feels a little quaint.

  15. The problem I had with Occulus is that on a character level one of the attractions is the sister who is clever and fighting back. But somewhere around when she inadvertently eats the lightbulb, it became clear that they had zero shot against this mirror. It’s just too powerful. But there was still like 30 mins left in the film. That’s too much time left to give the game away and undercut one of the cool parts of the coolest character. *SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER for the film SMILE (2022)* They did the same with their heroine, but there was only like 5 mins left. Made more sense.

  16. I haven’t seen a thing this guy has done…his movies all look classy but his shows seem like they’d be so slow, classy horror that’s never scary. Horror seems hard to do as a long form story. Usually antholgies work, or shows that are kind of monster of the week with an overall structure. I would have liked to see a 6 hour version of something like Salem’s Lot though. I liked both miniseries and think it could be spread out more. It should have been a ten hour show, but wouldn’t have been the phenomenon it was I’d think.

  17. But I will see House of Usher especially if it’s a period piece, that sounds like it could be a good one. My friend says he’ll pay for a Netflix subscription for me if I would watch Midnight Mass because he wants me to see it so bad.

  18. I should but damn I hardly have time to be on a computer anymore! But apparently there are vampires? Huh couldn’t tell by the trailer.

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