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.