Making your horror movie stand out from its peers isn’t easy. You’re competing in a genre with a low buy-in that begets high ubiquity; literally anybody with access to cameras and corn syrup, plus a troupe of actors game enough to play dead onscreen, can knock out a quickie horror project without breaking either a sweat or the bank. That’s the genre’s floor. The ceiling is considerably higher, decorated with a mural of horror’s recent classic elects, a la The Babadook, The Witch, The Neon Demon, It Comes at Night, The Conjuring, It Follows, Prevenge, Get Out, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, You’re Next, Tucker & Dale vs. Evil, Honeymoon, V/H/S 2 and Jennifer’s Body. (And that’s only a preliminary tally.)
If you want to distinguish your horror flick in an ever-expanding ocean of great horror flicks, in other words, you need to distinguish yourself, whether through your craft, your casting or your writing. Mike Flanagan, most recently seen taking the wheel Friday with Netflix’s adaptation of Gerald’s Game, Stephen King’s tale of kinky bedroom antics gone horribly wrong, has carved out his own path through the field by prioritizing humanity first and all other elements of horror second: His films are scary, and taut and occasionally gory in ways that force his viewers’ muscles to clench, but they’re never as scary, or taut or gory as they are compassionate. Where horror traditionally demands characters be treated as sacrificial lambs for entertainment’s sake, Flanagan reflexively values them as people before fodder.
Not that he isn’t a masochist in his own right. Directing a picture like Gerald’s Game requires at least a modicum of perversity on the basis of plot; like the King novel, Flanagan’s film is about a married couple, Jessie (Carla Gugino) and Gerald (Bruce Greenwood), who sequester themselves in a remote cottage for a weekend of romance and reconnecting. All goes awry when Gerald cuffs Jessie to the bed in the name of spicing things up, and suddenly drops dead of a heart attack, leaving Jessie trapped and defenseless against a starving stray dog and an apparition bearing a box full of trinkets, bones and body parts. (To make a bad situation worse: The apparition might not be an apparition at all.)
It takes a certain something to write a story like Gerald’s Game, and it takes the same something plus something additional to turn that story into a movie. That King spun Gerald’s Game out of whole cloth is one thing. That Flanagan felt compelled to adapt it for film is another entirely. He knew what he was getting into from the start with King’s text; he knew where the narrative goes, and where he would have to take it himself. It’s a project that necessitates willingness to torment the protagonist, and Flanagan torments Jessie with gusto, physically but especially mentally. No one’s idea of a good time involves the term “degloving” (Google search that if you’re in the mood to skip lunch), but it’s clear that Flanagan cares more about the figurative ghosts that haunt and even help Jessie through her desperation.
The key word there is “care.” Boiled down to simple motivations, one could argue that Flanagan is interested in suffering of the spirit above suffering of the body; in each of his films, he marries past trauma to present terror, creating a closed circuit that forces his characters to confront their baggage by overcoming supernatural and earthly threats alike. In Gerald’s Game, Jessie reflects on her father, who sexually abused her as a girl and connived her into keeping mum about it, as she fends off the dog and the ghoulish Moonlight Man (the Space Cowboy character in the book, whose name change echoes Jessie’s dialogues with him). In Hush, arguably the film responsible for boosting Flanagan’s cultural cachet in his jam-packed 2016, Maddie (Kate Siegel, Flanagan’s frequent collaborator and also, as of last year, his spouse) revisits her memories of her childhood struggle against bacterial meningitis, which took her voice as well as her hearing, as she fends off a masked attacker (John Gallagher Jr.) at her secluded house.
That thread continues through Absentia (2011), Oculus (2013), Before I Wake (2016) and Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016), each of which hinge on people dealing with grief while fighting monsters. Grief is Flanagan’s calling card, empathy his motivation; combined, they are the foundation of his identity as a filmmaker. Empathy isn’t forbidden by horror law, of course; Jennifer Kent’s feature debut The Babadook is a masterpiece of empathy and stark terror that incentivizes its audience to live vicariously through its characters’ psychological duress. Flanagan’s work follows the same pursuit from one movie to the next, each opening in empathetic circumstances before the villain of the piece is introduced and the genre’s universal expectations are indulged. Horror movies are supposed to thrill and unnerve us. They’re supposed to make us jump in our seats (and promptly lie to our friends about it). They’re less known for abiding humanity.
Maybe this is the reason for Flanagan’s steady rise in horror prominence since directing Oculus in 2013: He found a niche that suited him, and carved out a name for himself in horror’s varied modern landscape. It helps that the soul of that niche is soul itself, that Flanagan is fixated on empathy to an extent many of his peers simply aren’t; he is invested in a less colonized creative space, occupied by filmmakers as rare in the genre as he. With Gerald’s Game, Flanagan’s sense of clemency comes to the fore, spinning catharsis, healing and maybe even the hope of a happy end for Jessie. (After what she experiences in the film, she deserve one.) Perhaps unsurprisingly, the film is his most accomplished to date, the result of the years he’s spent giving a damn about his characters and their anguish. He’s so good at it, he even makes it look easy.