Posts Tagged ‘Mike Flanagan’

Well, whaddya know : Stephen King seems to be experiencing one of those mini-resurgences in the overall pop culture zeitgeist that happens for/to him every now and then (the last probably being in 2007 with the box-office success of both The Mist and 1408), usually just at the point where it looks as though all the material that the prolific (to the point of being ubiquitous) horror scribe has cranked forth from his apparently-bottomless imagination has been mined for all it’s worth.  Granted, new King adaptations are almost always debuting somewhere on TV, the silver screen, or various streaming services, but their sheer and constant volume pretty much guarantees that few, if any, will have much impact beyond the author’s admittedly-large fan base — which is usually more than enough to ensure that they make at least a nice, tidy profit, I’m sure, but I doubt that most Hollywood observers would have predicted that It would become the highest-grossing horror film of all time, or that its runaway success would have a “coat-tail effect” that would elevate the movie we’re here to discuss today, Gerald’s Game, well above the rest of Netflix’s  direct-to-streaming offerings in the public consciousness. And yet here we are — and I have to say, it’s not such a bad place to be.

But why are we here? That’s a good question, but on the whole I think the simple explanation is that when good directors get ahold of King-related projects, good things happen, and when mediocre or lousy directors get ahold of them, mediocre or lousy things happen — and both It and Gerald’s Game are very well-directed indeed.

In regards to Gerald’s Game in particular, though, what else would we expect from Mike Flanagan? I’ve gushed over a number of his previous offerings on this very site, and I’m firmly among the throng of thousands (if not more) who have struck him with the label, wanted or not, of “one of the most promising horror film auteurs to emerge on the scene in quite some time.” Hush, especially, seems like a perfect “dry-run” for a production of this nature that revolves around a small and insular cast and takes place in an equally small and insular location, so yeah — I had full confidence that he was the “man for the job” from the moment I heard that he’d landed it, and geez, it sure feels good to be right for a change.

Here’s the run-down : vaguely dissatisfied housewife Jessie Burlingame (played by Carla Gugino, and yes, everything you’ve heard is true — this is a career-defining performance for her) and her successful but sorta-asssholeish husband, Gerald (Bruce Greenwood, who gets more from a part that requires him to spend pretty much the entire film in his underwear than most other actors could manage) are headed for a weekend country-house getaway that’s intended to “spice up” their flailing love life when things, as they have a wont to do in flicks of this nature, go horribly awry. After handcuffing Jessie to the bed (now you know the “game” in question) and refusing to release her despite her protestations, Gerald sucks down one Viagra too many and drops dead of a heart attack. The keys are out of reach, so Jessie can’t free herself, but that might be the least of her worries when a hungry wild dog that she’d earlier taken pity on (and fed a raw $200 steak to) makes his way into the house and starts snacking on hubby’s still-warm corpse. And all this before the hallucinatory flashbacks start kicking in.

In her mind’s eye (one little boy, one little man — funny how tiiiiiime flieeees), Jessie is visited/confronted by not only a reanimated Gerald, but also by an idealized, more confident and liberated version of herself, and they both take her on a less-than-sentimental journey through her own troubled past that shows how the compromises she’s made with others and, most crucially, with herself led her to the predicament she finds herself in today. Her troubled mother (Hush star and Flanagan spouse Kate Siegel) and troubled and troubling father (holy shit! That’s Henry Thomas!) loom large here, and there’s some seriously disturbing shit that goes down, but rest assured, as we cut back and forth to current events, there’s no let-up — the emotional and psychological horrors of the past meet their counterpart in the visceral physical horrors of the present and if you feel the need to take a breather or two from the quiet-but-palpable relentlessness of the proceedings you’re sure to be in plenty good company : I’ll bet you anything that the only “button” on Netflix getting more action that “play” on Gerald’s Game  is “pause” on Gerald’s Game.

Gugino, as I believe I may have already mentioned, absolutely kills it here, and straight-up carries the entire film. She has to. And while she only bares, oh, about half her body, goddamn if her entire heart and soul aren’t on display throughout. It’s a nuanced performance that touches a lot of raw nerves, and the whole damn thing could probably use a “trigger warning” or whatever, but good God almighty can we loosen up the Academy’s rules finally and get streaming films some Oscar consideration? If so, she’d have “Best Actress” in the bag. The old “harrowing personal journey” has seldom been either this harrowing or this personal.

Other stuff worth a mention : Chiara Aurelia delivers a breakout performance as Jessie’s 12-year-old self; Flanagan himself both wrote the screenplay and did the editing; gore-hounds won’t walk away disappointed; oh, and Twin Peaks fans? Carel Struycken’s in here, too. And is, of course, cryptically awesome.

Are you sold on giving this a go yet? Because, really, you should be. Gerald’s Game is a film that takes you places — specifically, to places you don’t want to go. To places where you wish Jessie had never been forced to go herself. And it offers no easy answers as to her continued pattern of victimization. You’ll be wishing for her to get out of her handcuffs, of course, but she’s shackled by so much more — and the question of whether or not she can break those unseen bonds, reclaim her own identity, and redeem her existence is the real central conflict that Flanagan and Gugino are liming throughout the film. It hurts to watch, it really does — but you’re never gonna forget it.

 

 

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Too often these days, up-and-coming directors (or those determined to convince us that they fit that description) try to reinvent the wheel by giving us something we’ve purportedly “never seen before” —and while ambition is great and all, many (hell, most) of them would be better served by honing their craft on the tried-and-true before going off the deep end in a vain attempt to knock our socks off. Besides, I hate to be the one to break it to you recent film school grads, but there really is nothing new under the sun anyway, and you can just as easily “find your voice” —and get the recognition you so desperately crave — by working within pre-established genre confines as you can blowing the whole damn thing up/throwing the baby out with the bathwater/pick your cliche.

Case in point : Mike Flanagan. He’s directed three feature films now (actually, I understand that he’s got a fourth “in the can,” but that it’s languishing in bankruptcy court as Relativity Media’s holdings are scattered to whatever winds end up picking them up and, more than likely, blowing then off), and they’re all uniformly solid, well-executed efforts that succeed in being both reasonably scary and reasonably surprising by playing with conventions and expectations rather than upending them. Absentia was a strong psychological horror offering that used its budgetary constraints in its favor by keeping much of the true terror “off-screen” and just out of reach; Oculus saw him “go Hollywood” without losing his edge by giving us a time-twister featuring one of the greatest “shoulda seen that coming but didn’t” endings in recent memory; and with his latest, Hush (which was filmed last year,  made its “debut” recently on Netflix,  and should be out on other “home viewing platforms,” including Blu-ray and DVD, before too long), he returns to his low-budget roots and serves up a pleasing twist on the typical “home invasion” premise that is both genius in its simplicity and miles ahead of the pack in terms of its execution.

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I had been planning on watching this one sooner or later, to be sure, but Lisa Marie Bowman’s review lit a fire under my ass and convinced me to go with the “sooner” option — and as usual, following her advice proved to be a smart move. Hush is a more stripped-down affair than the most celebrated recent examples of the “home invasion” subgenre (I’m thinking specifically of You’re Next and both iterations of Funny Games), but is no less effective for that — in fact, one of its greatest strengths lies in its absolutely “bare-bones” approach. A deaf-mute author named Maddie (played with incredible gusto by Kate Sigel, who also co-wrote the script along with Flanagan) has retreated to a secluded home in the woods after a bad break-up. She spends most of her time working on her second novel, playing amateur chef, and teaching sign language to her one and only neighbor, Sarah (Samantha Sloyan). Her idyll is shattered one fateful evening, though, when a masked intruder referred to simply in the credits as “The Man” (a creepy-as-fuck John Gallagher Jr.) breaks into Sarah’s place and ends up killing her when she escapes his clutches momentarily and flees to Maddie’s spread for help — never making it past the front porch. And that’s where our heroine captures his attention, interest, and flat-out demonic sense of obsession. He starts by stealing her cell phone — and things only get worse from there, as you’d expect.

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Maddie’s disabilities add an intriguing wrinkle to the proceedings here, no doubt, and Flanagan’s increasing confidence as a filmmaker ensures that he chooses just the right times and places for us to experience things as she does by “going silent,” but it takes more than a fiendishly clever conceit to deliver a finished product this strong from a set-up this basic, and that’s where our two leads really step to the fore. Gallagher is pure methodical menace in his turn as “The Man,” scaring the shit out of us despite the fact that his face is obscured for most of the film, but it’s really Siegel who steals the show here, delivering a performance than runs the emotional gamut with the aid of very little dialogue. She’s called upon to do some seriously heavy lifting by communicating what she’s thinking and feeling to the audience without actually saying it, and damn if she doesn’t create a horror heroine for the ages by the time the end credits roll. “Acting!” “Genius!” “Thank you!”

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The plot delivers some juicy twists and turns, have no fear on that score, but they’re kept in proper proportion and function merely as the “sizzle” rather than the “steak.” Hush is first and foremost a character-driven horror, and by getting us to actually care about Maddie and actively root for her, the bumps in the road are that much more affecting and unsettling when we do, in fact, hit them. This is all “Storytelling 101” stuff, without question, but that seems to be a class that too many aspiring screenwriters and directors forget about once they finally get their “break” in the industry. Flanagan and Siegel took its lessons to heart, though, and therein lies all the difference.

Hush, then, is more remarkable (and, yes, it is remarkable)  for how it’s done than for what it is — and while some may say that’s me looking to find a way to say nice things about a derivative and formulaic film, I say watch it yourself and then get back to me if you still feel the same way.

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Writer/director Mike Flanagan is currently the “hot name” in horror these days thanks in large part to the critical and commercial success of this year’s Oculus, and what the heck? Despite my contrarian streak I admit I enjoyed that flick quite a bit myself, so when I noticed that his debut feature, 2011’s  Absentia, was available on Netflix instant streaming, I decided to give it a go. Might as well see how genre’s new “golden boy” got his start before his big-budget adaptation of Stephen King’s Gerald’s Game comes out, right? What I found was nothing like what I was expecting — in point of fact, it was quite a bit better than that.

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Unlike the supernaturally-based “haunted object” storyline at  the heart of Oculus, Flanagan’s first film is equal parts slow-burn character study, moody and atmospheric urban horror, and Lovecraftian “ancient elemental evil” mindfuck, and he transitions between the ought-to-be-conflicting subgenres smoothly and seamlessly as we follow the doomed trajectories of our principal characters, sisters Tricia (Courtney Bell) and Callie (Katie Parker). Tricia’s about-to-pop pregnant, and Callie’s arrived in the seedy, run-down part of LA her sis really should get the hell out of in order to settle down and play aunt for awhile after years of aimless drifting and hard-core substance abuse. There’s just one little wrinkle — Tricia’s husband has been missing for seven years, and she’s struggling with having him declared “dead in absentia.”

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Did I say one wrinkle? Sorry, there’s more. The two sisters are following different spiritual paths, with Callie on a Christian trip while Tricia dabbles in Buddhism, but neither seems to be working in terms of quelling their inner demons entirely. Tricia is haunted by images of Daniel, her aforementioned presumed-dead husband (played by Morgan Peter Brown) and is unable to give herself fully to her new quasi-boyfriend, a police detective named Ryan Mallory (Dave Levine),  even though she’s about to have his kid, while Callie, for her part, still keeps a box of heroin-injecting “hardware” under her bed. Plus,  she seems oddly drawn to the decrepit, heavily-graffiti’d tunnel near their apartment, despite the fact that she keeps hearing plaintive cries for help and ominous insectoid scurrying echoing along its cavernous concrete walls.

Tricia eventually starts making some progress — she makes plans to finally relocate to a better part of town and goes on a proper “date” with her cop boyfriend — but then Daniel shows up again, near death, babbling on and on about something that “lives underneath,” and all bets are off. That’s as much as you’re gonna get from me as far as plot specifics go.

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Admittedly, it takes awhile for Absentia to really get rolling, and if you’re not one for detailed surveys of the emotional wreckage that loss leaves on the human soul, this may not be for you. Me? I’m a bit of a sucker for understated melodrama, so I was digging it. And once the shit really does start hitting the fan, well — does it ever. Flanagan knows how to play his audience like a fish on a line, and he hooks you on his bait, reels you in slowly, and then yanks that line good and hard at precisely the right time. It’s not terribly clever or unique, to be sure, and you know you’re being played — but it’s extremely effective nevertheless.

So, yeah — I guess it’s pretty easy to see why horror aficionados feel that our guy Mike is somebody with big things ahead of him. He’s got a fairly impressive, if short, track record behind him already.

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So here’s the thing about Oculus — like the haunted mirror that serves as the film’s centerpiece, it’s all just a reflection. But it’s a rather appealing one.

Specifically, it’s a reflection of pretty much everything else going on in horror at the moment, combining elements of the “found footage” subgenre with those of the “haunted objects” subgenre, shaking ’em all up a bit, and coming out the other end with something that’s hardly new, by any stretch of the imagination, but at least well-executed.

The project started life back in 2006 as a short film by director Mike Flanagan, and after the generally positive reviews given his full-length feature Absentia, a veritable smorgasbord of financiers (including the WWE wrestling juggernaut) came together and threw roughly five million bucks at him to go back to his earlier work and flesh it out (along with co-screenwriter Jeff Howard) into a full-length movie. The finished product does, in fact, feel a bit padded in spots, as you’d probably expect, but no moreso than anything else coming out of Hollywood these days, and while there’s (again) admittedly not much here by way of originality, some reasonably strong performances, a nifty if derivative core concept, and a heaping helping stylish atmospherics save Oculus from becoming “just another” horror flick.

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Here’s the deal : 11 years ago, a wealthy software designer named Alan Russell (Rory Cochrane) bought a haunted antique mirror, became seduced by the strange  secrets it whispered to him (not to mention the evil woman who occasionally stepped out of it), and ended up killing his wife, Marie (Battlestar Galactica‘s Katee Sackhoff) and traumatizing the shit out of his kids, Kaylie (played as an adult by Doctor Who‘s Karen Gillan and as a youngster by AnnaliseBasso) and Tim (full-grown version portrayed by Brenton Thwaites, youthful counterpart by Garrett Ryan) before Tim put a stop to it by pumping the old man full of buckshot. Here at TFG we like it when bad things happen to rich people, so hey — so far, so good.

The experience had remarkably different effects on the two siblings : Tim ended up confined to a mental institution, where years of “therapy” managed to convince him that the whole incident played out in a remarkably different way that he remembered it, while Kaylie went to work hatching a long-term plan to clear her family name by obtaining work at a prestigious auction house (and getting engaged to the owner’s kid), tracking the mirror (which had since fallen out of her family’s possession) down, researching its lurid history (pretty much everyone who ever owned it since it was first made had tragedy befall them), maneuvering to have it re-installed in her family’s former home between owners, and, the very night her brother is released back into the world. setting it back up with a video camera aimed right at it to document its “actions” before, if all goes to plan, ultimately destroying it with a complex swinging-axe contraption of her own design. Obsession or initiative? I leave it to you, dear reader, to decide.

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Needless to say, everything doesn’t go according to plan — not even close — and as our narrative unfolds over two separate timelines, we see the the mirror in both slow-burn action as it rips the family apart 11 years ago, and working considerably quicker in the present day, as it only has one evening to save its — errmmmm — life. Genre stars Gillan and Sackhoff both prove they’re ready for the big time with their performances (even if Gillan struggles at times to mask her Scottish accent), but it’s really Thwaites who operates as the audience’s central point of identification here, being called upon to both relive a past he’s done his damndest do forget/obfuscate and to save the day in the present.It’s a damn solid turn on his part, and one hopes we’ll see more of him the not-too-distant future.

Flanagan, for his part, transitions between the two time frames smoothly throughout, and manages to keep both storylines intriguing, which is no mean feat given that we already know how events in the past shake out, and he uses his (generally speaking) one location to solid, claustrophobic effect. Throw in some well-executed CGI work and “modern gothic”-type atmospherics and you’re all set for a fun and agreeably bumpy little ride that manages to make even something as innocuous as dead house plants seem laced with foreboding and dread.

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On the minus side of the ledger, when the film goes full-bore into “mind-fuck” territory towards the end, as the mirror (which, by the way, sure looks cool, doesn’t it?) begins altering our protagonists’ perceptions of reality, things get  a little jumbled and the overall effect falls more than a bit flat, and you’ll probably see the ending coming from a mile off, but screw it — at least the ride from points A to B is an interesting one, even if we finish things at more or less the exact spot we’d expect to.

Which, in fairness, still makes Oculus a modest accomplishment in my book. Maybe my standards are just really fucking low at this juncture — to the point where I don’t even expect, much less demand , anything terribly fresh from Hollywood horror and am willing to settle for the same old thing as long as it’s done with some style — but if we’re going to have another supernatural-themed “franchise” thrust upon us (and we are, trust me — this thing screams “sequel”) at least all indications are that this won’t be a shitty one.

It may not be much, sure, , but I’ll take it.