Mike Flanagan has quickly risen from an unknown artist to become one of the most recognizable names in modern horror. But how did the writer and director get his big break? Well, for starters, Flanagan was born in Salem, Massachusetts—which seems like an ideal hometown for any horror filmmaker—and studied film at Towson University in Maryland.
After a couple of student films, which Flanagan has called “unfit for public consumption,” he created the short film Oculus: Chapter 3 as a proof-of-concept to demonstrate that he was able to helm a horror movie, a subject that had interested him since he was a child.
Investors showed interest, but none were on board with what Flanagan wanted to do with the material. In frustration, Flanagan made his 2011 horror debut, the Kickstarter-financed Absentia, which he filmed primarily in his own apartment. Though Absentia didn’t receive a theatrical release, it earned an underground reputation on Netflix for its refreshingly eerie atmosphere and character-driven story.
That was enough for Flanagan to finally get Oculus off the ground and into theaters. A mind-bending and thoroughly modern take on the hoary trope of the haunted mirror, Oculus was the stepping stone to bigger things for the director, though the road ahead wasn’t always smooth.
Flanagan is unusual in that there isn’t one obvious “breakout” movie in his career. One moment it seemed like he was slowly accumulating word-of-mouth around flicks like Absentia or the direct-to-Netflix film Hush, and then suddenly his name was everywhere.
Chalk it up, if you want, to his work on Netflix’s 2018 series The Haunting of Hill House, or to his deft handling of difficult-to-adapt Stephen King properties like Gerald’s Game; but whatever the cause, Flanagan rose to prominence after a slow start, and has become one of the go-to names for prestigious horror projects.
This means that Flanagan has a lot on his plate in the future. Besides a season two follow-up to The Haunting of Hill House, which will use Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw as its jumping-off point, Flanagan is attached to other prestige TV shows like Midnight Mass and a series adaptation of Christopher Pike’s novel The Midnight Club.
He’s also working on a big-screen adaptation of Stephen King’s Revival, and there was talk at one time of a sequel to Doctor Sleep—itself a sequel to The Shining—though that film’s disappointing box office performance makes a follow-up unlikely.
It’s hard to go wrong with one of Flanagan’s thoughtful, humane horror flicks, but if you’re unsure where to start, we’ve given you a hand by ranking all of them. From the mildly chilly to the utterly terrifying, these are Mike Flanagan’s best horror movies, ranked.
7. Before I Wake (2016)
Flanagan’s most troubled production, Before I Wake, was shot in 2013. However, it didn’t see a release until 2016, during Flanagan’s busiest year. What was the problem? Financial difficulties on the part of distributor Relativity Media ended up pushing the film’s release back multiple times. Though well worth a watch for Flanagan die-hards, this film about a young boy whose dreams can become reality comes in at #7 on our list.
6. Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016)
When I got out of the theater after seeing Ouija: Origin of Evil, I tweeted that, “Rarely (if ever) has there been as great a jump in quality from a movie to its sequel.” If Flanagan wasn’t already on track to become a horror giant by then (he was), his future status would have been assured by his ability to take one of the most disappointing ghost films of the 21st century (2014’s misbegotten Ouija) and craft a satisfying and visceral follow-up.
5. Hush (2016)
“How good is Hush?” genre titan Stephen King quipped on Twitter when Flanagan’s home invasion slasher hit Netflix. “Up there with Halloween…” That’s high praise, especially coming from King, and one has to wonder if that was also the beginning of Flanagan’s cinematic relationship with the King of Horror. This white-knuckle thriller follows a deaf author who is stalked by a masked killer in her isolated home.
4. Absentia (2011)
This 2011 film started the groundswell of hype that would eventually make Flanagan one of the most recognizable horror directors in the biz. Absentia follows the trials of a pregnant woman who attempts to have her husband declared dead in absentia after an inexplicable seven-year absence. His disappearance might just have something to do with a creepy tunnel underpass nearby…
3. Oculus (2013)
That apple scene. Need we say more? One strength of Flanagan’s work is that he always treats the horror of his stories with utter seriousness. There is nothing tongue-in-cheek about his approach—which is something that becomes apparent in Oculus, a story about a haunted mirror that also touches on grief, family, and trauma, not to mention a mind-bending bit of horror that plays with perception in terrifying ways.
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2. Doctor Sleep (2019)
When you think about it, a sequel to The Shining should have been a disaster. After all, the 1980 film by Stanley Kubrick is one of the most beloved in the horror canon, and it’s also a major departure from King’s original novel. Since King’s sequel, Doctor Sleep, follows the novel, not the film, adapting it to the screen without alienating fans seemed an insurmountable challenge. Yet Flanagan pulled it off deftly, weaving King’s novel and Kubrick’s film together into one tapestry of memorable characters and iconic moments.
1. Gerald’s Game (2017)
Considered “unfilmable,” Stephen King’s 1992 novel Gerald’s Game sees its protagonist spend pretty much the entire book handcuffed to a bed. Yet Flanagan not only films the “unfilmable” novel, he makes the proceedings feel as natural as breathing. This meditation on abuse, trauma, and survival—and on the voices we internalize, for better or for worse—is as mesmerizing and visually potent as any of his films, while staying true to the difficult source material.
Featured still from "Ouija: Origin of Evil" via Universal Pictures