Which Mike Flanagan Horror Series to Watch First
For horror babies, filmmaker Mike Flanagan’s haunted house series (available on Netflix) are a consistent source of joy in the genre. Words and metaphors have heart, which ground each title’s intimate settings and diversely talented casts. While there is a lot to love about each title, and while this collection can simply be accomplished chronologically; in this list, we rank them to perhaps find an alternative answer.
(Short notes: Opinions are based loosely on rewatchability, writing, and show-stealing actors.
I won’t be commenting on Flanagan’s source materials.)
IV. The Haunting of Bly Manor (2020)
I wouldn’t necessarily call it the weakest, but The Haunting of Bly Manor is far from being the series to watch first among these four. Two reasons I attribute this to are its heavy romance element, and its dragging pace at times.
While Bly Manor is an unmistakably haunted house, it is also tonally different from the others. It’s not unfathomable to think the series is more of a love story, where the show draws its lighter parts from. Still, the show has memorable characters and actors all around, most notably Hannah and Owen, who arguably had the biggest range of emotions to play with.
Bly Manor builds on the staples of the first The Haunting, but episodes and backstories tend to drag a little long. For instance, there was a lot of time spent establishing time/memory loops. There was the entirety of Episode 9 (etc). The slow pace also really helps escalate a finale (oh my God he’s driving!). But it’s not worth all the padding. Still, in the end, Bly Manor blesses us with a different flavor of dread.
III. The Midnight Club (2022)
Flanagan definitely ventured into the bleakest subject matter with The Midnight Club. A haunted house tale about terminally ill teenagers may be in the territory of horror and mystery, but a lot of this show (premise included) makes for low-rewatchability.
To be fair, a lot of this criticism also feels moot, considering the audience seems to be people who need hope the most. And for that, the show was greatly successful. Seeing our cast tell reflective short stories, and challenging each other’s outlooks on illness — first with fire, but always followed up with understanding. Seeing how the show depicted raw conversations about acceptance, sexuality, reaching out. These inspire great hope.
But compared to the other series, Midnight Club probably had the roughest dialogue. Exposition in particular was rather weak, giving up a lot of natural-sounding dialogue for details. There is also a feeling come the final scene of having a lot of questions unanswered and images unresolved. A little vagueness is par for the course for this genre, but this feeling ain’t it.
These reasons, combined with the tough subject to begin with, make Midnight Club a hard show to “enjoy.” (Much less enjoy again and again.) But for the touching acting, for Best Character Cheri, and for having more horror bang for your buck, this Y.A. series sits above last.
II. The Haunting of Hill House (2018)
The Haunting of Hill House is a perfect opening to this collection. It introduced to us the staples and anchors of the other series to come: houses as haunted entities, dreams and nightmares as premonitions, and storytelling itself as a key part of the anthology.
I think the strongest aspect of Hill House is its character work. A large part of why is how seamlessly the show weaves the present with the past. The first five episodes are each dedicated to the five Crain siblings, a formula that works well given the cast size. The first 2 episodes start off slow with less popular elder siblings, Steve and Shirley. But episodes 3-5 are great escalations in set-up from fan favorites Theo, Luke, and Nelly. The time spent away from the house helps us form that bond with these three, most notably Luke’s harrowing experience isolated in rehab.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about Episode 6’s “Two Storms,” a.k.a. the one-take episode. The experience of seeing all the characters processing things in “real time” glues your eyes to the screen. But apart from this feature, Episode 6 also marks the first time that flashbacks are not visually present. The show’s strength weaving stories of past and present would have to do so instead with private and public-facing conversations.
Everything really fell into place for Hill House. It was perfect.
I. Midnight Mass (2021)
Hushed mysteries plague a small Catholic island. If there was an escalation of Flanagan’s haunted house formula, it is the intimate and powerful Midnight Mass.
The plot kicks off as two new faces arrive on the island at roughly the same time. (1) Riley, a lapsed Catholic who returns to his family after spending time in prison for a drunk driving incident resulting in a woman’s death, (2) and Father Paul, who is replacing an ill and aging Monsignor Pruitt. What follows is a story about healings, disappearances, and town legends shrouded in religious mystery.
Though the setting and general scope of Midnight Mass is much bigger, its bread and butter is its arresting characters and actors. Father Paul and Bev are top-tier soliloquists on their own, and together have near-unrivaled chemistry. Riley and Erin conversely set the show’s overall intimate atmosphere, together and with other actors. Sheriff Hassan as the island’s non-Christian peacekeeper is absolutely terrific and is a perfect foil for someone like Bev. Their actors make the magic of the dialogue on fanatic Catholicism so intriguing. And this show had not one but two of the anthology’s best recurring lead actors, Kate Siegel (Erin) and Samantha Sloyan (Bev).
When I had finished watching The Haunting of Hill House, after giving it some time, I thought to myself that it was the best story I had ever seen. After watching Midnight Mass, I reconsidered that idea for the first time. Not because it was no longer true, but because Midnight Mass just represents far more people and traditions than a singular house and a singular family ever could. The greatest stories can come from far away. But the stories closest to you; those are untouchable.