Writer and director Mike Flanagan released his latest Netflix series, The Fall of the House of Usher, on October 12. The miniseries once again showcases his talent for adapting classic horror novels, writing monologues that truly tug at viewers’ heartstrings, and creating fascinating characters trying their best to navigate some fairly dark and terrifying surroundings.
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Whether they’re victims, villains, survivors, or deeply flawed heroes, Flanagan’s characters stand out because of their rich complexity. These figures are as compelling as mysterious and unsettling, played by a wide range of talented performers who bring Flanagan’s words to brilliant life.
10 Kaylie Russell – ‘Oculus’ (2013)
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Everyone deals with childhood trauma in their own way. For example, Kaylie (Karen Gillan) hunts down the source and learns all its tricks before confronting it again as an adult. Oculus presents her trauma as a haunted mirror responsible for both her parents’ deaths and her younger brother’s incarceration.
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Though some, her brother included, initially dismiss her as paranoid and obsessive, all of Kaylie’s preparations for any attack the mirror may throw at them eventually prove more than necessary. Gillan is stellar in the role, giving Kaylie fire and selling her determination without succumbing to paranoia.
9 Hugh Crain – ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ (2018)
Another victim of a malignant object. The younger Hugh, portrayed by Henry Thomas, was once a professional house flipper working alongside his wife and a devoted father to the five Crain siblings. However, the once happy and efficient fixer becomes a tortured and tragic soul portrayed by Oscar-winner Timothy Hutton, years after the gruesome events at Hill House.
Despite being estranged from them, Hugh never loses his devotion to his children or his late wife. He eventually proves to them and the audience that far from being timid or truly defeated, he’s still quite sharp and has been on high alert ever since. Thomas and Hutton excel at playing Hugh at different stages of his life, although Hutton gets the character’s most defining points.
8 Olivia Crain – ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ (2018)
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Olivia (Carla Gugino) is a character whose true nature varies depending on who is asked. To some, she’s a creative person who often loses herself in her projects. To others, she’s a kind woman and a loving mother. Finally, some only saw her the way she was in the end, rendered almost completely mad by Hill House’s torture.
The mystery of the Crain matriarch’s death on their last night in Hill House still looms large over her family. Despite her best intentions to keep them out of harm’s way, she proved a greater threat to their safety than anything else. Gugino is outstanding in the role, blending delicacy with a distinctively off-putting vibe that makes the character utterly unforgettable.
7 Riley Flynn – ‘Midnight Mass’ (2021)
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Hardened and guilt-ridden after spending four years in prison for involuntary manslaughter while driving under the influence, Riley (Zach Gilford) lost faith long ago. Feeling adrift after his release, he returns to his hometown, reconnects with his family and former girlfriend, and even gets taken under the wing of the surprisingly helpful Father Paul (Hamish Linklater).
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Riley is a compelling protagonist, with Gilford seamlessly blending into Flanagan’s distinctive world. His struggle to acknowledge Father Paul’s deceiving influence and subsequent attempts to resist him make him an easy-to-root-for character, and Gilford never shies from displaying Riley’s flawed nature.
6 Eleanor “Nell” Crain Vance – ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ (2018)
Next to their mother, Hill House arguably did the most damage to the psyche of the family’s youngest members, Nell (Victoria Pedretti) and her twin, Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). While Luke has his demons, Nell suffers one tragedy after another, with short reprieves in between.
It seemed like Hill House had gotten its hooks firmly into and consumed Nell completely, the same way it did her mother. However, Nell proved her deep understanding of the house’s danger gave her an advantage, allowing her to save her family. Pedretti is Emmy-worthy as the tragic Nell, crafting a stellar portrayal of trauma and resilience that remains among the most memorable in any Flanagan project.
5 Danielle “Dani” Clayton – ‘The Haunting of Bly Manor’ (2020)
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The Turn of the Screw is among the books with the most adaptations. Flanagan put his spin on the classic with The Haunting of Bly Manor, with Victoria Pedretti starring as Dani, a young woman longing for a fresh start and a chance to positively impact the lives of two parentless children. By the time her story ended, she’d found love and a new family and secured a safe future for the Wingrave children by taking on a terrible burden that ultimately led to her melancholy fate.
A tenderhearted guardian in life and death, Dani made the ultimate sacrifice to cease the suffering of others. Pedretti is once again stellar, cementing herself as a modern scream queen and one of television’s most underrated leading ladies.
4 Dr. Theodora “Theo” Crain – ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ (2018)
Since Theo (Kate Siegel, Mckenna Grace) was a child, she’s had a gift where she could touch objects or people and know things about them. This alleged hereditary ability that her mother refers to as “sensitivity” leaves her vulnerable to the effects of Hill House.
Theo is constantly at war with herself, longing for connection and feeling like she has to keep others at bay for fear of becoming overwhelmed by their intense emotion. It’s only in achieving a balance between these two sides that she and her whole family can finally find peace. Siegel, Flanagan’s long-time collaborator and romantic partner, delivers one of her most inspired performances in The Haunting of Hill House, creating a unique character and a standout in a cast full of them.
3 Father Paul Hill – ‘Midnight Mass’ (2021)
The phrase ‘too good to be true’ is perfectly embodied in Crocket Island’s newest resident, a young priest meant to replace the beloved and well-respected but aging Monsignor Pruitt, who mysteriously left town. At first, it seems Father Paul’s mere presence is a blessing, as he appears to have the power to heal the sick and reverse the aging process.
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As time passes and his secrets are revealed, Father Paul shows his true colors. Underneath his charismatic, altruistic and articulate demeanor is a frightened, desperate man motivated by love, which may not entirely be for God. Hamish Linklater shines in the performance of his career, creating a fascinating and mesmerizing false prophet that will easily render audiences under his inescapable spell.
2 Jessie Burlingame – ‘Gerald’s Game’ (2017)
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Flanagan’s Gerald’s Game stars Carla Gugino and Bruce Greenwood as a couple attempting to reconnect in an isolated cabin. When the husband suffers a heart attack, the wife, handcuffed to the bed in a misguided attempt to reignite their sexual life, must find a way to survive while battling the demons of her past.
Based on Stephen King’s eponymous novel, Gerald’s Game is a showcase for Gugino’s underrated talents. The actress delivers the finest performance of her career as the tortured Jessie Burlingame. She is fragile but resilient, broken but determined to put herself back together. Gerald’s Game is among the Stephen King adaptations destined to become classics, and it’s all thanks to Gugino’s Oscar-worthy tour-de-force.
1 Maddie Young – ‘Hush’ (2016)
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In horror movies, final girls often escape the clutches of death; alas, that’s not always the case with Flanagan’s heroes. Hush’s Maddie, however, is more than an exception as not only does she survive the night but does so with only four of her five senses.
This deaf and mute horror author doesn’t have psychic powers, and she’s not fighting supernatural forces. Instead, she’s simply someone using her abilities as a storyteller to devise creative ways to evade and eventually defeat an ordinary, deranged killer. Kate Siegel is brilliant in the role, crafting an inspiring final girl for the modern age. Tough and clever, Maddie is a unique creation and arguably Flanagan’s best character.
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