Title: Midnight Mass
Creator: Mike Flanagan
Stars: Kate Siegel, Sach Gilford, Kristin Lehman
It is nighttime in the small island community. Three teenagers have taken their canoe out to a connected islet to smoke weed and drink beer away from their parents. Stray cats have long since overrun this small islet, their glowing eyes reflected in the kids’ flashlights. Suddenly, the sound of wings above. Huge wings! And then, a set of glowing eyes, too wide-set and high up from the ground for a cat, glows back at them from just outside the light of their small bonfire!
Midnight Mass is the newest horror mini-series by director Mike Flannagan. Known for Netflix series such as The Haunting of Hill House and The Haunting of Bly Manor and creepy supernatural thrillers like Doctor Sleep, Flannagan has established himself as a master of the slow burn, character-driven horror drama. As with his other work, Midnight Mass uses familiar, even traditional horror tropes, but changes just enough to keep it interesting and fresh.
Set on an isolated island community fallen on hard times, Midnight Mass follows the inhabitants’ lives as a new and charismatic priest, Father Paul (played by Hamish Linklater), arrives to take over for the old one, who has disappeared while on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Shortly after, mysterious happenings start to occur. The religious people on the island begin to feel healthier and happier. Physical ailments soon disappear, and many seem younger. When a paralyzed girl stands up from her wheelchair in church, most are convinced that the new priest has the power of God on his side.
Then things turn dark. Dead cats wash up on the beach, and people soon start to disappear.
Midnight Mass, more than anything, is a character-driven drama. Like any good film or series of the genre, supernatural elements take the back seat in relation to the characters’ motivations and actions. It starts slow, with a creepy feeling that something isn’t right with the new priest. What is in that massive trunk he dragged into his new home after arriving? And why, when he knocks twice on it, two knocks are heard in reply?
The series’ main cast likewise enforces this character-driven principle. Zach Gilford plays Riley Flynn, a troubled young man returning to his childhood home on the island. Riley was just released from a four-year jail sentence after killing a woman in a drunken car accident. Here he meets his now pregnant childhood sweetheart, Erin Greene, played by Kate Siegel. Both are haunted by their past and present circumstances and deliver great performances. Though there are some scenery-chewing performances now and then, especially from the more off-kilter religious nuts and fanatics in the small community, it is generally a solid cast with strong performances.
I also especially liked Rahul Kohli here. He plays Sheriff Hassan, a Muslim police detective who escaped the racism and religious bigotry in the big city after 9/11. Kohli delivers a soulful performance as the policeman who tries to raise his teenage son and do his job as a law enforcer, despite being an outsider in this religious community.
However, the strongest cast member in Midnight Mass was, without doubt, Hamish Linklater as Father Paul. He delivers a powerhouse performance as the charismatic yet tormented priest, who might be more or less than what he seems. It is a truly memorable performance! The story often takes Father Pauls’s perspective, and Linklater perfectly balances our sympathy and revulsion throughout the series.
Like Mike Flannagan’s earlier Netflix series, Midnight Mass delivers some strong themes and messages. For some, it might be a bit too much on the nose. For others, especially those already interested in the arguments for or against religious belief, these themes and questions are nothing new. Having lost his childhood faith, Zach Gilford’s Riley Flynn almost directly quotes atheist writers like Richard Dawkins and Neil deGrasse Tyson. The religious in the community, moderates and fanatics alike, preach the same tired old list of arguments for God’s existence. Midnight Mass asks many questions about faith, belief, and death but gives no answers. And it is better for it.
For the horror fans, there is a lot to look forward to. Although I won’t get into spoilers, the series never wallows in blood and gore. There are some jump scares now and then, some quite effective, and generally good special effects throughout. However, some aging effects and make-up seemed too apparent, especially when younger actors are aged up with make-up, only to be gradually de-aged as the story progresses. It was sometimes so easy to spot that it might even be considered a spoiler; You can easily see that some actors have age make-up that will come off as the story progresses. Otherwise, why not cast an older actor instead?
If you’re reading this and think this sounds like something Stephen King might cook up, you’d be right. It all has a very Stephen King-like atmosphere. I won’t name any specific King titles, as that could be counted as spoilers, but if you’re a fan of the author, chances are you will enjoy Midnight Mass immensely.
The story takes its time to build up, with mysterious events, disappearances, and what seems like miracles happen in the small community. And of course, this sparks religious fervor, and as if on cue, fanaticism soon rears its ugly head. Conflict soon follows between the members of the community, leading to factionalism. The story might not be the most original; Stephen King has done stuff like this before, after all. But instead, it is how the story is conveyed that impressed me. Midnight Mass is populated by characters it is easy to love or hate. Or both, in some cases.
Although the atmosphere is excellent throughout, I felt that the story was more effective in the first four or five episodes. When the wheels finally come off, and the town goes nuts, some of the story’s creepy and mysterious atmosphere is lost to more standard horror tropes. That said, as a whole, Midnight Mass works very well and might have one of the most interesting premises I’ve seen in a horror series in a very long time.