Netflix UK TV review: Midnight Mass
Stephen King Homage-O-Meter7
Martyn Conterio | On 10, Oct 2021
Mike Flanagan has established a brand of horror that draws upon deep wells of emotion as much as providing chills and thrills. In his third long-form series for Netflix, after 2018’s clever adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and 2020’s The Haunting of Bly Manor, the writer-director has proved yet again why he’s earned such praise from critics and fans alike, and why he’s touted as America’s great new horror filmmaker.
Midnight Mass is really to be considered Flanagan’s second foray with Netflix – Bly Manor was a damp squib and not entirely overseen by Flanagan. He directed the first episode of that series and oversaw editing here and there, and likely gave notes to the other directors along the way. Not to diminish the work of others, but his absence behind the camera showed in the finished product. It could also have been an error in choice of material, as Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw is so pervasive an influence on the haunted house subgenre, it’s frankly been done to death. The attempt to anthologise what should have been a one-off turned out to be an error in judgement – a stab at being a mogul-style guru, somebody who “presents”. When fans want to mainline Mike Flanagan’s horror films and TV dramas, they want the primo stuff, uncut and pure, they want to see the credit “written and directed by Mike Flanagan” on every episode so they can get the magnificent high.
Midnight Mass has been a long-time project for the Salem, Massachusetts native. He’s beavered away on the storyline for years, hoping one day to transfer what was in his head to the screen. In the end, Netflix backed the production, a 7-hour supernatural epic on the inner struggle to accept our mortality while being force-fed stories of an everlasting afterlife.
Flanagan is a director to file under Tortured Catholic Artist. His religious upbringing, which Midnight Mass draws upon heavily, has certainly left its mark and enabled him to craft a slow-burn, quietly harrowing human drama guaranteed to leave you shattered if you allow yourself to succumb to its unrushed pacing and rhythms, its drama and subtext building like a consuming tide.
The horror, like all great horror, is metaphor. The trials by supernatural terror the characters endure lead to epiphanies, even if these occur in a person’s final moments. That counts for something, right? It has to. If Flanagan tends to envelope his characters in utter void-style darkness, there is also grace and hope evident. In confronting the cold hard truths of our mortality, our mistakes, our fears, our struggles, we can learn something about living, find meaning, no matter how tentative. None of this is delivered in highfalutin’ dialogue or chin-stroking opaque narratives. That Mike Flanagan has established himself in the mainstream is something to celebrate.
If there’s one big criticism, it’s to be found in writing dialogue-heavy big scenes, often monologues featuring two characters attempting to articulate existential worries. Sometimes his characters articulate too much, when visual poetry, softer moments, use of gesture, a look, sepulchre mood and deep feeling is conjured successfully elsewhere. Actors love their big scenes, meaty dialogue to chew on, to project, to dig deep, but sometimes less is more. It isn’t the type of weakness to knock a film or series completely off its axis, but the use of monologue is in danger of becoming an association, a parody of style. It’s a legitimate problem when the desired effect doesn’t quite hit the mark and clearly so. As The League of Gentleman’s video store habitue Ollie once put it, “Too much acting.”
Still, a filmmaker is nothing without a cast, and Flanagan clearly loves working with actors. Like an Old Hollywood director, he’s developed a stock company of players. These performers tend to be character actors who crop up all the time in small roles, say their lines, often leave an impression on the viewer, but who rarely get a chance to shine front and centre. Flanagan gives them that chance. Robert Longstreet, who plays alcoholic Crockett Island pariah Joe Collie, is a case in point. The Mike Flanagan Players are a fine bunch, with regulars Henry Thomas, Kate Siegel and Annabeth Gish cropping up again in key roles.
The star of Midnight Mass is Hamish Linklater as Father Paul Hill. Now this is an actor who can deliver a monologue! His role is that of a priest, therefore his sermons fit, and they are unleashed with revelatory power and mesmerising conviction. Here, the monologue works a treat. A newcomer on the island, a man with seemingly good intentions but hiding a great secret, Linklater’s performance is extraordinary in its intensity; every scene, he dominates. Father Hill believes his mission is to transform the fortunes of the island and renew faith among the flock in a broken down and divided America. But does religion have the answer to the modern world’s problems? Has it ever?
Hill’s mission slowly becomes a form of tyranny, with Flanagan echoing the 1970s Jonestown Massacre during the finale. Father Hill’s sidekick, Bev Keane (Samantha Sloyan), is the island’s busybody and smug holy roller. She is a figure close in spirit to the dreaded Mrs Carmody, from Stephen King’s The Mist, but also Margaret Hamilton’s Miss Gulch in The Wizard of Oz (1939). Sloyan is another MVP, in Midnight Mass, her horridness manifesting as self-righteousness based on a literalist interpretation of the Good Book. She is an example of when extreme goodness becomes malignant and dangerous. Bev Keane is the show’s monster in human form, her destructive acts on equal footing with the supernatural aspects of the plot.
Another important American literary figure with an influence on Midnight Mass could well be Edgar Allan Poe, especially his icily beautiful poem A Dream Within a Dream, which Flanagan draws upon thematically and even, in one key scene near the end, recreates visually. As Bev Keane sits distraught on the beach while the sun rises on Crockett Island, Flanagan stages a visual interpretation of A Dream Within a Dream’s lines: “I stand amid the roar/Of a surf-tormented shore/ And I hold within my hand/Grains of golden sand – How few! yet how they creep from my fingers to the deep/While I weep – while I weep!”
The series’ biggest guide, above any American literary ones, is Catholic mythology. Midnight Mass, as its very title suggests, is steeped in the iconography and rites and history of the Church. Flanagan has stated the Bible is an inspiration to him, although not for the obvious reasons. As Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings showed with aplomb, in its recreation of the plagues visited upon the Egyptians, the Bible is full of incredible phantasmagorical imagery and horrifying passages. What you have is a text of often pure and imaginative violence, terror and horror. The themes, though, aren’t Catholic-only: they’re entirely universal. After all, you don’t need to be a Catholic to feel a burden of guilt, to feel shame, to wonder about life and its unknowable mysteries.
Putting on the island a Muslim sheriff, played by Rahul Kohli, is an inspired decision. Sheriff Hassan is a nice guy who puts up with a lot of un-PC language. One local playfully addresses him as Sharif, which he grins and bears, because he wants to maintain peace and goodwill even when the islanders are plain-as-day arseholes. This inclusion provides the story not just with a sense of a perceived outsider looking in, though Sheriff Hassan’s as American as anybody else on Crockett Island, but he’s like an avatar for the viewer too; we can see how the islanders look and behave, which exposes their prejudice and passive aggressive attitudes. It provides a contrast between not just religious faiths – which actually share plenty in common – but the insularity of communities, Christian bigotry, how America is a melting pot but white paranoia dominates in rural spaces, as well as a general failure of religion to practise what it incessantly preaches.
Midnight Mass addresses what it means to be human and our incomprehension when faced with extraordinarily complex questions. “How strange it is to be anything at all,” as Neutral Milk Hotel’s song, In An Aeroplane Over the Sea, puts it.
If Sheriff Hassan serves as the audience avatar, Flanagan’s personal avatar is Riley Flynn (Zach Gilford), a recovering alcoholic who went to prison for a drunk driving and manslaughter offence. Flanagan has discussed his own issues with alcohol, and it’s served as material in creating Flynn. When the young man is praying to God, in the opening scene, having killed a young girl, the result of driving while intoxicated, a patrol cop lacking any pity asks him to ask God why it’s always the innocent victims who get called home and not the perpetrator. It is a stinging comment in a moment of spiritual helplessness, setting the template for all that follows, with answers hard to find. Maybe there’s no right or wrong answer at all, only cause and effect and learning to live with the outcome. This is, folks, great human drama.
Riley wants to make amends but doesn’t know how. He cannot resurrect the dead, rewind time or erase his tormenting memories. Flynn’s tragedy is his inability to move on, him believing his state of purgatory is forever fixed, and it’s more or less what everybody else on the island thinks too – bar Erin Greene (Kate Siegel) and Father Hill, who promises salvation, but who is just as much of a fraud as any snake oil salesman. Riley’s troubled brother-in-misery is Joe Collie, a drunk who accidentally shot a young girl and left her paralysed and in a wheelchair. Most days he sees the girl, Leeza (Annarah Cymone), as the island is small and everybody knows everybody and everybody knows everybody’s business. Riley sees ghosts, Joe sees the damage he’s done on a daily basis. Both wish for forgiveness and atonement, it’s just they’re stuck, believing they don’t deserve such a gift. Examining these dilemmas, the theme of atonement, highlights why Midnight Mass is so damn good. Neither storyline has a thing to do with the supernatural, only haunted minds. But the supernatural plot is beautifully woven into the fabric of the various tragedies exhibited.
Forgiveness is arguably the most compassionate and most human quality of all. The ability to forgive, regardless of its ties to religious teaching, is a powerful thing and it motors the engine of not just Midnight Mass, but also Flanagan’s adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House. Flanagan, then, is a classic American artist in another vein, why he’s so successful in the mainstream: he’s hopeful. On evidence of his best work, he clearly believes more in the capacity for human goodness and kindness than the dark forces which stir and provoke our angst. His vision for horror is a point where great beauty and great trauma meet. Which makes it the best kind of horror there is.
Ingeniously, Flanagan has tied themes of mortality and redemption to vampire mythology. Immortality isn’t the road to renewal, the path to enlightenment, to transformation: it’s an abomination. Midnight Mass reminds us of a shattering but important truth: our finiteness is unavoidable, and why the hell would anybody want to live forever?
Midnight Mass is Mike Flanagan’s greatest work to date and the guy is still only in his early 40s. He can craft a chilling set piece and jump scare with the best of them, but what really makes his films and long-form television storytelling stand out is there grace, hope and genuinely informative insight into the human condition.
Midnight Mass is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.