Mike Flanagan isn’t a household name despite making some of this century’s best horror films and TV series. It’s frustrating that his highest-profile project, an excellent adaptation of Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep (2019), was deemed a commercial disappointment, but in some ways remaining a secret gives him more creative freedom. After two particularly strong Netflix miniseries—The Haunting of Hill House (2018) and The Haunting of Bly Manor (2020) — Flanagan returns to the serialised TV format for Midnight Mass. And this time, despite the Stephen King influence — most notably ‘Salem’s Lot — it’s an original story he’s been trying to get made for years. There’s even some Easter Eggs foreshadowing it in Hush (2016) and Gerald’s Game (2017).
Crockett Island is the remote setting for this seven-part miniseries; a tiny fishing village where the small Catholic community’s struggling to make ends meet after an oil spill damaged their industry. Riley Flynn (Zach Gilford) is our ostensible hero, returning to his family home after serving time in prison for killing a young woman while drunk driving on the mainland. As Riley reconnects with his family and the islanders he knew from years ago — such as childhood sweetheart Erin Greene (Kate Siegel), who’s also returned to Crockett Island after falling pregnant — we’re also introduced to outsider Father Paul Hill (Hamish Linklater), who’s temporarily replacing the village’s elderly priest Monsignor Pruitt during a sickness.
Writing about Midnight Mass can easily slip into spoiler territory if one’s not too careful, but suffice to say the younger Father Paul has a rejuvenating effect on his ageing parishioners. And it’s not just that he brings youthful energy and exuberance to his services, but it’s how his unexpected arrival coincides with strange events — that the religiously-minded would describe as miracles. So it’s not long before the community’s faith becomes stronger and more fervent, as even levelheaded Dr Sarah Gunning (Annabeth Gish) notices her elderly mother’s dementia is reversing, and paraplegic teenager Leeza Scarborough (Annarah Cymone) is somehow able to walk again.
As one might expect, there’s an awful truth behind Father Paul and these inexplicable events, and Midnight Mass doesn’t take long before it reveals the bigger picture. The great thing about a miniseries is how writers don’t need to think of ways to extend the story going beyond its natural end every season, so there’s a welcome sense of pace and rhythm to the story, even if it’s in no hurry to blow past the many quiet character moments. In fact, the series benefits enormously from spending time with many of the islanders in the first three episodes, in particular, to ensure all the characters feel like believable people with their own failings, problems, and tragic backstories. My only complaint is that some of the characters make questionable decisions towards the end, which I’m not convinced can be explained away as the result of religious fervour.
It’s certainly a miniseries of two halves, as the story pivots in “Book III: Proverbs” once it’s revealed we’re dealing with something more conventional than first imagined. Reactions will vary when it comes to this mid-story adjustment, but I can’t deny I wasn’t slightly disappointed Midnight Mass wouldn’t continue with the delicious uncertainties of its first two episodes. The initial tone was akin to HBO’s The Leftovers, which had a similar ambiguity about what’s going on with ordinary folk dealing with unexplained phenomena, but then it becomes clear we’re going down to a path that’s more typical of the horror genre. However, Mike Flanagan (who also wrote or co-wrote every episode) ensures the series mixes the two styles together in a way that feels fresher than it could have. If the show had to go down a more “monstrous” path with the story, this was certainly the best way to go about it.
The two Haunting miniseries had a similarly eerie vibe to Midnight Mass, although this story’s told more linearly. The focus on character is also the same, and almost every instalment involves someone delivering an emotional monologue that’ll make you cry, smile, or both. The big question throughout is what awaits us after we die — and does it even matter if someone religious believes in an afterlife, compared to an atheist who accepts the colder scientific facts of biological oblivion? Is there actually a middle-ground both can agree on and find solace in? Are those with a religious faith better prepared for death than atheists? Isn’t there a “spiritual” component to the realities of clinical death, as the atoms of our bodies return to the cosmos over the aeons to come?
Performances are uniformly excellent, particularly Flanagan’s real-life wife Kate Siegel as Erin— who’s appeared in everything he’s made and is a prominent part of the so-called “Flanafam”. But put aside any thoughts of nepotism, as Siegel’s always extremely good and gets three or four heartbreaking moments here as a single mother dealing with what life throws at her. Hamish Linklater (Legion) is also great as Father Paul, anchoring the show as the central figure of mystery that everything evolves around. The fact he’s not a total villain is also a welcome touch, although I was saddened his role in events grows less essential and he doesn’t really have much to do in the finale. There are also some fine performances from Rahul Kohli (The Haunting of Bly Manor) as a Muslim sheriff, Omar Hassan, who came to the island to escape prejudice and slowly realises he’s only tolerated by some of those he protects. Samantha Sloyan (Hush) is also great as the type of religious fundamentalist crackpot familiar from many Stephen King books, who in some ways is the true villain of the story.
The miniseries has a rather negative portrayal of Catholicism, at times, or rather how organised religion is easily perverted for whatever cause individuals need to excuse. One of the best things about the show is how it portrays the ease Crockett’s churchgoers believe in miracles rather than approach them with skepticism or rational thought, then slip into doing terrible things because they can excuse it by twisting scripture to suit their purposes, or telling themselves it’s for the greater good.
Midnight Mass does have flaws, as one would expect. I’d have preferred the show to have kept things ambiguous about Father Paul for a touch longer, but I’m sure others would argue the story may have become too tedious if the cards hadn’t been laid out on the table sooner. The makeup for some of the older characters is also painfully noticeable, which subconsciously make you ask questions about why they’ve cast younger actors as wrinkly seniors… which means you deduce where some of the surprises are headed. But the production is otherwise fantastic, especially in creating this isolated island and its eerie wooden buildings and feral cats. There’s a real sense of history and place to everything, which helps you believe in the world being created.
Overall, Mike Flanagan again proves why he’s one of the most entertaining voices in modern horror. He understands that to scare audiences you need to make them care about the people in the story, and keep things grounded with themes and subtext that makes any violence and bloodshed all the more potent and horrifying. This is much less about plot than his previous work, as it’s more of a cautionary tale tackling issues of forgiveness, redemption, faith, life and death, racism, and more. It’s often spine-tingling, mysterious, scary and ominous, but also beautiful, heartfelt, emotional, and tragic. While not perfect and arguably less compelling and frightening than Flanagan’s Haunting miniseries, Midnight Mass reaffirms he’s one of the best storytellers around and this is perfect October viewing now the nights have drawn in.
CANADA • USA | 2021 | 450 MINUTES • 7 EPISODES | 2.00:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
Cast & Crew
writers: Mike Flanagan, James Flanagan, Elan Gale, Dani Parker & Jeff Howard.
director: Mike Flanagan.
starring: Kate Siegel, Zach Gilford, Kristin Lehman, Samantha Sloyan, Igby Rigney, Rahul Kohli, Annarah Cymone, Annabeth Gish, Alex Essoe, Rahul Abburi, Matt Biedel, Michael Trucco, Crystal Balint, Louis Oliver, Henry Thomas & Hamish Linklater.