Midnight Mass, a seven-episode horror series that kicked off Netflix’s spooky-season programming a few weeks ago, starts out sincere, serious and slow and then moves toward a magnificently kooky conclusion.
Creator Mike Flanagan (The Haunting of Hill House, The Haunting of Bly Manor, Doctor Sleep) spends five episodes carefully building character and story and two episodes drenching everything in blood, dread and the fabulous song stylings of Neil Diamond.
The series is so ambitiously odd that even when it doesn’t work, it kind of does, on the sheer strength of Flanagan’s deep personal commitment. Using the supernatural to examine buried trauma, the 43-year-old American writer-director has become known as a master of humanist horror. In Midnight Mass, he manages to bring together all the themes — addiction and recovery, familial grief and guilt — that have long haunted his work. (This has been an obsessive writing project for Flanagan since 2010, so that a novel called Midnight Mass appears as a prop in other projects he’s worked on, Hush and Gerald’s Game.)
Midnight Mass starts with a strong sense of place, given human dimension through lived-in performances from Flanagan’s regular and reliable acting ensemble. Crockett Island is an isolated, impoverished fishing village that has been in decline for decades. For many years, the small Catholic church was the centre of the community, but it, too, has started to dwindle away. When the elderly parish priest falls ill during a trip to the Holy Land, he is replaced by Father Paul (Hamish Linklater), a charismatic young cleric whose arrival coincides with an enigmatic series of miracles and mysteries.
Returning to Crockett Island at the same time as Father Paul is Riley Flynn (Zach Gilford), who has just finished a jail term after killing a young woman while driving drunk. Erin Greene (Kate Siegel), who years ago fled an abusive upbringing by an alcoholic mother, is back as well, now teaching at the island’s school.
As Riley and Erin are on the verge of reconnecting, something sinister starts up. Exsanguinated cats wash onto shore, and there’s something swooping over the woods and landing on housetops. Father Paul’s sermons go from inspiring to alarming, and it seems as if the island’s miracles might have a dark cost. Easter week promises renewal, but it’s not clear who — or what —– is offering this new beginning.
A stark summary of the increasingly bananas plot — which can’t be given for fear of spoilers — could sound, on the surface, anti-religious. One of Midnight Mass’s worst characters is Bev Keane (Samantha Sloyan), a vicious version of the Saturday Night Live Church Lady, with a real line in weaponized scripture-quoting. But the series as a whole is nuanced and intelligent in its approach to faith, and empathetic to believers and atheists alike.
The horror genre loves to drag out the regalia of the church, particularly the bells and whistles of exorcism, but most entries don’t bother to address actual religious themes: They have lots to say about Satan but not much to say about God.
Flanagan has a whole lot to say, and it comes out in the series’ frequent — and lengthy! — monologues. Midnight Mass is about faith, it’s about loss of faith, and as Flanagan himself has written, it’s about “how easily faith can be weaponized against the faithful.” It’s about the problem of evil — if God is both all-powerful and all-loving, why is there so much suffering? It’s about death and what comes after death.
In a long, intense, talky scene between Erin, a devout Catholic, and the lapsed Riley, a former altar boy turned atheist, Flanagan is operating at Peak Monologue. There’s another extraordinary extended scene between Father Paul and Riley in which they do some very wordy wrestling about addiction and healing and questions of fate and free will.
Flanagan himself was raised Catholic, an altar boy in a little church on Governors Island, off the coast of New York. He’s also a recovering alcoholic who is grateful that he was able to stop drinking before he killed himself — or someone else. The character of Riley feels like a stand-in for Flanagan, and Riley’s monologues could be versions of the insistent, recurring 3 a.m. thoughts Flanagan has had in his own head.
Ultimately, that sense of profound personal connection is why Midnight Mass works. Bizarre and beautiful, this idiosyncratic series is sometimes awkward, occasionally unworkable but always deeply felt.
Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.