Midnight Mass Is Creative, Bold, and Flawed Horror

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This review contains huge spoilers for Midnight Mass. Don’t you dare even think of reading one word before you watch.

Mike Flanagan, the maestro of horror responsible for Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House, The Haunting of Bly Manor, and this spooky season’s entry, Midnight Mass, has always taken a novelistic approach to storytelling. 

The man knows his way around a jump-scare, sure, but he excels in crafting deep, rewarding themes, richly drawn characters, and ornate dialogue. It’s what has drawn him toward adapting novels from horror legends like Shirley Jackson, Henry James, and Stephen King. And it’s perhaps what’s even given him the courage to take on a task as bold as the follow-up to The Shining in Doctor Sleep. Flanagan isn’t afraid of weight; he trafficks in it like a young Jay-Z.

Midnight Mass is his latest weighty endeavor, but unlike its predecessors, it nearly buckles under the heft of its ambitions. Midnight Mass is a story about faith, death, remorse, forgiveness, and human existence itself. It grapples with the biggest of questions, the most unsolvable of mysteries. It ruminates on these topics with the grace of a passionate scholar and the repetitive, faux profundity of a dorm room stoner alike. There are long stretches of the series, particularly in early episodes, where you’ll forget that you’re watching a horror series altogether. It is both a feature and a bug. It will either keep you glued to your TV or turn you off completely.

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Midnight Mass takes place on the fictional Crockett Island, a thinly populated, vaguely New England community impacted by an oil spill that decimated its once profitable fishing industry. Most of the townsfolk are Catholic and awaiting the return of their elderly priest, Monsignor Pruitt, who traveled abroad on a missionary trip to see the Holy Land. While they wait, Riley Flynn (Zack Gilford) returns via ferry after a four-year prison stint he served for murdering a young girl in a drunk driving accident. 

Also newly arriving in the “Crock Pot “ is Father Paul (Hamish Linklater), a mysterious young priest who arrives to temporarily shepherd St. Patrick’s church in Monsignor Pruitt’s absence. As Riley reacquaints himself with his family and the town he left behind, while simultaneously trying to overcome his feelings of guilt, lack of direction, and loss of faith, he reconnects with Erin Greene (Kate Siegel), another former resident recently returned to Crockett after the dissolution of an abusive relationship.

Like Flanagan’s previous Netflix series, the supernatural terror on display almost comes second to the real-life horrors showcased in Midnight Mass. Every night when Riley goes to sleep, he sees the blood-coated face of his young victim lying on the pavement. The town drunk is continually forced to confront the young girl that he paralyzed in a hunting accident. Erin wakes one day to find the child she is pregnant with missing from her womb. A father is forced to confront the resentment he feels for his wayward son. A daughter watches her mother’s mind deteriorate. These stories are human and can be painfully relatable and Flanagan mines them for his most emotional and scarring material. While more traditional monsters and gore earn scares in later installments, Flanagan keeps the audience uneasy early on with everyday horror stories that can keep you awake at night in a way that vampires never could.

Ah yes, the vampire. Or should we call him the “Angel?” Midnight Mass’s big reveal is that Father Paul is really a de-aged Monsignor Pruitt who encountered a vampiric creature while on his pilgrimage. He is given eternal life, but cursed with a hunger for blood and the inability to withstand sunlight. Pruitt brings the Angel back with him to Crockett, mostly because he wants a second chance with the dying woman that he fathered a child with many years ago. If he can give divinity to the entirety of Crockett in the process, then that’s a plus. 

It’s a fantastic concept — a holy man that interprets vampirism as divine intervention, playing upon the more horrific elements of the bible and really digging into the “drink my blood, eat my flesh” aspect of Jesus’ last supper — but it is slow to reach its chaotic conclusion. By episode four it’s clear to the audience that Pruitt is using his blood to heal folks like Leeza (Annarah Cymone), but you’re forced to watch as the characters catch-up. 

Midnight Mass is thankfully only seven episodes, but really feels like it could have hit its main story beats in four. That’s in part due to the mountain of monologues delivered by every character. They’re mostly beautifully written and well-acted, but when they come one after the other after the other, they begin to have a numbing quality. That’s why Riley’s portion of the story works so well. Riley spends his time confronting his faith and guilty conscience in one-on-one AA meetings with Father Paul, some of Midnight Mass’s most arresting scenes. 

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Midnight Mass is bursting with ideas that get in the way of telling a simple creature feature, some of them more intriguing than others. Sheriff Hassan (Rahul Kohli) grapples with being what appears to be the only non-Christian on the island as his Muslim son warms to the idea of exploring Christianity. It’s a plotline that could sustain its own series and ultimately ends in a moving way. That said, the story between Joe and Leeza never actually pays off in a way that warrants Leeza’s showstopping speech about forgiveness. Also, the last-minute reveal that Pruitt fathered Sarah (Annabeth Gish) feels too tacked on amidst a busy finale to land properly. 

However, none of this is the fault of the actors. The performances here are uniformly excellent and the earnest delivery of the material helps ward off accusations of purple prose. Linklater and Samantha Sloyan, who plays pious villain Bev Keane, could have easily gone off the rails with cartoonish depictions, but they keep things grounded and realistic. 

Sloyan in particular deserves recognition for creating such a contemptible character that never goes too over-the-top, instead feeling like an accurate representation of the judgmental crone of your parish. These performances are all accented wonderfully by Flanagan’s liberal use of captivating tracking shots and a score comprised of religious hymns that can flip from life-affirming to creepy on a dime. 

Midnight Mass can be long in the tooth, overly ambitious with its theological and existential musings, and not particularly frightening at times. Still, it makes up for it with memorable characters, ace performances, and scripts dripping with heart and compassion. While it’s base concept could have more than sustained a limited series, Flanagan packs this thing with so much to chew on, for better or worse. Qualms aside, you cannot help but be bowled over by the ambition and technical craft on display. Though it certainly features too much speechifying, this is Flanagan’s most thought-provoking material yet and a welcome addition to his expanding horror tome. 

Midnight Mass is available to stream on Netflix now.

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