Midnight Mass, the new limited horror series from the award-winning The Haunting of Hill House (2018) and Bly Manor (2020) writer-director-creator Mike Flanagan, has received mostly positive reviews from critics while largely being missed by audiences in the wake of Squid Game’s (2021) surge into popularity. Riley Flynn (Zach Gilford), an ex-altar boy, returns to his island hometown after a four-year stint in prison. There’s a new priest in the heavily Catholic village, Father Paul (Hamish Linklater), Riley’s old friend Erin Greene (Kate Siegel, a Flanagan mainstay and his real-life partner) is expecting a child, and Sheriff Hassan (Rahul Kohli, Bly Manor) butts heads with local zealous so-called do-gooder Bev Keane (Samantha Sloyan). Can Riley rediscover God in his attempts at sobriety? How will Erin raise her child as a single mother in a society that would most likely stigmatise her? And how can the mysterious Father Paul perform miracles at Sunday Mass?
The first thing to note with Midnight Mass is its length. With seven episodes each at sixty minutes, the introspective and claustrophobic series would struggle to retain momentum if not for the exquisite writing and performances. As with any Mike Flanagan project, the characters take centre stage – their pitfalls and triumphs influence so much of the early episodes, forming a sense of connection and community between the viewer and Crockett Island. A lot of time is spent building these people up; Father Paul is a Godsend (pun intended) to the town, a charismatic and supposedly honest spiritual leader (Linklater also joins Andrew Scott as a member of the Hot Priest Club). As opposed to jumping in with the scares, blood, and fire, Midnight Mass instead gives us hope, though clearly misplaced, that things might finally start going well for this hard-working backwater town.
Not a hope placed in God or the Catholic Church, though – Flanagan takes a strong agnostic approach, based on his own experiences in losing his religion and struggling with addiction, showing religious faith as something powerful-yet-often-misplaced. Riley rails against Father Paul’s self-confessed blind belief during their court-mandated AA meetings (a Higher Power is a tool widely used in addiction services with the goal to accept the feelings of chaos and powerlessness often stirred up by dependence), claiming that his alcoholism is a part of him that he must live alongside, not something for God to give and take away. Riley despises Paul’s answer to the problem of evil – that God allows, or creates, suffering despite being all-loving. Characters will often monologue or duologue on topics of faith, God and the Bible, and death, giving the show a voyeuristic stage-like feel, with long silences that manage to say a Hell of a lot (pun also intended) and shots where the actors aren’t framed centrally, implying something greater, something behind them. Special kudos must be given to the writing and performing of Kate Siegel’s final narration, which acts as an incredible cap on the experience – more than enough to reduce me to a blubbering mess, just as Steven’s final speech in The Haunting of Hill House succeeded at back in 2018.
The cast as a collective should be given praise. While it is hard to give a good performance with bad material, it must be even harder to give great, exceedingly human, performances with such a specific and personal set of scripts. Henry Thomas (Hill House, Bly Manor, and the kid from 1982’s E.T of all people) gives a beautiful performance as Ed, Riley’s struggling fisherman father, alongside Kristin Lehman (Altered Carbon) as Annie, Riley’s devoutly magnanimous mother. Hamish Linklater has received entirely deserved and unanimous praise for his role as Father Paul Hill. The clergyman simultaneously gives devout, energetic lectures at Mass while heart-warmingly emotionally and spiritually adrift when away from the pulpit. Personally, I was immediately taken by Robert Longstreet in the role of Joe Collie, the other town drunk whose soul retching performance in Episode 2 (Book II: Psalms) could sink hearts and boats alike. Midnight Mass would not be half as effective without this group of actors.
The place of faith and organised religion in a modern world dominated by neurology and astronomy is commonly ruminated on across the series. Erin and Riley ask each other what happens to us after we die. Erin speaks of Heaven, though not as pearly white gates and soft clouds, but a feeling of ‘eternal love’ beside God; Riley, however, describes his neurons firing and his brain releasing the psychoactive chemical DMT as it dies, reliving his entire life in a final moment of oneness with himself. Regardless of your individual relationship with religion and mortality, it’s an intensely moving scene that forces us to face the fact that we will never truly know what death is like to experience or what happens afterwards until the point of no return, and that all we can hope for is that our brains are kind to us in our final moments.
It’s revealing that I have already spoken at length about the show without touching on the horror elements at all. The main plot of Midnight Mass is best discovered by watching the show, traversing these fateful days alongside the characters you grow to love, or at least love-to-hate in Beverly Keane’s case; nonetheless, you understand them all. With purposeful notes from across the horror genre, including Stephen King’s The Mist and H.P. Lovecraft’s The Nameless City, the limited series manages a huge scope in storytelling despite the relatively small scale. It simultaneously feels apocalyptic and intensely personal. There’s blood and a shadowy creature, miracles and tragedies, flames and unknowable evils – it becomes slowly clear what the monster is without ever saying it, making your eventual understanding of what’s going on one that is personally very satisfying. Set alongside the backdrop of the Church, something we are led to believe is sacrosanct and holy, Christian teachings and Catholic imagery and practices are horrifically inverted and malformed over the course of the show. As a lifelong fan of the horror genre (who isn’t these days?), the delicate, unspoken genius of how Mike Flanagan crafts the religious unease and growing, dreadful realisation consistently brought a smile to my face.
Catholicism isn’t the only religion on display; single father Sheriff Hassan and his son Ali are one of the few non-churchgoing families in town – and the only Muslim family, at that – and their struggles for acceptance and respect for their faith are captivating. Ali, perhaps feeling peer pressured or isolated, begins attending Mass despite the Sheriff’s wishes; the Sheriff himself recalls donating blood at a Mosque after the 9/11 attacks, and his reasoning for joining the NYPD in an attempt to ‘make them see’ that Islam is the same as any other faith. Bev Keane, though – who remains heartbreakingly pig-headed and selfish to the end – passive-aggressively (and wrongly) notes that Islam and Christianity are scripturally at odds with one another. She contravenes the separation of Church and State by handing out Bibles at the local school, ‘encouraging’ the teenage Ali to ‘explore’ what God can offer him. The word faith is often used synonymously with your religion, but having faith actually means sticking by those beliefs in times of hardship, finding meaning and comfort in them despite the lack of consistent proof that your faith is not misplaced. Without spoilers, as I again encourage you to experience the story first-hand, that family’s final scene is yet another beautiful moment, a powerful statement that faith is nonetheless important to those who hold it.
The series hasn’t received entirely positive reviews, though, and there are a few issues that may detract from the overall experience. The runtime is long, at just over seven total hours of TV, somewhat unsuited to the here-and-now style of binge-watching that dominates media. Spread the show over a few days, however, and you’ll find yourself shaking to dive headfirst into the next episode. Midnight Mass may also be unsuited to those seeking a jumpscare-heavy scare-fest – though it is important to note that Flanagan’s body of work as a whole is cleverer than that. The Newton Brothers’ score is effective, especially their renditions of Catholic hymns, but the recognisable musical motifs for ‘sad moment’ or ‘scary moment’ can inadvertently kill the ambiguity of a scene too early, unideal for horror or drama to be effective. I also personally found the final episode a slightly strange tonal jump, more reminiscent of the zombie subgenre than what the show was actually aiming for, though by that point you should be invested enough to pull you through to the gorgeously conceived and realised ending.
Mike Flanagan describes the show as a “deeply personal” passion project, unsuccessfully pitching the idea as both a novel and movie since 2014, even to its eventual distributor Netflix, and this shines throughout. Flanagan was clearly invested in the story and themes, something as previously mentioned is deeply personal to him, and his writing/directing/editing recaptures that flair for horror and, more importantly, the drama that made Hill House such a success, and that some felt was lacking from the follow-up Bly Manor; as Flanagan had turned much of his attention to Doctor Sleep (2019), the widely-loved sequel to Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). Though as the decade-long regurgitation of 80s nostalgia slowly peters out, Midnight Mass stands separate as a deeply original, human, and modern piece of horror media.
Midnight Mass is available to stream on Netflix. Watch the trailer here.