The arrival of a mysterious priest sees a small community experience miraculous events and frightening omens in Netflix horror series Midnight Mass (streaming from Friday night). You haven’t seen this particular story before—not quite like this, writes Tony Stamp.
When critics received their copies of the new Netflix series Midnight Mass, they were given strict instructions not to spoil certain things. Even if they hadn’t been, there is no way I would give away this particular game. Lurking at the dark heart of Mike Flanagan’s latest is a Very Good Idea, one that I’m not sure has been done on screen before, and it’s an absolute doozy. Suffice it to say that once you hit a certain episode it’ll become hard to curtail your binging.
If you’re not familiar with Flanagan’s work, he’s probably best known for helming another Netflix show, The Haunting of Hill House, as well acclaimed horrors Hush and Oculus, and the Stephen King adaptations Gerald’s Game and Doctor Sleep. I’m no King expert, but his spectre seems to hang over Midnight Mass, in a good way—there’s the small town setting (here that’s Crockett Island, removed from the mainland ideologically as well as physically), interrogations of religious zealotry, bigotry, the meeting of the mundane and supernatural… Flanagan is clearly a fan.
He’s said this project is one he’s been working on for a decade, and that it’s personal to him—he spent time as an altar boy, and is some years sober. Addiction rears its head in the first scene, which has Riley Flynn (Zach Gilford) at the scene of a car accident he caused while drunk driving, leading to the death of his younger female companion. As he sits there stunned, Flanagan’s camera calmly assesses the damage done to her.
His approach to violence reminds me of King’s too—it’s not a crutch for the story or presented sensationally, but when it happens he really gets in there and forces you to look. It hurts in a way onscreen carnage often doesn’t.
Riley goes on to serve jail time, and when he returns to Crockett Island, a new priest arrives on the same ferry. Father Paul is the figure who the mysteries of the series revolve around, and he’s a fantastic character, as portrayed by Hamish Linklater. The actor is called upon to deliver multiple sermons and monologues opining about various religious ideas, and he makes each one riveting.
A lot of the show seems to give voice to Flanagan’s musing on theology, with basically everyone sharing their thoughts (including Sheriff Hassan, a practicing Muslim played by Rahul Kohli), but it all feeds back into the thematic thrust. I can’t imagine believers or atheists minding any of this stuff, going out of its way as it does to be deeply nuanced.
Midnight Mass is a horror show, and things get pretty scary pretty quickly, in ways I won’t reveal. I can say that miracles begin to occur, and these are presumed to be blessings from God. The close knit community is delighted, their lives of worship vindicated. I would dearly love to give away what’s behind all this (and FYI I’m not saying it ISN’T God) but, dear reader, you will have to find out for yourself.
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Flanagan’s wife Kate Siegel is one of the show’s leads, and he entrusts her with some of its most emotional moments. She rises to the occasion, and it’s evident why she seems to have become the director’s muse, appearing in many of his projects.
A large ensemble rounds out the cast, including Samantha Sloyan as Bev Keane, a fervent Christian (slightly desperate, she really feels like a King archetype), an aged-up Henry Thomas as Riley Flynn’s dad (making the most of getting to play old and grumpy), and Robert Longstreet as Joe Collie, the town drunk (wonderfully grizzled, and great at playing different levels of drunkenness).
There are times when you can feel things stretch out to make the most of the long format—conversations go for longer than you might expect, let alone monologues—but the writing is focused, and it all has a point in the end. Likewise, Flanagan can let things get maudlin sometimes, but pulls back from anything too indulgently weepy. You can feel his extreme sincerity, but he knows the priority is scares and screaming.
And there is plenty of that. Very bad things happen in this show, and at times it descends into much darker territory than I expected. Be warned, punches are most definitely not pulled here, but all the carnage is delivered with a weird poetry and grace, in keeping with the show’s ideas about spirituality.
I’m being maddeningly vague, so I’ll sum up by saying that Midnight Mass is Mike Flanagan’s best work, a summation of all his strengths, delivered with real care. The experience of watching it is like having a scary story told to you around a campfire, as frightening as it is intriguing. You haven’t seen this particular story before, not quite like this, and at the same time as Flanagan is juggling knotty concepts like addiction and redemption, he’s leading you down a very particular path—one where the absence of light might just scare the shit out of you.