Midnight Mass suffers from long-winded dialogue, but it still succeeds as a chilling meditation on human vulnerability and the dangers of religious institutions.
Midnight Mass is a new Netflix horror miniseries created, directed, and primarily written by Mike Flanagan. The series revolves around Crockett Island, a small community that’s reeling economically after an oil spill that crippled its fishing industry. Riley Flynn (Zack Gilford) returns here after four years in prison for killing a woman in a drunk driving accident. His newfound atheism clashes with the island’s prominent Christian practices, particularly when a new, charismatic priest named Paul Hill (Hamish Linklater) arrives to temporarily replace the ill Monsignor Pruitt. His arrival spurs on a series of “miracles” around the island … but also omens that gradually reveal much darker secrets behind these miracles.
I’m a fan of Mike Flanagan and his approach to the horror genre. Through his projects in film and television like Oculus, Gerald’s Game, and The Haunting of Hill House, he has consistently shown an understanding that the most frightening aspects of any story usually come from something we can connect to real-life horrors, making him one of the best people working in the genre. And Midnight Mass continues to show that with a heavy, nuanced, and terrifying examination of religion, death, and human vulnerability.
Midnight Mass isn’t really pro- or anti-religion, but rather a contemplation on the power it holds and how easily it can be warped into something hideous, particularly when institutionalized. Nearly every terrible thing that characters do is justified in great detail by the teachings of the Bible. Additionally, because Crockett Island is struggling economically suffering from increasing social divisions, it’s understandable how this religion-centered community is all the more susceptible of buying into what they’re told and shown. There’s a difference between faith and blind faith, and the latter is taken advantage of constantly both in this show and in reality.
But the most disturbing part is that those who take such advantage believe themselves to be doing what’s right … or rather, somemay seem that way. The show is so smart at constantly blurring the line between who in power is acting on genuine altruism and who’s acting on selfish insecurities and fears, or maybe both at once. This, in turn, shows how dangerous it is to put something as huge as religious power in the hands of frail, fallible human beings who can so easily make everything about them, whether they realize they’re doing that or not. When the miracles begin, the island experiences a religious revival. But this, in turn, also widens the pre-existing divides between characters as well as creating new ones, such as when the Muslim sheriff Hassan (Rahul Kohli) feels increasingly alienated from his Christian townsfolk and even his converting son (Rahul Abburi). It all gets even worse in the final stretch when everyone’s search for everlasting life amplifies their ugliest impulses, going to show how something perceived as good can so horrifically backfire.
With Midnight Mass being a horror series, those unfamiliar with Flanagan’s work may be put off by how minimal the presence of overtly scary elements is for a while. First and foremost, this is a series concerned with letting us get to know the people involved and really understand how they feel, think, and act. We’re deeply connected with Riley, his childhood sweetheart Erin (Kate Siegel), Hassan, and local doctor Sarah Gunning (Annabeth Gish), all of whom have their own unique, fascinating perspectives on everything that happens. Riley’s battle with addiction is intertwined with his alienation from the much more faith-driven community to make him very sympathetic, and he brings forth his own ideals that challenge everyone else in various ways. Everyone has conversations with each other that are unflinchingly honest, cutting to the core of what they’re dealing with, what they believe, and how it feeds into the bigger picture.
Every performance is perfect, and the standout, as many have said, is Linklater as Father Paul. He has arguably the most to work with and the biggest burden to carry. You’re lingering on every word he says, every secret of his that’s revealed, and every second of his powerful arc. Samantha Sloyan plays Bev Keane, a zealous member of the island’s church, and helps make her one of the most detestable villains in television history. She, more than almost anyone else, embodies the corruption and hypocrisy of many religious leaders. Nowhere is that exemplified more than in the final episode and her final moments on screen.
Because of this great work with the characters, when the horror elements do seep their way in, you’re scared not just because of what you’re seeing, but because of how they may affect the people you’ve grown attached to and how they may be exploited by those you don’t trust. You’re also scared because of the connections the frights have to the show’s themes and how they reveal who the real monsters are. Plus, when you do figure out what’s going on and the true nature of the threats involved, you realize that Midnight Mass is an ingenious modern spin on a classic horror subject that was sneakily hidden in plain sight. Even if you never piece this together – and it’s subtle enough that some may not – the gothic atmosphere and visceral violence near the end of the series are more than enough to send the chills down your spine. The final episode is scary not just because of the amplified stakes, but because of why they’re happening, how certain characters react, and even parallels made to the forced spreading and exclusivity of religious cults.
Flanagan once again collaborates with cinematographer Michael Fimognari. As always, Fimognari creates a murky, dreary-looking environment that further fuels the nightmarish undertones, yet somehow is still pleasing to look at. He shoots the nighttime sequences gorgeously, which is most noticeable in Episode 6 when the town are walking to the titular midnight mass by candlelight. The lighting and shadows also play a big part in heightening your anxiety by either hiding something in the shadows with just the slightest glimpses visible, or by lighting a character to make them look as creepy as possible (the final episode thrives on that). The score by Taylor Stewart and Andrew Grush is sparingly used, but it works well when it shows up, as do the visual effects for the more supernatural imagery.
Unfortunately, for all of the brilliant themes, stellar emotion, and incredible high points of Midnight Mass, which would usually make for a masterpiece of television, the show suffers from one very major flaw. I praised the conversations earlier for delving deep into heavy topics, but that doesn’t mean they don’t become excessive a large number of times. There are a lot of monologues in this show, and so many of them either could have been cut in half or, in a few cases, removed entirely. The points they make are gotten across as effectively as possible … only for the characters to keep talking for another few minutes, making what they’re ironically less moving and more preachy. The reason this is such a big problem is that it grinds the pacing to a halt and eats up so much unneeded time. I swear that if you trimmed down the dialogue to what’s most appropriate, you would probably shave off an hour of the show’s total run time. I’m really not exaggerating.
That’s not to say all of these diatribes are badly written. In fact, a lot of them are extremely poignant and necessary. But they’re once again padded, or at the very least guilty by association with the tedium of the rest. I’m not in any way against heavy amounts of talking. I am, however, against inefficient storytelling that actively takes away from the other aspects of the visual medium that is television. I love seeing the discipline of how a writer chooses just the right words to leave an impact on the viewer, and how a director mixes that writing with tools like sound, visuals, camerawork, and knowing how much needs to be stated and how much can speak for itself. Midnight Mass doesn’t seem to understand this, nor does it seem to realize how well it thrives at the slow-burn approach when these overlong speeches aren’t used. It’s so frustrating because literally everything else about the show is nearly perfect. It’s also surprising because I’ve never had this issue with a Mike Flanagan project. If I were to rewatch Midnight Mass, I would honestly fast-forward through some parts for this reason alone. The only saving grace, here, is that the performances are so good and what’s said is meaningful more often than not. The show just needed to know when enough was enough.
Midnight Mass still manages to succeed, thankfully, due to everything else that it absolutely nails. It’s a very clever blend of classic horror lore with biting – no pun intended, for those who have seen it – religious commentary that centers itself around its memorable characters. Everyone’s journey has something to say, and every character’s ultimate destination, whether happy or sad, feels like the exact right conclusion they should have had. The final few minutes had me genuinely emotional and have still stayed with me. I definitely recommend the show … but that recommendation comes with the giant asterisk of the tedious dialogue you’ll have to sit through. If you’re prepared to deal with that, you should find the whole experience very much worth it, like I did. But if you have a lower tolerance than me, I’d go in with caution. I’m still very impressed with what Mike Flanagan and his team managed to do here, and I’m once again excited that such a talent is working in the industry. If you believe the show is for you, you’ll likely find your faith rewarded.
Midnight Mass is now available to watch on Netflix.
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