I went into Netflix’s Midnight Mass without even reading its plot, knowing that it was from my favourite horror filmmaker. Mike Flanagan takes the deepest of metaphysical and philosophical ideas that one could think of and throws them onto a horror backdrop. The result is the director’s best thought out and most personal work till date.
Riley Flynn (Zach Gildford) after recovering from alcoholism is fresh out of prison after 4 long years. He reluctantly returns home to Crockett Island, a place accessible only through ferries and home to a community of 127 people. After arriving, he resorts to some sort of normalcy in Erin Greene (Kate Siegel), who is struggling through her own problems. The poster of Se7en (Fincher) in his room foreshadows the broader themes of the show. There’s also a newly appointed priest, Father Paul (Hamish Linklater) and his number-one acolyte, Bev Keane (an eerily composed Samantha Sloyan), trying to make sense of some unusual happenings on the island, along with its other inhabitants. That’s all one needs to know before going into this transcending journey of 7 hours and 30 minutes. Mike Flanagan wrote, directed and created the show. The Netflix original limited series doesn’t have any title sequence, unlike most of its loud contemporaries; it’s clear Flanagan wants us to experience this as a long film, without any distractions. What I would tell you, however, is that don’t go expecting a The Haunting kind of experience. The screenplay here bears more resemblance to works of Paul Schrader on films such as The Last Temptation Of Christ (1988) and First Reformed (2018). It certainly has elements of The Stand (1994), The Shining (1980) and some other Stephen King inspired works. We’ve seen echoes of what’s here, in all of director’s earlier films, most notably during the first act of Doctor Sleep (2019). This is a very monologue-heavy show, but it never feels boring. In fact, it’s probably the most beautifully shot and presented film or series in the genre I’ve seen in years. The adroit wide shots and staging, combined with the perfect use of the background score, is used to build the unsettling tone. The limited use of ‘God’s eye view shot’ is done at just the right places. Every calculated artistic choice helps in hitting home some of the key themes present in the show: addiction, temptation and fundamentalism.
The main reason why the series works so well, is because Flanagan resists the temptation of opting for cheap jump-scares in order to keep the viewers hooked. He said in an interview how he wanted to explore this story since over a decade. The story is clearly personal to him, as he was an altar boy for twelve years. There’s a shot in episode three, where the camera zooms onto a painting while revealing something, paying homage to that unforgettable, spine-chilling last shot from The Shining. It’s evident how working on its sequel a couple years back might’ve influenced his filmmaking over here. But it’s not just the isolated backdrop of the island in the show which resembles the claustrophobic setting of the classic 1980 film. Even the psychological states of characters match that of Jack Nicholson’s character from that film.
The Netflix limited series isn’t aimed at providing you with cheap thrills and heart-thumping gore. There’s that too, don’t get me wrong. But Flanagan wants you to understand the context and his characters first. He lets the images induce psychic chaos within the viewers’ head. Some of the best horror elements work not when the viewers are shown something, but when they’re not. True horror lies in certain human tendencies that are often right in front of us, yet we keep looking for it in ghostly spirits. The show provides an ecstatically disorienting inversion of the reality. At the same time, it also makes us think about these timely issues which if not carefully observed and acted upon, could snap that very reality. Flanagan through his masterful storytelling, attempts to provide a response, if not an answer to these questions: What are dreams, if not fragments of our imagination? What are humans, if not stardust? Questions that are tailored for what will likely become the great dilemma of our age. The aesthetic caprices too, are tempered through the breathtaking (yet at times terrifying) cinematography and truly exceptional performances from the cast.
Great filmmakers recognise how cinema itself is a tool of bending the progression of time and making it seem a certain way, in order to portray complex ideas. Midnight Mass does that, by reflecting life itself. Mike Flanagan respects the individual’s personal relationship to God, but also wants us to think about these things for a second. Through the show, he’s emphasising more on the religious dogmas we tend to create and the fundamentalism which eventually sprouts out of it. The spiritual meaning expressed in style here, is deftly encapsulated in the beautiful visuals. I don’t remember the last time I felt so emotionally drained after watching a film or series in the genre. Midnight Mass was by far the most spiritually enlightening experience I’ve had in quite a long time. I can’t wait for what the director comes up with next.