If The Haunting of Hill House took on grief and The Haunting of Bly Manor portrayed unrequited love as a form of horror, then Mike Flanagan’s new miniseries Midnight Mass finds horror in religion. If you follow the news, I don’t need to explain how monstrous situations become when people prioritise their religious faith over others. The 7-episode series slowly works its way into your hearts before exploding into one of the most emotionally charged final sequences I have seen this year.
Except for the brief moments in the beginning and somewhere in between, the entire chunk of Midnight Mass takes place on the isolated Crockett Island. The idyllic view of this place begins to crack when a priest, Father Paul Hill (Hamish Linklater), arrives at the location. Apart from him, there is another new arrival in the form of Riley Flynn (Zach Gilford). He has returned after spending four years in prison for a drunk driving accident. The mishap took a woman’s life, and she now appears in the form of a phantom whenever Riley goes to his bed at night. The show cheats us into a jump scare by cutting to this woman abruptly with that loud bang. It’s absolutely wrong. I am not a big fan of jump scares, but if a filmmaker wants to use them, they should reserve them for real threats. This woman is not a monster. She is just an extension of Riley’s grief and therefore does not deserve the jump scare treatment.
Anyway, back at St. Patrick’s Church – the only place of worship on the island – miracles begin to happen. The story spreads like wildfire when Leeza Scarborough (Annarah Cymone) suddenly gets up from her wheelchair and takes her first steps in the church after many years. Soon, people line up outside the father’s house and beg for another miracle. Their requests are not instantly granted, but everyone develops a strong trust in the power of Christ. For them, Father Paul becomes a god. Not everyone used to attend church earlier. After the Leeza incident, the place sees itself packed on Sundays or during any other events. Ed (Henry Thomas), Riley’s father, finds relief from his uncomfortable back, and Mildred Gunning (Alex Essoe), the local doctor’s mother Sarah (Annabeth Gish), is cured of dementia.
Yet, Riley still doesn’t believe in miracles. In his AA meetings with Father Paul, he tries to explain the events with scientific logic. Riley, Sarah, and some other people on the island don’t fully buy into the ongoing “magic” in front of them. However, they are in the minority and are surrounded by the likes of Bev Keane (Samantha Sloyan), a self-righteous member of the church, and Wade Scarborough (Michael Trucco), the mayor of the island and Leeza’s father, who have fervently surrendered themselves to problematic views that cannot be easily shaken. It’s a human tendency to accept inexplicable occurrences, provided they work in our favour. Only a few of us actually sit down and think logically about the “unfathomable phenomenon.” Wade stops Sarah from researching further into Leeza’s miraculous recovery. He wouldn’t have been so discouraging if research had been done earlier regarding the recuperation of her daughter. He has embraced the “unfathomable phenomenon” because it has given him happiness.
Flanagan is one of the few directors who believe actual horror grows from human actions. The ghouls, the ghosts, and demons are not always present in front of us (the monster in Midnight Mass has significantly less screen time). But you are regularly around other people, and some of them bring evil with them, sometimes literally in a big box. Bad decisions and perceptions engulf the island into a burning hell. The final scenes are lit with a raging fire, but it’s not the smoke that is released. Pain, love, and regret gush out from the screen. You don’t feel anger for any of the characters. You just feel sorry for every one of them. It’s heart-rending and one of the most powerfully evocative moments in a series ever.
In today’s social media age, it’s almost impossible to stay away from other’s opinions. I have seen many people on Twitter complaining that they don’t like how talkative Midnight Mass is. Thanks to them, I ended up forming the same opinion. I just couldn’t ignore how dialogue-heavy everything was. But I grew out of this problem. Yes, the conversations between Riley and Erin Greene (Kate Siegel), as they walk on the streets, are too clean and overly rehearsed (the long takes make it extremely evident). Their discussion on death, with the camera slowly moving in towards them, is too calculated, and Sheriff Hassan’s (Rahul Kohli) recollections of the past seem like an information dump. But gradually, I eased into the monologues. I started enjoying listening to the things the characters spoke to each other and realised how passionate their words were. There is no single main hero here as the show is about the characters, their thoughts, and their conduct. Midnight Mass is yet another spooky feather in Flanagan’s cap.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.