Director: Mike Flanagan
Writers: Mike Flanagan, James Flanagan, Elan Gale, Jeff Howard, Dani Parker
Cast: Hamish Linklater, Zach Gilford, Kate Siegel, Rahul Kohli, Samantha Sloyan, Annabeth Gish
Cinematographers: Michael Fimognari, James Kniest
Streaming on: Netflix
One of Mike Flanagan’s most striking talents is his ability to evoke the atmosphere of a ghost story long before the first ghoul even makes an appearance. The characters of Midnight Mass, his seven-episode Netflix series, are each haunted by the spectres of shame, guilt, past sins and regrets. Crockett Island, their 127-member coastal community, is a ghost town, many of its former residents having abandoned their homes following a local oil spill and dwindling fish catch. The ones who are left are occasionally frightened by a shadowy figure that they glimpse outside their windows, and much more frequently fearful of what they see when they look inwards — vicious cycles of addiction, apathy and isolation that they’re desperately trying to escape.
The big frights take their time to arrive as the series gradually immerses you into the rhythms of the villagers’ lives first. Little details, like the church board missing the letter ‘A’ and spelling out ‘mass’ as ‘M4SS’ or the annual community potluck, at which drink tickets to be exchanged for alcohol are viewed as a rite of initiation into adulthood, make this world and its inhabitants feel real and familiar. The series begins with the return of Riley Flynn (Zach Gilford), an anguished Crockett Island native released after a four-year stint in prison. Soon after, a kindly new priest, Fr. Paul Hill (Hamish Linklater), moves to town, his presence coinciding with a series of miracles. Unnerving only in small doses initially, the show eventually coalesces into a fiery explosion of religious fanaticism and cult sacrifice.
Midnight Mass borrows from classic Biblical iconography and parables to create myths of its own. The reappearance of Fr. Paul is staged like the resurrection of Jesus, both walking out of their cave tombs into the sunlight. Hundreds of dead cats wash ashore like a plague from the Book of Exodus. Riley himself is the Prodigal Son figure. As the series progresses, it becomes clear that there’s more to these Biblical allusions than originally meets the eye. They’ve been cleverly, if perversely, reworked to showcase the darker aspects of organised religion. The resurrected Fr. Paul is far from Christlike and the miracles he performs at Crockett Island come to bear the weight of curses. This blurring of the sacred and the profane is used to illustrate a powerful point — by the end of the show, residents blinded by fanaticism can no longer tell the difference between a demon and an angel. Recurring top shots make the town appear like a miniature model, as if emphasising its cosmic insignificance and designating its inhabitants the playthings of a cruel God.
Organised religion lends itself well to the horror genre, the comforting familiarity of its rites and rituals in stark contrast to the fear of the unknown that it evokes, like what happens after we die. Midnight Mass uses this framework to conduct an in-depth investigation of what faith in a higher power really entails. Does belief in a larger divine plan become a convenient excuse to abdicate personal responsibility? Does God make allowances for crimes committed in service of a larger good? It’s fascinating to watch Riley question rote religious platitudes, even if there are no easy answers to be arrived at. Each time he and Fr. Paul debate, they’re positioned on opposite sides of the frame, the man of faith and the atheist armed with their opposing viewpoints. Just as compelling to watch is Beverly Keane (Samantha Sloyan), a sanctimonious school teacher who hides her zealotry under a veneer of polite neighbourliness. She skilfully wrests the upper hand from whoever she’s talking to by selectively interpreting the scriptures to suit her agenda.
Many of the show’s frequent theological conversations, however, play out between no more than two characters, with each monologuing at length. This means that by episode 4, even the beauty of the writing and the amount you’ve grown to care for these islanders can’t prevent this recurring staging from getting tiring, like too-long sermons your attention is bound to drift away from. What the show balances well is critiquing the shallowest, most self-serving aspects of institutionalised religion, without ever denouncing the idea of faith in higher power, instead repeatedly highlighting its ability to comfort and provide refuge.
Longtime fans of Flanagan’s work will spot many of his trademarks in Midnight Mass — long, unbroken takes, supernatural manifestations of personal guilt, bittersweet endings — but the show also finds the director at his most contemplative. It’s not so much terrifying as it is thoughtful. Often meandering and meditative, it uses its jumpscares sparingly, triggering dread of the more existential variety. If there’s anything the show proves, it’s that sometimes, a crisis of faith can be the scariest thing there is.