Mike Flanagan’s “Midnight Mass” sees the talented writer/director go from adapting Stephen King to crafting a project that feels so vividly like one of the masterpieces of horror that even fans will wonder how they missed the book’s release. With elements of The Stand, The Shining, and Salem’s Lot, Flanagan’s study of religion and immortality sometimes revives memories of true midnight mass because it can be a little tiresome in his sermons with too many monologues. While there are some excellent performances and interesting themes, it turns out that Flanagan too, when removed from the plot of source material like The Haunting or Doctor Sleep, can be a little too verbose and repetitive for its own good. If this were a King novel, it would be one of the giant 900 pages often unfinished by readers, and those who read the novel will marvel at the ambition of the author’s efforts while also wondering if the editor might help.
Again like most of my youth sermons, “Midnight Mass” is filled with interconnected themes and overt symbolism. Flanagan plays with the dark side of religious scriptures, linking things like resurrection and drinking blood to different kinds of mythology. After all, horror and religion have a lot in common, often presenting the same themes of morality and the conquest of evil, just in different outfits. Some of Flanagan’s most ambitious elements here play with the idea that the Bible really is a horror story, while also weaving a very Kinglike theme into the fabric, especially the conflict between human responsibility and the idea that belief can take away all sin.
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Most of the “Midnight Mass” takes place in a slum island fishing community called Crockett Island. In fact, most of it took place in the decrepit church, St. Patrick’s, newly led by a young charmer named Pastor Paul (the absolutely fantastic Hamish Linklater, whose work here almost justifies his own appearance), a charismatic leader who has been sent to replace a man named Monsignor Pruitt. Coinciding with Pastor Paul’s arrival is the return of the island’s prodigal son, Riley (Zach Gilford), who has been jailed for four years after a drunk driving accident that killed a woman. In a very “The Haunting of Hill House” fashion, Riley is even instantly haunted by his victims, amplifying his need for some kind of redemption. Sinner and savior coming to Crockett Island at the same time feels like fate.
While Riley and Paul are the centerpiece of “Midnight Mass,” Flanagan fills the community with memorable characters, most of whom have suffered the kind of loss that brought them to church for guidance, including grief that prompted them to seek a higher purpose. Inside the world. Riley’s parents, Annie (Kristin Lehman) and Ed (Henry Thomas) are regular St. Patrick, but his old friend Erin (Kate Siegel) has a few more questions about the purpose of faith given his dark past. Squeaky Bev Keane (Samantha Sloyan) is the kind of committed soul who will follow religious figures down any dark path in the name of God, while a small group of unbelievers look skeptically at what happens under the cross in the middle of the night, including a doctor (Annabeth Gish) with a sick mother (Alex Essoe), the new sheriff
If you’re wondering how 29-year-old Essoe plays the mother of Annabeth Gish, you should be warned about some really uncertain parental make-up that’s somewhat necessary for the plot while also being slightly misguided. Without spoiling anything, it’s pretty clear from the start why younger players like Thomas and Essoe are playing a role beyond their age, but it’s never been less than disturbing. In fact, the effect of “Midnight Mass” is generally lower than that of the two “Haunting” projects. The show wasn’t heavy on them, so it’s a minor gripe, but when it exploded into action horror, it turned into more of a B-movie production than “Haunting.” Without breaking, Flanagan always does better with shadows in the dark than when he has to reveal them.
It’s also, believe it or not, more talkative than the two “Haunting” projects. Riley may be relatively stoic, but people definitely love talking to him, especially Pastor Paul and Erin, both of whom get lengthy speeches about religion, God, alcoholism, addiction, the afterlife, and more. It’s a heavy monologue show, one that could leave even those who want to shiver with cold. That’s not Flanagan’s game here—he’s more interested in philosophy and faith than ever, asking straight questions about morality and sin. Most of the long conversations are well written, interesting enough in their dialogue, but they also drain a lot of momentum from the passage, especially after the big reveal
What is the opposite of magic? Why do some believers find blessings in their lives while others only face torment? This is a deep and complex theme for the Netflix Original series, and a tribute to their agreement with Flanagan that something this complex exists. But I return to the comparison of the King. Even though I’m a huge fan, I can admit that the themes and concepts sometimes overwhelm the plot. He is prone to tangents that serve no greater purpose and has a habit of underlining his ideas rather than trusting the reader to dismantle them.
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