In recent years, Mike Flanagan has become something of a super-star for fans of gothic tales full of heart. His two anthology limited-series, The Haunting of Hill House and The Haunting of Bly Manor, captured the love and loyalty of many a horror fan, and so his new venture, Midnight Mass, has garnered a great deal of anticipation. It’s also earned strong early praise from the likes of Stephen King and Scott Derrickson. I’m happy to say none of it was misplaced excitement or feigned praise. Midnight Mass is Flanagan’s most skillfully-constructed limited series yet, seven pensive and potent episodes that tell a fantastic story through both quiet and roar. It begins its story when two people, Riley Flynn (Zach Gilford) and Father Paul (Hamish Linklater), arrive on Crockett Island, an isolated community that holds a population of well under two hundred. Riley is a local man who left the island to become involved in the entrepreneurial life, but killed a woman due to drunk-driving. After serving a 4-year sentence, he returns to the island to live with his parents Annie (Kristin Lehman) and Ed (Henry Thomas) and his teenage brother Warren (Igby Rigney). The weekend of Riley’s return also marks the arrival of the new priest Father Paul, a replacement for the island’s elderly priest who fell ill after a trip to Israel and needs to recover on the mainland.
Midnight Mass is, in a word, phenomenal. Although it starts off just a little slow and low on scares, it’s simply taking its time building the community of characters and the sense that something is not right on the island. When the mystery begins to really unfold in the fourth episode, the series becomes a magnificent tour-de-force of storytelling and directorial skill. Although the series weaves in intelligent hints at the greater threat facing the community in the first few episodes, it does it deftly and subtly enough to leave plenty of surprises.
Fans of more realistic horror may find some snags along the way, however. Midnight Mass requires a notable amount of suspension of disbelief concerning characters’ motivations and their own ability to understand the situations they find themselves in. There are a few frustrating character and world-building choices that prove to be the only issues in an otherwise-flawless piece. Luckily for us, these weaker spots don’t stop it from remaining a tight, powerful limited series.
As evidenced particularly in The Haunting of Hill House, Flanagan loves monologues, and Midnight Mass is garlanded throughout with many of them. As the series goes on, with it comes more and more lengthy monologues that help illuminate the characters’ internal worlds, much like one might see in a play. At times, it feels like the monologues take up more space than back-and-forth dialogue. Although this requires some patience, the monologues fit Flanagan’s optimistic world-view. People trust each other, they want to be understood, they want to be seen and acknowledged, they’re willing to be vulnerable, and they have so much to share, so the monologues serve as a way of letting us in on these characters’ desires, fears, traumatic pasts, and hoped-for futures.
These monologues, and the overall emotional weight of the series, is carried by a fantastic cast that rises to meet the same quality of performances in The Haunting of Hill House. Although Zach Gilford of Friday Night Lights fame seems an unlikely choice for a gothic protagonist, his everyday groundedness and no-nonsense affect breaks open at times to be incandescent. Kate Siegel as Erin, an expecting mother, teacher, and Riley’s childhood friend, brings a stubborn hopefulness to some of the grimmest moments of the show. Samantha Sloyan turns in an excellent performance as the irritating Bev Keane, the island’s religious zealot who actively aggresses against others for their perceived sins. A truly generous, supportive ensemble piece, no one steals the show. Hamish Linklater as Father Paul, a much more obvious choice for a gothic tale with his tall frame and secretive demeanor, might be the closest to a show-stopper, but his chemistry with the rest of the cast elevates their performances along with his own.
Usually, “religious horror” in Western cinema is shorthand for Christian (specifically Catholic) iconographic tales at the expense of other belief systems. Oftentimes, caught up in the images and traditions of Catholicism, U.S. horror erases other religions and doesn’t directly include the stories of folks from traditions negatively impacted by colonial Christianity. Midnight Mass actively works against this through the series’ inclusion of a Muslim man, the town sheriff Hassan (Rahul Kohli), and his teenage son Ali (Rahul Abburi). After mysterious and seemingly-miraculous occurrences begin at St. Patrick’s Church, Ali becomes interested in attending, causing his father to try to articulate his concerns with the island’s brand of Christian fervor. Through Sheriff Hassan and Ali, the series sheds light on the aggressions that Muslims, particularly Muslims of colour, face in America and the emotional management they must perform to live in white, Christian-dominated communities.
Although many will find cause to complain Midnight Mass is inherently anti-religious (particularly anti-Catholic), that would be a shallow reading. It is a critical piece, but not an entirely-dismissive evaluation of every aspect of religious practice, including some found in Christianity. It’s this balance that helps Midnight Mass avoid feeling solely like a one-note condemnatory morality tale. Instead, it’s a story that uses strong characters and fantastical situations to explore many layers and manifestations of Christian and Muslim belief in the U.S.
Midnight Mass has no shortage of darkness and grief. It’s horror, no doubt. People suffer. They see and experience things no one should have to. And yet, the series is another piece of evidence that Flanagan is no misanthrope. His and his co-writers’ approach is still one that centres the human capability for great love and self-sacrifice even as those attributes co-exist in communities of selfishness and power-hunger. In Midnight Mass, people transgress important social responsibilities and hurt one another. Indeed, the series begins with Riley’s drunk-driving accident. And yes, the show has some of the most unsettling, depraved scenes you’ll see in television this year, but it never seems to fully root itself there. Although the series isn’t keen on a staunch defense of Catholicism, it is keen on exploring redemption, and love and how they can’t fully erase the past—nothing can—but they can bring comfort and connection despite it. Midnight Mass is a stunning, literary event for television, and one that will remain in conversations about horror narrative for many years.
Midnight Mass will stream exclusively on Netflix from September 24th
by Bishop V. Navarro
Bishop V. Navarro (they/she) is a poet, writer, and media studies scholar from Tampa, Florida. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of South Florida and currently pursues a PhD in Communication at USF. Her scholarly work examines boundary vulnerability in horror and science fiction media. You can find her on Twitter, Letterboxd, Instagram, and Tumblr @vnavarrowriter