While no one settles in for a horror series hoping for a feelgood romp, Netflix’s latest is grim even by the genre’s bleak standards. The Midnight Club is set at the Brightcliffe Hospice for teens, where its young residents are living out their final days with a terminal diagnosis. In order to sneak in a bit of teenage folly before they die, they also meet at night to tell scary stories.
Inspired by the work of Christopher Pike, whose YA mysteries have proved a gateway drug for many budding horror fans, this late-night storytelling allows the show to draw on Pike’s entire bibliography, which creators Mike Flanagan and Leah Fong then stitch together. It’s a nice premise – so much horror relies on the suspense of its characters surviving past the end credits, but here we begin with death assured – yet it turns out to create an uneven patchwork.
The Midnight Club is Flanagan’s fourth Netflix series. His first forays breathed new life into the slasher genre by terrorising a deaf woman in Hush, and sex in Gerald’s Game built to a degloving scene that nearly broke the internet. Having pleased the streaming overlords, Flanagan got to create his own sub-genre, with horror mini-series rooted in the literature of Shirley Jackson, Henry James and Stephen King, with Edgar Allan Poe-inspired The Fall of the House of Usher expected next year. The Haunting of Hill House (Jackson) was a triumph, but The Haunting of Bly Manor (James) was weighed down by bland sentimentality. Occasional missteps aside, Flanagan’s reverence for the literature from which his work derives keeps this Pike tribute intriguing throughout.
The performances are uniformly excellent: unable to rely on his regular cast of players, Flanagan has assembled a new crop of young talent to play the dying teens. Iman Benson is Ilonka, who was on her way to an Ivy League college when she got her diagnosis. Though resolved to spend her final days at Brightcliffe a glimmer of hope remains, and she cannot resist the help of Samantha Sloyan’s sinister local naturalist, who seems to have emerged from Goop headquarters by way of Salem. Never has someone been so menacing while brandishing a blueberry.
The other residents at first seem like a morbid Breakfast Club, with familiar teen stereotypes, though of course all is not as it appears with Igby Rigney’s dreamy boy-next-door Kevin, William Chris Sumpter’s quick-witted Spence, or Annarah Cymone’s naive Sandra. But even the best among them cannot reach the beguiling heights of TikTok star Ruth Codd’s screen debut as nihilist rebel Anya (Flanagan has wisely snapped her up for House of Usher). The young actors prove adept at primal screams and heartwrenching monologues, but those longing for the regular Flanagan stars should not despair: his favourites are sprinkled throughout in delicious cameos.
No amount of screen presence can detract from the narrative being an overstuffed mess in need of a purge. Every episode, we spend time in the worlds created by the characters when they tell stories at night, but none (save perhaps Anya’s doppelganger nightmare The Two Danas) is as interesting as the events taking place at Brightcliffe. The series at first manages a balance between the two layers of fiction, but maddeningly tips the scale to luxuriate in the heavy-handed allegories of the stories they tell. After watching Sumpter deliver a devastating speech to his estranged mother that expertly walks the line between melodrama and melancholy, to subsequently see him flattened in a lame sci-fi concept is infuriating.
The characters criticise each other’s stories, breaking the fourth wall to sneer: “Anyone can bang pots and pans behind someone’s head. That’s not scary, that’s just startling. And it’s lazy as fuck.” But while The Midnight Club isn’t lazy, simply acknowledging a reliance on well-worn tropes isn’t the same as subverting them. Pike’s books are known for their bold conclusions, but the finale of The Midnight Club proves its weakest entry, frantically adding new threads to set up future episodes the premise doesn’t justify. Given that death was assured from the start, it’s a shame The Midnight Club refuses to embrace the power of a dignified end.