Midnight Mass review: A theological tingler more brooding than blood-curdling

·6 min read

Mike Flanagan's new miniseries Midnight Mass draws its horrors from the most read book in the world. You know the one: it's got locusts, plagues, beheadings, genocides, lakes of fire €" and parables about compassion for our fellow human beings. The Holy Bible sure puts most horror movies in the shade. But that doesn't mean they can't look to the Good Book for inspiration. In its fanfare, rituals and free interpretations are a treasure trove of striking imagery and language tailor-made for a genre that conjures doubt, rapture and cold sweats.

Over the course of history, the Holy Bible has been used and abused to justify mankind's worst sins, from slavery to colonialism to genocide. Framing the biblical text as a work of horror helps Flanagan show how scriptures are often interpreted by the religious to their own selfish ends. As Antonio remarks in The Merchant of Venice, "the devil can cite scripture for his purpose. An evil soul producing holy witness is like a villain with a smiling cheek." The "villain with a smiling cheek" in Midnight Mass is a zealot named Bev Keane (Samantha Sloyan), who hides her contempt for others behind a facade of piety. Bev is a woman so close to the flame she doesn't realise she lives in its darkness. Fanaticism makes her blind to those who live in its light. With faith comes a certain unknowability that the believers can never truly know God in entirety. With fanaticism comes the presumption that it can be known definitively. So, any search for divinity ends with dogmatism, says Flanagan.

After adapting Shirley Jackson and Henry James in The Haunting of Hill House and The Haunting of Bly Manor respectively, Netflix's in-house horror auteur grapples with his own personal demons in alcoholism and his troubled relationship with religion in Midnight Mass. Being a deeply personal project, Flanagan handles writing and directing duties across all seven episodes. Meaning there is a singular, unwavering vision that weaves the narrative together. Yet, at the same time, the show might have benefited from another voice, someone who could have improved upon Flanagan's words and ideas, without upstaging them. For the show reaches a peak in its fifth episode, and all the shine is dulled by its fiery finale, which offers little pay-off or salvation.

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Crockett Island, or as the locals affectionately call it "Crock Pot," is a shrinking fishing community. More and more people move to the mainland by the year. An overwhelming greyness colours the mood of the youth hoping for a way out and the sea enveloping the island. An oil spill three years ago pretty much blighted the fish supply, and devastated the local economy. Old wounds are healed and fortunes start to improve, quite abruptly, with the co-incidental return of a prodigal son and a replacement priest.

The priest, Father Paul (Hamish Linklater), has come to temporarily replace the sickly monsignor of the local Catholic church. Within days of his arrival, Leeza (Annarah Cymone), a wheelchair-bound teenager, starts to walk again. And the town begins to hope again. The overzealous believers, led by the aforementioned Bev, use the miracle to galvanise the masses. But not all are convinced it is a miracle. Like the prodigal son, Riley Flynn (Zach Gildford), who is a recovering alcoholic fresh out of prison. And Sheriff Hassan (Rahul Kohli), a Muslim policeman in a town mostly made up of Catholics. Undecided is Erin (Kate Siegel), the embodiment of moderatism who's also recently returned to the island after having left an abusive marriage.

In the wake of the miracles, the whole community of Crockett wrestles with their beliefs, and not all do it the same way. For some, faith transforms. For some, it wavers. Others, like Riley and the town doc Sarah Gunning (Annabeth Gish), remain steadfast in rationalising the miracles with science. When Father Paul starts an AA chapter in the town, the struggle to reconcile religious belief with scientific rationale can be heard in Riley's earnest arguments. In the process, AA's religious undertones too are questioned: why a support group meant to be accessible to everyone, including atheists, needs its members to put their faith in God's power? The way the town treats Hassan is another illustration of how religion can just as easily bring people together as it can alienate them. The town drunk calls him "Sharif," instead of "Sheriff." A teenager refers to his son Ali as "Aladdin." When they don't explicitly convey their dislike, they veil it behind performative friendliness, or other them with micro-aggressions.

We know Flanagan has always had an excellent eye for detail. In Midnight Mass, we learn he's got a great ear for dialogue and monologue too. On familiarising us with Crockett, the characters and their foibles in the first two episodes, he lets Father Paul, Riley and Erin launch into lengthy monologues as they grasp the bristling complexities of faith and death. The supernatural literalises the many issues within the community, adding stakes to the drama. In the earlier episodes, the anguish comes from imagining whatever divine or demonic force lurks beyond the frame. Even when we learn its identity, the anguish remains because there's a lot more going on than Flanagan is showing us, and not all of it good.

The church, usually a sanctuary, becomes the abyss. That sense of habitual comfort is destabilised by turning a place of refuge into one of torment. The horror does occasionally extend beyond the confines of the text and traditions of Catholicism. It also comes from survivor's guilt and the struggle of self-forgiveness. Riley is haunted each night by the memory of the young woman he killed in a drunk-driving accident. Once Riley lies down, the camera does a 90-degree axial tilt and cuts to her corpse, red-and-blue lights flashing on her face splintered with glass shards. It's a great example of how the show's scares lie in blurring the line between horrors imagined and inflicted.

Excuse its Jonestown-esque chaotic conclusion, and Midnight Mass still makes for quite a theological tingler. Though more brooding than blood-curdling, the series is hard to shake because it makes some pointed observations about faith, death, addiction, redemption and the folly of being human. And Flanagan's reputation as a horror filmmaker and showrunner continues to build in how he uses the genre framework to tackle fears that are both primal and profound.

Watch the trailer here

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