After riding high on the success of the 2018 psychological-horror series ‘The Haunting of Hill House’, Mike Flanagan disappointed fans by following it up with the mind-numbingly boring ‘The Haunting of Bly Manor’, another horror mini-series which came out in 2020. With ‘Midnight Mass’, Flanagan has finally decided to move away from the ‘haunted house’ trope, focusing on a different sub-genre in the horror realm. The 2021 Netflix mini-series is set in an obscure isolated island called Crockett, which has 127 inhabitants. The arrival of a new priest seems to herald a ‘new era of miracles’, with mysterious incidents of healing taking place all over.
One of the first things that will strike viewers is how Flanagan and team do not resort to shady dark shots. Nope. We have beautiful brief scenes of the great blue seas the island is surrounded by, a constant hum of birds flapping in the outdoors, and people living in regular sized houses, not sprawling bungalows with forgotten skeletons. ‘Midnight Mass’ almost feels like an intimate view of Island living, with generous glimpses into the lives and psyches of some of its residents.
Interestingly, the opening scene does not take place in Crockett at all, it starts with an accident in a big city in Illinois, Riley Finn (Zach Gilford), who is from Crockett, kills a young girl in a clear case of drunken driving. Riley returns to Crockett after spending 4 years in prison, but his parents are less than thrilled to learn that the former altar boy has turned into an atheist. Enter mysterious new priest in town, Father Paul, who claims he is the temporary replacement for the aged priest Monsignor Pruitt. The entire town had pitched in for the old man to visit Jerusalem, and according to Paul, Pruitt fell sick on the trip and is recovering at a mainland hospital. Funny how nobody is curious enough to make as much as a phone call, but well, we’ll let that pass. But it’s evident from the very first time we are introduced to Father Paul – there is something off about him.
Just like Flanagan’s previous work, the casting team has done a solid job on each character, and fans of his previous work will recognize some familiar faces (Flanagan seems to have favorites). Kate Siegel is low-key radiant as the pregnant Erin Greene, who is also a teacher at the local school and used to be Riley Finn’s ex-girlfriend. Kristin Lehman is almost unrecognizable as Annie Flynn, Riley’s mom and exudes a warm motherly aura, with a dash of religious fervor. Henry Thomas was all okay as Riley’s dad Ed Flynn. Hamish Linklater as Father Paul is interesting, flawlessly managing to switch between a trance-like state of a devout man while delivering a sermon and a nervous wreck who isn’t sure of his purpose. One cannot omit mentioning Robert Longstreet, who plays the town reject/drunk called Joe Collie, who is also responsible for crippling Leeza (Annarah Cymone) a young girl in a hunting ‘accident’ – it’s these two actors who have the first cathartic scene in the series, an emotional confrontation which might move ‘movie criers’ to tears. From the ‘useless trash’, Joe manages to burrow a place in the viewer’s heart.
Let’s move to the series’ biggest villain, Bev Keane, a religious self-righteous spinster (and a total Karen), who is played with such cold-perfection by Samantha Sloyan, you’ll absolutely hate her. Every time Bev appeared on screen, I wanted somebody to scream ‘bitch’ at her and stab her to death. Rahul Kohli gets to be the only Muslim working adult in Crockett, he is Hassan, the new sheriff in town with a teen son. Flanagan smugly uses Hassan’s character to tackle the subtle bigotry Muslims face from Karens like Bev. He also often juxtaposes the atheist Riley with the God-fearing Paul, to give us sharp logic versus faith debates that are calm yet fiery.
Flanagan and team try to pack in a lot of themes, but they don’t dwell too deep into them, like how an oil-spill is blamed for dwindling population of the coastal Crockett. The oil-spill doubles up as a metaphor for not just the corruption of the ocean waters but of the slow moral decay of the Islanders. As far as the supernatural elements are concerned, the first 3 episodes have very few of them. Flanagan slowly drums up the horror, giving viewers only half-a-second glimpses of a sinister demon/ghost looming over the island. But there is one bloody good twist in there, which a lot of viewers won’t see coming (I didn’t), even though it’s sort of foreshadowed.
While the pace is slow throughout, it only gets a little overbearing from episode 4 onward, where the characters become excessively chatty and philosophical. At one point, it feels like the makers are treating viewers with kid-gloves, because they over-explain most things. The script-writing team however deserves applause for dialogues that feel like real conversations. The long talks between various characters are intelligent, insightful, but it’s like the writers don’t know when to end them.
Most of the focus is on these complex characters and their interactions. Regular horror fans who like a lot of ghosts and demons in their stories will be left disappointed – if you thought ‘Hill House’ didn’t have enough ‘scary moments’, this one has even less. Bev Keane, the human villain is the most evil thing in ‘Midnight Mass’, not the actual demon. The climax does descend into chaos and has some chilling/gory scenes. Given the build-up, one would have preferred an even crazier/bloodier end.
Conservative Christian viewers might take offense with this tale, which is a biting commentary on the blind beliefs of the religious – if a wolf wears sheep-skin, says the right words, the entire flock can be led to their fall. Especially since there’s a generous amount of clever Biblical parallels made to explain things that should ideally make people dial the cops or at least the press. In the last two episodes of the series, things get a little too convenient for the plot, and even the smarter characters fail to take decisive actions, making it irksome. So the plot loosens towards the end. All that said, ‘Midnight Mass’ still makes for a intriguing watch, with minimal ‘tried & tested’ tropes of the horror genre.
It’s a 7.5/10 from me.
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