Review: MIDNIGHT MASS, Auteur Mike Flanagan Mixes Horror and Drama in Equal Measure

Lead Critic; San Francisco, California
Review: MIDNIGHT MASS, Auteur Mike Flanagan Mixes Horror and Drama in Equal Measure

When someone sits down to write the the history of cinematic horror covering the last decade, three names will likely take the most amount of space on the printed page or the digital equivalent: 

James Wan, one of the key creative forces behind three franchises (Saw, Insidious, and The Conjuring). Uber-producer Jason Blum (Paranormal Activity, The Purge, Halloween, The Invisible Man), the micro-budget pioneer who’s helped to usher in a new Golden Era of Horror.

And Mike Flanagan, a remarkably prolific filmmaker who’s directed eight films since 2011 and, in a mutually beneficial partnership with Netflix, three well-received series, The Haunting of Hill House in 2018, The Haunting of Bly Manor two years later, and now Midnight Mass, possibly, if not probably, his most personal long-form work to date. It might also be Flanagan’s most thought-provoking, compelling contribution to the genre and long-form, serial storytelling.

At least initially, the decade-in-the-making Midnight Mass centers on Riley Flynn (Zach Gilford), an ex-felon returning home to a small, isolated island off the coast of New England. Born and raised on Crockett Island, a rundown, economically depressed community with a current population (not including Riley, apparently).

Like countless, restless residents before him, Riley left Crockett Island to pursue one version of the American Dream (e.g., wealth, status), but lost everything after a fatal lapse in judgment left a young woman dead and Riley financially ruined and in prison for manslaughter. Returning home isn’t so much a new start for Riley as it is the only place in Riley’s world that will accept someone as obviously tainted or disgraced as Riley.

Riley’s experiences, not to mention (but we’ll mention it, anyway), his struggle with the overwhelming weight of guilt for his actions leads him not toward the Christian God (Roman Catholic edition) as away from it, setting up one of Midnight Mass’s overarching themes, the exploration of sin, faith, and redemption. For Riley, however, he’s chosen the opposite approach, giving up on religion, organized or otherwise, altogether.

In turn, that sets Riley, as flawed a protagonist as any in Flanagan’s expansive oeuvre, in increasing conflict and confrontation with Crockett Island’s new priest, Father Paul (Hamish Linklater), a temporary replacement as pastor for Crockett Island’s only religious institution, St. Patrick’s Church.

On an island defined by the rigid, inflexible rituals and rhythms of island life (e.g., fishing, church, inclement weather), Father Paul’s arrival creates an immediate, if subtle, sense of unease, dislocation, and disorientation among the island’s residents, including Riley’s parents, Annie (Kristin Lehman) and Ed (Henry Thomas), and Riley’s younger teen brother, Warren (Igby Rigney), though the Flynns, like everyone else on the island, eventually adapt to the new pastor and his invigorating, optimistic, empathetic sermons. Father Paul speaks to their concerns, anxieties, and fears.

Over time, however, Father Paul's fiery sermons divide the island’s residents, turning himself into a near messianic figure who must be followed without question, doubt, or opposition. That's made all the easier when miracles, inexplicable by their nature except through the prism of a counter-rational religion, start happening around the island.

It doesn’t end well for some, if not most of Crockett Island’s residents, of course. Midnight Mass wouldn’t be classified or described as “horror” if the early portents and omens, including a storm that leaves the mangled corpses of feral cats washed ashore to be picked clean by the island's seagulls, the hint of an animal or killer on a nearby island hunting those same cats and early on, Warren and his friends, or the mysterious appearance and disappearance of the St. Patrick’s absent pastor, Monsignor Pruitt, in the middle of the same storm.

Given the deep religiosity of the island’s residents and Father Paul’s increasingly dominant presence, there’s also the all-too-predictable hint of religious intolerance, bigotry, and hatred in the form of Crockett Island’s lone law enforcement officer, Sheriff Hassan (Rahul Kohli), an observant Muslim, and his teen son, Ali (Rahul Abburi).

Before, during, and even after Midnight Mass takes a predictable turn into full-blown horror filled with the obligatory violence, blood, and gore, Flanagan’s obsessive attention to character detail pays off handsomely. Long an acknowledged student of Stephen King, Flanagan takes a character first, story second, horror third approach, filling in the details, backgrounds, and backstories of his characters, giving them complex inner lives and realistic, psychologically reasonable behavior, all the more to create an inimitable bond between the characters on one side of the screen and the audience on the other.

When the bloodletting starts, it hits all the harder. Flanagan’s characters aren’t simply fodder, sleepwalking through their lives, awaiting whatever lurks, hunts, and haunts Crockett Island to separate their souls from their bodies. They're multi-dimensional characters whose fates we'll mourn at the appropriate time.

Flanagan’s unobtrusive, formalistic film style complements his scaled-down, bombast-free approach to character and story. That comes at a signifiant cost, of course. Flanagan asks a great deal of his audience in terms of time, patience, and concentration.

Given, however, Flanagan’s unqualified success with both The Haunting of Hill House, a free-form adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s seminal novel of the supernatural, and The Haunting of Bly Manor, an ambitious modernization of Henry James’s 19th-century novel, The Turn of the Screw, viewers are more likely to give Flanagan the benefit of the doubt. And when they do, they’ll find another richly rewarding, emotionally poignant series waiting for them.

Midnight Mass is now streaming on Netflix.

Midnight Mass

  • Mike Flanagan
  • Rahul Abburi
  • Crystal Balint
  • Matt Biedel
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Alex EssoeCrystal BalintHamish LinklaterKate SiegelKristin LehmanMatt BiedelMidnight MassMike FlanaganRahul AbburiRahul KohliZach GilfordDramaHorrorMystery

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