Religion and horror have never been known to be strange bedfellows. In fact, it can be argued they’re both cut from the same cloth, or at the very least that one can’t exist without the other. Mike Flanagan seems to find refuge in this idea as his latest Netflix series, Midnight Mass, turns to some of the Bible’s most terrifying passages to craft a 7-part story about how faith can turn the religiously devoted into desperate monsters trying to find meaning and purpose.
Midnight Mass is set in Crockett Island, a small piece of land separated from the mainland with a very reserved and quietly weary populace that has embraced their isolated experience. It’s the kind of place where despair and small-town politics breed a kind of people that can be easily manipulated by a charismatic enough figure. The island’s only saving grace is the common ground most of the inhabitants share on Sunday mornings: St. Patrick’s, a small catholic church.
Enter Father Paul (played by Hamish Linklater), a young and impassioned priest that’s ready to do whatever’s needed of him to bring more people into church, capital sins included. Problem is, Father Paul has brought something with him to the island, something monstruous, and it hungers.
While the series’ true north lies in the dangers of religious manipulation dressed as honest devotion, it isn’t content with just settling on the spiritual ailments plaguing the island’s residents. The story also explores grief, loss, the trials of being an outsider in a closed-off community, and alcoholism as problems religion can either alleviate or unintentionally replace with other addictions.
Who says people can’t get intoxicated by the promise of receiving God’s most coveted blessings? The metaphor’s there and it’s expertly woven into the fabric of the horror at the series’ core.
Flanagan, who directs each episode and either fully scripts or co-writes them, is largely successful at turning religion into Midnight Mass’ primary source of terror by resorting to fiery Bible verses to create powerful connections between the horrible things that happen on the island and the contents of the holy book.
Father Paul’s sermons invite literal interpretations of some of Catholicism’s most potentially gruesome practices, if taken word for word. Deciphering this allows viewers to slowly piece together some of the story’s secrets and makes for some truly satisfying sequences where horror unfolds in new and inventive ways, especially when it comes to communion.
The setup and the character driven tempo of the story is where Midnight Mass excels. The island’s inhabitants only have themselves to contend with and it’s their willingness to either give in to the church or to question it that establishes the fear and tension surrounding Father Paul’s interest in turning Crockett Island’s inhabitants into fervent servers of God.
One thing sometimes gets in the way of Midnight Mass’ already dialogue-heavy plot: individual character monologues. People familiar with Flanagan’s work, especially those that saw The Haunting of Hill House (2018), know that the director likes his horror to be sentimental, heavy-handedly so. To achieve that, Flanagan resorts far too often to long-winded monologues about faith, life after death, and the many philosophical meanings of life and they can grind the story to a halt.
In Midnight Mass, monologues surrounding Father Paul’s sermons or those of a particularly sinister character called Bev Keane (played by Samantha Sloyan), a zealous Catholic that can give the Old Testament a run for its money, are particularly interesting and intense. They’re some of the best parts of the story. Monologues relegated to what happens after death or about making amends are the opposite. They make their points early on and then they just keep going.
They open different avenues of conversation and feature some genuinely interesting ideas, but they’re too involved for their own good and they definitely overstay their welcome. Thankfully, the performances behind the characters delivering these monologues are excellent and they help sustain interest as the dialogue stretches on.
Rahul Kohli, who plays Sherrif Hassan, a practicing Muslim that has to navigate the town’s racism while also being the only resident that’s not Catholic in Crockett, does an admirable job of delivering each line with a force that commands attention. The rest of the cast follows suit, but they only alleviate some of the problems inherent in these monologues.
The story’s reveals, on the other hand, make each development feel monumental and prop up some of its most interesting characters for a series of profoundly heart-wrenching moments that are sure to stick around well after the credits have rolled on the final episode.
Taken in as a whole, Midnight Mass can more accurately be described as a work of horror drama. Flanagan isn’t afraid to spend time with his characters exploring themes that aren’t rooted in terror every step of the way. He prefers his horror slow-cooked, but once certain pieces have been set and the time comes to let the darkness take over, very few filmmakers can conjure up horror as unsettling or as disturbing as the kind in Midnight Mass.