Midnight Mass (2021)

Be Not Afraid.

Horror auteur Mike Flanagan is already closely identified with Stephen King, having helmed adaptations of Gerald’s Game (2017) and Doctor Sleep (2019). His latest, Netflix’s seven-part horror miniseries, Midnight Mass, is not a King adaptation, but it’s a riff. You can feel the influence of King’s better small-town horror novels in every shot, character, and scene. That’s no bad thing. I’d characterize the relationship between Midnight Mass and Stephen King’s oeuvre as similar to the connection between John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness (1994) and the works of H.P. Lovecraft. Sometimes the best adaptation is no adaptation at all but a loving and respectful homage.

‘Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.’

Set on the small fishing community of Crockett Island, Midnight Mass kicks off with two arrivals in town. One is a return: Riley Flynn (Zach Gilford) is back after a four-year stretch in prison for killing a girl while drink driving, the former venture capitalist now back in his childhood room under his parents’ (Kristin Lehman and Flanagan good luck charm Henry Thomas) roof. He’s wracked with guilt, lost his faith, and trying to keep it on an even keel.

It’s the faith element that is foregrounded; the island folk are deeply religious, and their society seems to revolve around their local Catholic Church. For sure, there’s the odd atheist and even a Muslim sheriff, Omar Hassan (Rahul Kohli), but the vast majority are very much down with the body and blood of Christ. Which brings us to our new arrival, young, charismatic Father Paul Hill (Hamish Linklater), who is a temporary replacement for the town’s beloved but elderly Monsignor Pruitt.

I pray you have the strength for what comes next.

Other characters are introduced and built up as the story requires, and it’s worth singling out a few. Kate Siegel, Flanagan’s wife, and muse is Erin Greene, Riley’s high school sweetheart and now single, pregnant, and working as a teacher. Michael Trucco and Crystal Balint are the mayor and his wife, Wade and Dolly Scarborough, whose daughter Leeza (Annarah Cymone) is confined to a wheelchair. The reasons for that have something to do with the self-loathing town drunk, Joe Collie (Robert Longstreet). As an aside, I come from a town called Collie, and that’s a damn good name for an alcoholic. And then there’s devout, stuck-up busybody Bev (Samantha Sloyan), a socially manipulative church lady. Annabeth Gish is on hand as the town doctor. It’s a packed ensemble.

Flanagan introduces the supernatural element gradually. A mention of a big bird being seen flying at night. A sighting of someone presumed to not be on the island. And then, at the close of the first episode, hundreds of dead cats scattered along the beach, their throats torn. In episode 2, Father Paul encourages Leeza to get up out of her wheelchair and walk — and she does, to the amazement of the witnessing parishioners, setting off a growing religious mania on the island. It’s a slow burn, and it works, and it isn’t until episode three that we realize what novel Flanagan has been reading, and now I must delve into spoiler territory …

Those who seek salvation, will receive it.

It’s ‘Salem’s Lot.

The goddamn priest is a vampire, and he’s putting his cursed blood into the communion wine. He is Monsignor Pruitt, vampirized on a holiday in the Holy Land and returned to spread the new gospel — and the covenant is still written in blood.

I love that so much. That’s such a great hook to hang a story off of, and you can pivot in a number of different directions from that basic idea. Flanagan doesn’t quite have the tonal chops of King at his best, but what he gives us is a gory “vampires are taking over the town” story combined with a very talky meditation on the nature of faith, good and evil, all that jazz. Unfortunately, especially in the back half, that second aim manifests as a series of increasingly lengthy monologues from various characters as they try to articulate their relationship with God, or lack thereof, frequently bringing a pretty great horror series to a screeching halt. I’m here for this thematic material, mind you, I just think there might have been a better way to dramatize these various theological crises.

‘I absolve you from your sins.’

But it’s okay because elsewhere, Flanagan is so goddamn good, I’m kind of in awe. He’s a bit of a horror classicist, this guy, and one thing I admire is the way he cleaves closely to accepted vampire canon to tell his story; he doesn’t need to twist the legend to make it work for his purposes because everything he needs is already there. It’s the way he plugs vampirism into Catholic dogma and small-town social dynamics that really sings. There are moments where you can really see Flanagan taking it to the next level; a montage set to Neil Diamond’s “Holly Holy” might be the best single thing he’s done yet, and a scene where Leeza confronts Collie is a jaw-dropper.

Flanagan is one of these filmmakers you know you’re going to be watching for the rest of your life and knowing that means you’re sensitive to his development as an artist. Midnight Mass feels like a major step forward for him, creatively speaking. A little too much speechifyin’ robs it of a perfect score but mark my words, this is fantastic Halloween season viewing for horror fans.

4 / 5 – Recommended

Reviewed by Travis Johnson

Midnight Mass is currently streaming on Netflix