REVIEW: Midnight Mass (2021 – TV Series)

Hamish Linklater as Father Paul Hill in MIDNIGHT MASS — Photo: Netflix.

Series Created & Directed by Mike Flanagan (The Haunting of Hill House; Doctor Sleep) — Available on Netflix.

At this point, I feel like Mike Flanagan is becoming a master of horror. I don’t think it happened over night, though. I think his output was fairly consistent in the beginning, but the latest works in his oeuvre are just outstanding. While I think Oculus, Ouija: Origin of Evil, and Hush were all right, I think Gerald’s Game, Doctor Sleep, and his Netflix shows (The Haunting of Hill House and The Haunting of Bly Manor) are all great must-watch horror films or shows. I think he has this ability to find beauty in even some of his more frightening works, and that is also true of his latest horror series, Midnight Mass, which I think is pretty much on par with the truly excellent Hill House.

Mike Flanagan’s Midnight Mass takes place on the relatively remote Crockett Island, and primarily follows its main character Riley Flynn (played by Zach Gilford), who is out on parole after having served four years in prison for a drunk driving accident. After returning to the island that he grew up on — and which is home to his parents and his little brother — Riley re-introduces himself to the tight-knit community on Crockett Island. Though its sheriff — Sheriff Hassan (played by Rahul Kohli) — is Muslim, this island has a dedicated Catholic community spearheaded by its missing priest Monsignor Pruitt, an 80 year old priest who, at the outset of the show, is expected to return from a trip to Israel.

However, when Pruitt doesn’t return with the ferry that he was expected to arrive on, the fanatical Bev Keane (played by Samantha Sloyan) inspects his home, she runs into Father Paul Hill (played by Hamish Linklater), a dark-haired and much younger priest. Father Paul Hill says that he has been sent to replace Pruitt for the time being, as he is currently in hospital. Meanwhile, Riley is still trying to figure out how to make a new life for himself, as well as go to the Alcoholics Anonymous-meetings that are a condition to his parole. Just as he is trying to re-insert himself into the tight-knit community of Crockett Island, a shocking miracle happens during a sermon that sends the entirely island into a frenzy. Is it actually a miracle? And what exactly is feasting on the wildlife, and spying on the people of the island, at night?

Let’s talk about tone and ‘scares’ in horror series. Fans of his Netflix shows may remember that, to some, Hill House and Bly Manor did not feel entirely similar. I do know people that think Bly Manor, which I personally loved, was not ‘scary enough,’ when compared with Hill House. A few caveats need to be made to such criticisms, though. First of all, even though they are from the same anthology series, Bly Manor was a gothic romance, whereas Hill House was a more straightforward horror show, even though it, too, focused on interpersonal drama. Second of all, unlike with Hill House, of which Flanagan directed the entirety, Mike Flanagan only wrote and directed a single episode of Bly Manor.

With Midnight Mass, Flanagan was in the director’s chair for all of the series’ seven episodes, and, to be clear, I think that Midnight Mass — though concerned with relationships, faith, guilt, alcoholism, sobriety, and self-control and so much more — is absolutely a horror show. I won’t reveal its great genre-specific surprises, but, rest assured, that it is a horror show with Flanagan’s own signature touches. I think fans of both Bly Manor and Hill House will be pleased with Midnight Mass.

Though there are a couple of intrusive jump-scares very early on in the show, they are telegraphed and they serve a purpose. Later in the show, the show is less reliant on those tricks, as the show, sort of, morphs into something that had been bubbling just under the surface. This revelation will be very satisfying for genre-fans, and it is a very horror-specific interpretation of the corruptibility of a community and its beliefs, which is one of the shows central themes. It’s genuinely scary to watch deeply pious people lead their community astray like some do here.

Flanagan’s direction is patient, assured, and caring, and I think it is also clear that he has a love for the material. Midnight Mass is a thoughtful horror series — and even a slow-burn — that takes its time to set up its little world’s tight-knit community with thorough arguments about sobriety, religious beliefs, and how one should teach religion in the classroom. Now, I do think that Flanagan’s insistence on slow-zooms while characters monologue for quite a bit of time will test some viewers, but that is the kind of show he has created (and some of these monologues are really meaningful, from my perspective). But once you reach the third episode, I think the vast majority of horror fans will be won over. This mixture of very specific horror sub-genres and contemplative or meditative ruminations on the meaning of this, that, or the other just works really well, even though I would say that the final monologue in the show is not as impactful as I think its visuals are.

What struck me very early on in the series was that Riley Flynn, who, early on, appears to be the show’s protagonist, is a surprisingly understated character. This allows for the ensemble cast of characters to shine more brightly, which is a strength of the show. Zach Gilford is solid as Riley, but I found great joy in so many different performances here. Kate Siegel, Flanagan’s spouse, is predictably great here, as she brings a compassion and a vulnerability to the show that helps to make her scenes with Gilford leap off the page.

There are several scene-stealers in the cast, but, in reality, I also think there are a couple of actors that manage steal the show from its entryway character. This is especially true for Hamish Linklater and Samantha Sloyan, but also for Rahul Kohli, who is the focal-point of two-or-three of the show’s most memorable scenes. I’m going to think about his tête-à-têtes with Samantha Sloyan’s character for quite some time (especially the classroom scene). Sloyan is incredible as the frustrating fanatic Bev Keane, who reminded me of both Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton’s character from the Harry Potter-films) and Marcia Gay Harden’s Mrs. Carmody from Frank Darabont’s The Mist. That brings me to Hamish Linklater, who, I think, is just outstanding as the enigmatic priest that is very clearly hiding something. I’ve never seen Linklater or Sloyan better. Finally, I also want to mention Robert Longstreet, who essentially plays the town drunk. I think Longstreet is the definition of a scene-stealing character actor. He, too, is terrific here.

One of the best shows of the year, Mike Flanagan’s evidently deeply personal Midnight Mass is yet another fantastic horror-focused project from a rising master of horror. His series clearly evokes Stephen King, but also other unmistakable influences. It has some great hidden delights for genre-fans, but the thing about Midnight Mass that I love the most is that Flanagan has made a truly terrific horror show that somehow still, in pivotal moments, has the ability to feel comforting without, to me, ever feeling hokey. Now, that takes a special talent.

A-

– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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