Horror has always been a genre that’s been defined by its ability to explore the darker side of human nature and the unknown. Mike Flanagan, director of “Hush,” “Oculus,” and Netflix’s upcoming “The Haunting of Hill House” series, is no stranger to exploring these themes and turning them into compelling narratives.
Mike Flanagan is one of the most successful horror directors in recent years. His career-best work, Hush, was released in 2016 and features a deaf protagonist who must fight for her life after being terrorized by a killer.
So far, Mike Flanagan’s marriage to Netflix has been a success. Gerald’s Game was a fantastic Stephen King adaptation, The Haunting of Hill House set the streaming world on fire, and The Haunting of Bly Manor offered gothic romance a much-needed focus. Flanagan’s success with Netflix, as well as his famous Doctor Sleep adaption, has established him as one of the greatest names in contemporary horror, and has set the bar impossibly high for his next project. That project is Midnight Mass, a TV series created by Flanagan long before Hill House, and it manages to surpass even the most lofty of expectations. Flanagan’s work is arguably the best of his career, with a complex and thought-provoking study of religion.
Midnight Mass recounts the tale of Crockett Island, a northern island hamlet where everyone knows everyone and everyone attends the same church, St. Peters. On the day when Monsignor Pruitt, the church’s senior priest, is due to return from a trip to Israel, a younger man of the cloth arrives in his place, saying that Pruitt has become sick and that he would be taking over until the old man returns. Father Paul (Hamish Linklater) infuses the island with a fresh vitality and inexplicable miracles, gradually leading the flock to cling to his every word. It’s obvious straight immediately that this young priest is hiding some deadly secrets, but most of the town’s inhabitants are oblivious to the warning signals because of their faith.
There are many more stories presented throughout Midnight Mass, and most of the main characters have their own storylines that are as as intriguing as the overall story. After completing a four-year term for murdering a young girl in a drunk driving accident, the town’s black sheep (Zach Gilford) comes home. Kate Siegel, his high school sweetheart, is pregnant and attempting to be a better mother than she was. There’s also the town’s new sheriff (Rahul Kohli), a Muslim who is often criticized by the locals. Each of these individuals is fully developed and lived in, yet their tales all have a place in the larger scheme of things.
Faith and wickedness; love and hatred are all part of the larger picture. Every coin has two sides, and here is where Flanagan truly digs into the concepts of religion and the role it plays in society. The most heinous crimes are often done in the name of religion, especially the Christian faith here in America, in horror (and, unfortunately, in our actual world). That evil, on the other hand, generally runs counter to what those principles are meant to be about. Over time, religion has bred evil. However, when the impact of corruption and extremism is removed, the principles and teachings are typically focused at promoting love and peace to people around you.
When you flip the coin, you have an equal chance of landing on either side, but Flanagan isn’t concerned about the outcome. He concentrates his efforts during the moment the coin is suspended in mid-air, flipping so quickly that one side cannot be distinguished from the other. They merge into a single entity. Despite what their leaders occasionally encourage them to do, not all religious individuals at Midnight Mass are wicked. People who do not attend church are not immune from responsibility.
This is a very tough line to walk, one that many have attempted yet failed to do so. Flanagan nails it, with a lot of assistance from his stalwart supporting cast. Throughout Mass, almost every single member of this ensemble is a force to be reckoned with. As Father Paul, Linklater is at his finest, and the more deranged the figure gets, the brighter he shines. Despite Linklater’s frightening shadow hanging over the whole series, he manages to imbue Paul with a humanity that seems nearly impossible to accomplish. By the end of Linklater’s arc, you’ll understand that each and every move he took over the course of the seven episodes was important and selected for a particular reason. It’s the sort of show that requires many viewings to really appreciate.
I could write a similar paragraph on each and every actor in this series and their outstanding performances. With his depiction of Riley Flynn, Gilford rips your heart out and replaces it. Siegel is a force of nature (as usual) with a pair of profoundly dramatic monologues that, if such a thing existed, would play on repeat in an acting hall of fame. Kohli’s sensitivity and perfect mustache in Bly Manor sparked some surprising emotions online (which his denim jacket and fatherly wisdom in Mass will undoubtedly amplify), but it’s the nuances he delivers to these characters that deserve the spotlight. He’s always restrained, yet he’s never out of control in a situation. Samantha Sloyan will draw out a fury in you that you may not have realized existed, while Annabelle Gish is a picture of stoic elegance. I could go on and on about how wonderful everyone in this cast is.
It is Flanagan’s handling of the characters as both writer and director that drives Midnight Mass home, no matter who the character is or how wonderfully they are portrayed. The key to making it all work is empathy. Whether they’ve spent every day at church or never gone, each individual is equally valued in God’s sight, as one character boldly points out in the conclusion. According to the Bible, God sees everyone the same way, and Flanagan sees the Crockett inhabitants the same way. Each of these characters is handled with the greatest respect and kindness, regardless of their flaws or crimes. The series spends time with them, allowing you to learn not just who they are, but also how and why they came to be where they are. Because the objective isn’t simply to hear what they’re saying, but to see their experience develop so you can better understand where they’re coming from, the camera will dwell in on a character for longer than you’d anticipate.
This idea may not have worked as effectively in the hands of a lesser director. It’s simple to turn the church into a terrifying place. It’s simple to refer to sinners as “sinners.” Flanagan isn’t interested in figuring out who is good and who is bad, which would be easy in an universe where he is the only creator and god. Midnight Mass, rather than focusing on the horrors, eventually leads to a place of hope and light, utilizing empathy and love as a guide through the darkness.
5 out of 5 stars
On September 24th, Netflix will release Midnight Mass.
- oculus film