Mike Flanagan, the creative force behind The Haunting of Hill House and The Haunting of Bly Manor, returns with Midnight Mass, a new limited series on Netflix. Similar to his two previous series, Midnight Mass is a combination of earnest performances, thoughtful, introspective dialog and stealth horror elements. This time around, Flanagan has decided to de-emphasize the scary stuff, and the result is incredibly underwhelming, to the point where the series should have been titled Tedium.
Unlike his previous two series, Flanagan declines to scare us and instead spends nearly all of its run time on a) dialog that would feel right at home in a Philosophy 101 class and b) Catholic religious practices. I think it is the first horror series that feels like it was written for NPR. While the acting is fine, and there are a few disturbing scenes here and there, the overall effect I got from watching it was an overwhelming urge to check how much time was left. The only thing scary about Midnight Mass is how boring and self-satisfied it is. Not recommended.
Midnight Mass focuses on two people who left Crockett Island, only to return years later under a cloud. Riley (Zach Gilford) left the island to be a hot-shot big tech investor, and would end up spending four years in prison for vehicular homicide. Erin (Kate Siegel) left when her relationship with her mother became toxic. (She fell into a similar toxic relationship while away and got pregnant.) Both return to the island where they grew up because neither has anywhere else to go. The island is a shadow of its former self, its fishing-based economy decimated due to an oil spill years ago. (The money received from an environmental disaster settlement was funneled into a rec center that is rarely used.)
The islanders, who have gradually reduced in number to a total slightly above one hundred, exist on a combination of inertia and faith. Into this environment steps Father Paul Hill (Hamish Linklater), a stand-in for Monsignor Pruitt. (Pruit, Father Paul says, is recuperating on the mainland after an incident while traveling.) Noticeably younger than Pruit, Father Paul brings energy to the daily masses that are attended by few. He also brings with him a shipping trunk that responds twice when Father Paul knocks on it. (No, they’re not doing the old “share and a haircut” bit.)
Riley spends awkward hour after hour around his family. His mom Annie (Kristin Lehman) is tickled that he’s back. His father Ed (Henry Thomas) is still angry at both how Riley left, and the grief he caused his wife. Riley reports to AA meetings on the mainland and helps out where he can. At night, he sees the girl he killed, broken and covered in glass. This vision is effectively startling the first time. Unfortunately, Flanagan repeats it at least twice more, and the impact it had initially is diluted. After his humbling ordeal, Riley is no longer a man of faith.
Like Riley, Erin is living in the same house she grew up in. She teaches school and attends mass. At some point in their childhood, Erin and Riley were “together”. How “together” they were is never explained. Regardless, Flanagan is setting the two of them up to be diametrically opposed, the faithful versus the faithless. They have several very, very long conversations about faith, and those conversations are calm and even keeled, which is not what I would have expected coming from two characters who the world has essentially thrown into a ditch.
On a storm-filled night, Riley thinks he sees Monsignor Pruitt walking on the beach. This seems odd since Pruitt is supposedly recuperating on the mainland. Additionally, the old Pruitt easily outruns the much younger Riley. The next morning, all of the feral cats that live on the island are found on the beach, with no blood. Hmm.
Into the mix there’s Bev Keane (Samantha Sloyan), the town zealot, Sherif Hassan (Rahul Kohli), a Muslim with his son, Doctor Sarah Gunning (Annabeth Gish), who’s caring for her elderly mom, Mayor Scarborough (Michael Trucco) his wife Crystal (Crystal Balint) and their disabled daughter Leeza (Annarah Cymone), town drunk Joe (Robert Longstreet), and other minor characters that are essentially plot levers.
The characters are purely one-dimensional, and mainly exist to either align blindly with Bev, or be antagonized by Bev. The exception is the Joe and Lizzie dynamic. Joe accidentally shot Lizzie years ago, leaving her paralyzed. Lizzie has kept the faith, attending church daily with her parents. Joe, still guilty over what he did, drinks constantly. Seems odd that everyone tolerates having a person around who nearly killed someone when they were drunk, and drinks heavily today. But Crockett Island is not Survivor, so Joe never has to worry about getting voted off.
Father Paul is the catalyst for all that happens, and boy does he have some secrets to tell. (If you’ve seen a couple of horror movies in your life, you’ll see what’s coming from miles away.) His warped interpretations of miracles and faith set everything in motion, and his plan engulfs everyone on the island by the end. In my opinion, his original motivation behind what he does was not all that convincing, the reasoning coming off as borderline idiotic. When he reveals the actual source of his actions, I found that explanation made sense, but changed my perception of him from mentally deranged to pathetic. Regardless, none of what Father Paul or anyone else does on the island is remotely scary, however.
While watching Midnight Mass, I got the feeling that Flanagan was no longer interested in scaring anyone. The series has a few mild scary scenes and a disturbing image or two, but the series wants to devote its energy to far loftier concerns. Instead of creepy ghosts or frightening monsters, we get scenes where characters discuss topics ranging from the meaning of faith, the purpose of religion and the nature of death. I’ll give credit to the actors for being able to recite their incredibly verbose monologues on queue, but these scenes are dull and interminably long.
While discussions on those aforementioned topics are not off limits to a horror movie or series, the points made in them are so pedestrian that the scenes fall flat. Perhaps Flanagan thought his philosophical musings on The Nature Of Life were profound, but in all honesty, anyone who’s taken Philosophy 101 in college would be well versed on the ground covered here.
In addition to the metaphysical dialog that fills huge chunks of every episode, the series devotes a lot of time to the prayers, hymnals and rituals that make up the Catholic mass. As a lapsed Catholic, I was familiar with those, and I suspected that Flanagan’s desire was to have the audience feel like they were watching a mass unfold in real-time. Entire hymnals are sung, sections from the Bible are read, and entire homilies by Father Paul are spoken. For me, I got the same feeling of passive boredom I get when I’m in church. I suspect the effect on non-Catholics or non-religious viewers would be different than mine, but I can’t believe any members of those groups would find what is shown as “scary”. I guess some could be “triggered” by all of the rampant Catholicism, but honestly, the title of this endeavor should be enough of a cue to those folks to stay far away from this material.
After sitting through the first hour of Midnight Mass, I got the distinct impression that Flanagan wants to depict how religious dogma (here, the Catholic faith) can be perverted to serve evil instead of good. Ok, fine. That conclusion isn’t new or revelatory by any means, and has been used in horror movies time and again. Heck, you could watch the movie The Unholy and get the same message in only ninety-nine minutes. Whatever you think of The Unholy, it was economical. I would argue that unlike Midnight Mass, The Unholy has much better acting and is actually scary, but that is a debate I don’t need to have here.
The acting in Midnight Mass is fine, but the performances felt underplayed and somewhat thin. The problem for me is that the actors do a lot of talking instead of acting, and sure the two intersect, the dialog sounds more like a podcast from two philosophy majors in a dorm room than two people actually having a heartfelt conversation. Scenes where Riley and Erin talk have a stagey feel to them, where one person gets the spotlight and holds forth for five minutes (or more), then the other person gets the spotlight for another five minutes (or more). Midnight Mass could be the first horror series geared towards fans of NPR.
With rare exception, the acting is so underplayed I wondered if the movie was actually directed by David Cronenberg. Hamish Linklater makes the biggest impact as Father Paul, somehow making him come off as squishy and insincere even when delivering homilies. Samantha Sloyan has the most fun as Bev Keane, the town religious zealot who throws out passages from the Bible like she’s throwing darts. The faithful are depicted as weak-minded and easily fooled, a characterization that probably most non-religious people have of the faithful, fair or not. Having people blindly following orders has been the source of dramatic material forever, but the drama of that scenario is lost when nobody elicits any inner conflict about what they are doing. Several characters meekly do what they are told, and I’m dubious that a reasonable person would do what they do here. The point of Midnight Mass isn’t horror or conflict, its conversation. I’ve seen many films with scenes of characters just talking that were riveting. Here, I couldn’t wait until they stopped talking and something, anything, would happen to shake things up.
Flanagan positions Bev as the town’s central religious authority, and while she is imposing, I was highly dubious at how grown men a foot taller than her and a hundred pounds heavier than her were scared of her wrath. If the message is that fealty to religious dogma turns even the strongest of men into subservient weaklings, I got it, but I never for once bought it.
Midnight Mass has a large cast, including several actors you’ll recognize from Flanagan’s previous series (Kate Siegel, Henry Thomas, Rahul Kohli and Alex Essoe are those I recognized.) A major distraction for me was how Henry Thomas was done up in old man hair and an old man mustache, and his grandpa impression just didn’t work. Alex Essoe initially appears in heavy makeup and old lady affectations, and she acquits herself better than Thomas, but both performances are stunts that felt unnecessary and came off as awkward.
I will admit that the end of episode five was surprising, and episodes six and seven were mildly interesting, but in all honesty, I only watched the entire series because I wanted to review it. I could have watched three movies in that amount of time, movies that could have been scarier and more engrossing than Midnight Mass. Unfortunately, that time is lost and is not coming back. Perhaps, after the uneven but still watchable The Haunting of Bly Manor, I should have seen something like Midnight Mass coming. In Bly, Flanagan decided midway that he doesn’t want to be scary anymore and drifts into gloppy, doomed romanticism. Now, with Midnight Mass, the scary stuff presented feels like an afterthought, and all that’s left with is outtakes from a high school debate club.
Ultimately, what frustrated me the most is how Midnight Mass refused to acknowledge what it really is about. Even the characters who are dealing with an evil they surely would have heard about at one point in their lives seem forbidden from describing it using a word that is so completely obvious I was yelling it at the screen. I don’t want to spoil it for you, but I put it after the YouTube video below.
The conclusion in episode seven was so incredibly ridiculous, I found myself completely dumbstruck. I won’t give it away, but the bad people do something that they believe will flush out the good people. It does, but it also inspires the good people to do the exact same thing to the bad people. When the bad people are gobsmacked that the good people still think rationally, I thought to myself, really? Clearly, becoming a bad person knocks your IQ down a few notches, at least in Midnight Mass.
I don’t recommend Midnight Mass. The few fleeting moments of genuine surprise are not worth the seven-hour investment. Midnight Mass is a sheep in wolves clothing. Don’t be fooled by all of the internet hyperbole surrounding it.
Scroll all the way down to see the painfully obvious word that is you will be surprised was not said by a single character throughout Midnight Mass.
Watch The Unholy instead. You’ll thank me later.