You don’t have to dig very deep into Christianity to find something creepy. Early Christians raised some eyebrows among their pagan neighbors, who were put off by rituals where members of this kooky new Jewish cult talked about eating the body and drinking the blood of their savior. Add Catholicism to the mix, with its incense and chanting and obsession with bones and ashes, and you’ve got a religion dark enough to create—well, stuff like this. The problem is that Catholic morbidity is so on the surface, making the connection between the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and other, more secular tales of the macabre isn’t all that insightful.
To its credit, Midnight Mass, the latest Netflix horror soap from The Haunting Of Hill House’s Mike Flanagan, does complicate the teenage stoner revelation that some parts of the Bible are, like, really fucked up, man. The limited series considers religion both as a horror subgenre and as a philosophical question, blending cinematic tributes to films like The Exorcist with serious-minded monologues about faith. On the more intellectual side, Flanagan explores the theme from a handful of angles, including addiction recovery programs and prayer in public schools. When it comes time for sturm und drang, however, the writer-director turns to monsters and miracles, the “signs and wonders” the Bible attributes both to Jesus and to “false prophets” who “shall deceive the very elect.”
All of these swirl around St. Patrick’s, a shabby clapboard church in the half-abandoned fishing community of Crockett Island. The island’s location is never precisely stated, but the crab boats and chunky sweaters place it somewhere in the Northeastern U.S. It’s a very Stephen King type of setting, which makes sense given that Flanagan is a King enthusiast who’s directed two adaptations of the novelist’s work: Gerald’s Game in 2017, and Doctor Sleep in 2019. Midnight Mass is Flanagan’s swing at a King-style limited series à la Salem’s Lot or The Stand, bringing apocalyptic overtones to a tale of a small town under siege by supernatural forces. In this realm, he succeeds well enough, except that Flanagan shares a weakness with his hero: They both really like to hear themselves talk.
That’s through the medium of their characters, of course. Here, the ensemble cast is led by Zach Gilford as Riley, the prodigal son of Crockett Island who returns home in disgrace after a four-year stint in prison. Riley killed a young woman while he was driving drunk, you see, and spent his time behind bars researching recovery methods that aren’t in thrall to the “higher power” of Alcoholics Anonymous. Riley’s parents Annie (Kristin Lehman) and Ed (Henry Thomas) are devout Christians, however. So is his childhood friend Erin Greene (Kate Siegel), who also finds herself back on Crockett Island after fleeing an abusive marriage. Most of the islanders are churchgoing folk, actually. But Riley’s prison experience has made him an atheist, placing him in a small group of outsiders that includes the local sheriff (Rahul Kohli) and doctor (Annabeth Gish) as well as the town drunk (Robert Longstreet).
That stance becomes harder to maintain with the arrival of another new resident, Father Paul (Hamish Linklater), a charismatic young priest. Father Paul says he’s been sent as a temporary replacement for Crockett Island’s longtime shepherd, the elderly Monsignor Pruitt. But as soon as he’s settled in, strange things begin to happen: First, the animals start dying. (The effects in a scene where dozens of dead cats wash up on a beach are, thankfully, not very realistic.) Then, the people of the town witness miraculous healing in themselves and in others. This prompts a religious revival led by Father Paul and Bev Keane (Samantha Sloyan), an islander whose strict morality apparently doesn’t apply to acts of self-righteous sociopathy.
The first episode of Midnight Mass is pure setup, and—unlike Flanagan’s last Netflix series, The Haunting Of Bly Manor—the show saves its climax for the finale, rather than expend it in the penultimate episode. More happens in this series than in Bly Manor, and Midnight Mass is assembled with the same flair as Hill House, with some striking creature design and resonant montages. Flanagan digs into some of the church’s more ominous aesthetics as well, carving stations of the cross as a storytelling device and making ominous use of somber choral hymns. But for all this care and craft, the result is still a case of diminished returns.
As far back as Hill House, Flanagan has had a tendency to write florid speeches where simple dialogue would do, a bad habit that goes completely unchecked in Midnight Mass. It makes sense for a priest to be bombastic at the pulpit, but when a minor character monologues for a minute and a half before delivering the one piece of information she’s brought to the narrative, something is out of balance. Similarly, scenes where Riley and Father Paul debate God and morality are meant to bring some theological heft to the series. But more often than not, the two are simply re-stating themes that have already been more elegantly established through visuals. (Let’s not even get into the two episodes Riley and Erin spend talking about the afterlife.)
For an actor, these juicy, substantial blocks of text are probably a pleasure to perform. Everyone does seem to be giving their all, and eventually the horror elements of the story do rise to the grandiose pitch of the dialogue. But while some of the show’s themes are talked to death, others wither away, undeveloped. In trying to cram so many ideas into Midnight Mass, Flanagan has left himself with a jumble of mixed metaphors and overwritten soliloquies with not enough terror to cancel them out. Religion addresses some of the scariest things a human being can contemplate—namely, the unknowable void that awaits us after we die. And this fear is palpable in Midnight Mass. So why does it also feel like being a kid again, counting the beams in the church ceiling as a preacher drones on in the background?