Growing up Catholic, homilies tend to invoke more fear than enlightenment. Every Sunday (or, for those who also attended Catholic school, every Sunday and Friday), the repetitive, rigorously structured rhythms of Mass pivot on what the priest says during the ceremony’s one open-ended section. After the priest reads the day’s assigned passage from the Bible, he interprets the scripture however he sees fit. In theory, the homily is meant to help explain the oft-mysterious word of God — the priest, who God speaks through, finds meaning in these ancient words that reflects key lessons for the present day, bringing the clergy closer to the Lord and enriching their faith.
But a lot of priests just like to hear themselves talk. Unlike the other stages of Mass, which are pretty much set in stone, homilies provide free reign over what’s said and how long is taken to say it; they can be short, when the priest wants to emphasize his message through concision (or simply make it home in time for the Bears game), or they can last an eternity, as he circles his broader point, again and again, until he’s satisfied a nugget of wisdom has emerged through the sheer number of words shared (and yes, this is Catholicism, so the priest is always a “he”).
Anyone who sits in those hard wooden pews long enough forms a protective callous against speechifying that doubles as a bullshit detector, even if they’d never use such language in the house of God. They know when a priest has something to say, and when he’s just filling the time. So I suspect any practicing Catholic who watches Mike Flanagan’s “Midnight Mass” will tune out from time to time, when the seemingly unedited, overlapping monologues get out of hand, just as they’ll sit up a little straighter when its genre-blending religious interrogation reaches its shrewd points about the dangers and benefits of faith. In the best-case scenario, the seven-episode series will remind anyone who believes in a higher power not to let that belief carry them too deep into darkness; that God’s teachings are up for interpretation on purpose, and no one person or religion has all the answers. Worst case, folks might fall asleep in their seats — but hey, this wouldn’t be the first time, or the worst time, that’s happened.
Before getting into spoilers (you will be warned), “Midnight Mass” is the latest limited horror series from Flanagan, the director behind “The Haunting of Hill House” and “The Haunting of Bly Manor” (not to mention films like “Doctor Sleep,” “Oculus,” and “Hush”). Like previous efforts, his new story is far more interested in its themes and characters than sustained terror or bloody mayhem. Flanagan has always shown great empathy for the people in his stories and great respect for the trauma they’ve gone through; the unnerving supernatural elements typically don’t represent a great evil or lead to a monstrous villain, so much as they’re used to reframe established horror archetypes and encourage compassion.
“Midnight Mass” is no different. Picking up at the scene of a fatal car accident, the premiere follows the surviving party, Riley Flynn (Zach Gilford), as he’s arrested for drunk driving, sentenced to four years in prison, and returns to his hometown on Crockett Island (pop. 127). Riley is haunted by the woman who died in the accident, and every night, he lays down in bed and sees a vision of her as he did that night: glass embedded in her forehead, police sirens flashing across her face. To signal her arrival, Flanagan rotates the camera on its axis, so as Riley lies down horizontally, the woman appears standing up — an inverse position to how Riley first saw her, when he was sitting upright on the side of the road, and she was laying, lifeless, on the concrete.
Even after the technique repeats itself, Flanagan still includes a hard cut to the gruesome corpse — one of a handful of jump scares that make their way into the series. Though Riley’s vision builds to a satisfying formal payoff, the repeated hard cuts to his victim as well as other random, throwaway frights speak to an imbalance in Flanagan’s storytelling designs. As a horror series, “Midnight Mass” isn’t all that scary; this should come as little surprise to those familiar with Flanagan’s work, but one has to imagine more people are tuning in because of Netflix’s marketing than the director’s name recognition, and not giving audiences what they’re told to expect is often a recipe for misunderstandings and disaster. (Horror audiences en masse are particularly demanding.)
Eike Schroter / Netflix
It would be easier to label “Midnight Mass” a drama, if not for the jump scares. Other genre staples work their way in, from fantasy to romance to science-fiction, but the vast tent of “drama” already encompasses those story types — it’s horror that makes specific audiences either back away (“Nope, I don’t want anything scary”) or come running (expecting to be, well, horrified). These comments aren’t meant to be negative; breaking from expectations affixed to genre is often an exciting path to creativity, and “Midnight Mass” has its fair share of astute juxtapositions driven by usurping tradition. (More on that in the spoilers section.) But most of the jump scares aren’t a clever inversion. They’re a crutch that blasts the viewer out of their listless stupor. Too often, they feel added out of obligation, especially when compared to the devout interest shown elsewhere.
Like the community itself! Flanagan loves his characters, as well as the cast playing them (many of which have worked with the director before), and he gives them all ample time to flesh out their arcs. (Even if a lot of backstory is delivered via lengthy monologues in need of tightening, these folks make them moving.) Crockett Island is so small, there’s no need for cars. Everyone walks everywhere, including the ferries that depart twice a day. Primarily a fishing village, Crockett quickly feels like a place out of time, but Flanagan wisely keeps things current. There are cell phones and WiFi; modern movie posters, like “Se7en,” hang in Riley’s childhood bedroom; the town doctor, Sarah Gunning (Annabeth Gish) is respected and relied upon for her scientific know-how. Telling this story in the present makes it more pressing (than if it took place in, say, the 1950s), while setting events in motion within a largely isolated bubble helps illustrate the dangers of blocking out outside thought.
And boy, do they. Most of the town is Catholic, but only a few are devout (namely, the holier-than-thou Bev Keane, played by Samantha Sloyan), and only a dozen or so routinely attend Mass (including Riley’s parents, Ed and Annie). That starts to change when Father Paul (played by a miraculously acute Hamish Linklater) arrives, as a temporary replacement for the local monsignor. Not only does the fresh man of the cloth offer a new voice to lost souls, but he’s charismatic and engaging — common traits among young, hungry priests, even if Father Paul is anything but common.
With that, we’re pulling into Spoiler Harbor, so if you’re not interested in learning anything more about what happens in “Midnight Mass,” avert your eyes, go watch the series, and come back when you’re done. While it may try your patience, it’s still a good yarn.
(And before anyone claims that by publishing a 2000-word review on “Midnight Mass,” I’ve committed the same cardinal sin I’m complaining about, let me just say: I never claimed to be speaking for God (like a priest), nor am I teasing out a narrative TV series for your entertainment. I’m just a guy who’s had a lot of time to think during homilies. You can leave at any time.)
[Editor’s Note: The following section of this review contains spoilers for “Midnight Mass,” including the ending.]
Eike Schroter / Netflix
Anyone paying attention to “Midnight Mass” (rather than letting it play in the background while texting or watching sports) will undoubtedly notice that when Father Paul arrives on the morning ferry, he’s dragging around a very large, very ominous chest. Flanagan doesn’t even bother to hide that something is alive in there (letting the audience hear it banging around, right before Paul pops open the lock), but we don’t learn its true identity until Episode 3, “Book III: Proverbs,” when Father Paul unveils his big secret: Monsignor Pruitt isn’t sick in a hospital on the mainland; Father Paul is Monsignor Pruitt, made young again by an “angel” he met when visiting the holy land.
Now, I put “angel” in quotations because anyone who sees this thing, sans context, will immediately recognize it as a demon. There’s the dark gray skin, glowing eyes, massive, gargoyle-style wings, and, oh yeah, it kills people. Sure, it brings some of them back, but not before it drinks their blood and turns them into one a demon, too. Soon, Monsignor Pruitt is allergic to daylight and compelled to feast on human blood — he can’t guzzle the sacrament (aka wine that becomes the blood of Christ) fast enough.
“Drinking blood?” you say. “Allergic to daylight?” “Feasting on humans?” Yes, the most recognizable term for this “angel”/demon is a vampire, but you won’t hear that word in “Midnight Mass.” Instead, Flanagan makes you sit with the creature and its creations, leaving the ultimate descriptor up to each individual viewer. (Though, really, by the end, it’s clearly an evil vampire.) After all, depending on the interpreter, this… thing could skew either good or bad. It helps Leeza (Annarah Cymone) walk again, restores the Monsignor’s youth as well as that of Mildred, Dr. Gunning’s mother (Alex Essoe), and brings people back from the dead (kind of). On the other hand, it murdered hundreds of cats (which, frankly, is unforgivable), kills whatever it needs to in order to survive (not great), and encourages its followers to treat it like a deity (which violates the first commandment, come on!).
Still, that refusal to fall back on accepted associations is part of what makes “Midnight Mass” compelling. One of its central tenets, stated outright by Ed Flynn (Henry Thomas) in the finale, is that “Whatever this is, it doesn’t change who you are.” Ed is referring to his new vampiric state, but he’s also talking about faith. If you’re obsessed with being better than everyone else (like Bev Keane), then, yes, you can use the Bible as a means to separate yourself from the heathens. But if you’re benevolent and caring, a shared religion can be a rewarding way to encourage that kindness (as Leeza does).
Faith can also be confusing in its mysteries, which the Monsignor mentions in an early homily without realizing just how baffled he’s become. Here’s a man who stared into the beady eyes of a winged demon, let it drink his blood, and then convinced himself that same creature was an angel, there to do good. The religious can see what they want to see in the Bible (a point repeatedly underlined by Bev citing scripture to explain away tragedy). Sometimes it’s helpful, other times it’s harmful. But typically, the impact is determined by who’s interpreting the words.
That’s largely why “Midnight Mass” succeeds. Rather than excoriate the church or blindly bow to its will, the series simply asks you to make your own interpretations (and question any that sound dubious). Flanagan honors the individual’s personal relationship to God more than organized worship, giving full voices to an array of perspectives. (Personally, I most identified with Sheriff Hassan, played by Rahul Kohli, shouting at his dumb son about God picking and choosing who to help and who to let die: “That’s not how it works!” Indeed.)
In the end, the series respects both the destructive power of hate and the healing nature of love. Those misled by the Monsignor and emboldened by Bev Keane destroyed the peaceful home they sought to protect. The fire they started burned through everything, just like the light of day eviscerated everyone whose sin forced them to hide in the darkness. (Riley, Ed, Annie, and Erin all faced their fate without fear.) No one escaped, save for the one young girl who forgave her persecutor (what a scene!) and her innocent, observant friend. Maybe they’ll build a better future. Or maybe the “angel” reached the mainland, after all. Either way, that was one long homily — but I’m glad I heard it.
“Midnight Mass” premieres Friday, September 24 on Netflix. All seven episodes will be available to stream.