Reviews · TV

Mike Flanagan’s ‘Midnight Mass’ is Dense and Dazzling

In Netflix’s island-set limited series, exhausting religious elements are countered by great performances and inspired horror.
Hamish Linklater in Midnight Mass
By  · Published on September 21st, 2021

Welcome to Up Next, a column that gives you the rundown on the latest TV. This week, Valerie Ettenhofer reviews Midnight Mass, the highly anticipated standalone series from Mike Flanagan.

After delivering genre favorites like The Haunting of Hill House, Doctor Sleep, and Oculus, Mike Flanagan’s works have become easily identifiable among horror fans. They’re marked by both their humanity and their capacity to deeply unsettle. The filmmaker’s latest is Midnight Mass, a long-imagined passion project. The limited series will finally see release this week after a decade in the making, and the result is built to inspire awe. It’s ambitious, challenging, existential, and exhausting.

Midnight Mass takes place in the secluded American community of Crockett Island. A title card informs us early on that it has a population of 127. Crockett Island, semi-affectionately nicknamed The Crock Pot, has seen a downturn in recent years. An oil spill kneecapped the local economy and disheartened the denizens. Rumors of giant albatrosses, dolphins with bites taken out of them, and a ghost called Harpoon Harry don’t help with morale. The town is broken, and its citizens are plagued by human ailments including age, addiction, and anger.

There is, however, a beacon in the storm. It’s a Catholic church called St. Patrick’s. Pretty much everyone in town congregates there, except the island’s lone Muslim family. When Riley Flynn (Zach Gilford) returns to town after a tragic accident, he controversially abstains from the sacrament, isolated by his guilt. Meanwhile, the faithful of Crockett Island are galvanized by the presence of an intense new priest, Father Paul (Hamish Linklater). Father Paul’s sudden appearance is as mysterious as his preaching style, and the island soon comes twinkling to life under his watchful eye.

It’s easy to pepper some Catholicism into one’s horror. It’s difficult to question the very basis of religious horror itself. Midnight Mass does the latter, early and often. The series grapples with massive questions of mortality, faithfulness, and suffering. This is both the show’s most ambitious aspect and its most tedious one. By the end of its seven episodes, every character has performed a monologue — or, more likely, two or three — about capital-f Faith. Scripture is not quoted in brief, but at length, constantly, by more than a few characters.

At times, it’s hard not to feel like Midnight Mass is trying to sell us on something. Its most powerful moments involve turning the other cheek, or concepts of grace and sacrifice, yet it revisits the Christian doctrine so often that it begins to lose its impact. Even as sinister forces call into question the zealotry of Crockett Island’s congregation, the narrative answer, again and again, seems to be personal and collective faith. The show is so persistently churchy, faithless viewers might start to feel like they’d combust if they dare cross its threshold.

Midnight Mass walks in the footsteps of other ambitious, spiritually-driven texts. Most notably, it draws clear influence from the works of Stephen King, from The Stand to ‘Salem’s Lot to lesser-known novels like Revival. Even Midnight Mass’ imperfections, including occasionally stilted dialogue and characters who appear to be young people hiding under old people makeup, are endearing because they call to mind the slight corniness of old King adaptations. The series’ influences are expansive; it shares DNA with Damon Lindelof’s masterful show The Leftovers, but ultimately remains too prescriptive to reach that series’ level of transcendence. By the end, it’s revealed itself to be a less-than-discreet cautionary tale, something more akin to a season-long episode of The Twilight Zone.

Rest assured, there is plenty to enjoy within Midnight Mass, even for the most skeptical among us. The lead acting, visual effects, and horror elements all knock it out of the park. Several of the myriad monologues resonate, including one from Annarah Cymone, who plays paralyzed teen Leeza, and another from Kate Siegel’s pregnant teacher, Erin. Gilford, who proved himself an excellent actor in Friday Night Lights but hasn’t had a role to match his talents since, is excellent as jaded protagonist Riley. The series’ opening scene distills his pain into a single traumatic moment, and the result is the most concisely harrowing sequence of the series.

In fact, any time Midnight Mass aims for horror, it delivers. The camera lingers on moments of devastation and death — like shots of animal corpses, or a woman screaming — and sears them into the mind. A mid-season set piece that feels as if it’s straight out of the opening of The Exorcist is beyond thrilling. There’s a nebulous terror inherent in Midnight Mass’ faith-based horror, but there are plenty of visible scares, too.

Linklater’s Father Paul is the fervent glue that holds the series together. From the start, he’s not your typical shadowy priest. We don’t get the sense that he’s a full-blown sinister imposter, but he’s certainly not on the up and up, either. As the island begins to reveal its secrets, Linklater’s performance grows more complexly shaded. Father Paul is in turn zealous, desperate, and personable. He’s a figure around which people rearrange themselves, a leader whose impressiveness and manipulation could take a tailspin into self-destruction at any time. As a dark-eyed but not entirely malevolent presence, Linklater’s Father Paul is the crux of Midnight Mass’ religious hysteria, but he’s also the character who keeps the show from feeling entirely didactic.

There are so many yardsticks against which we can measure Midnight Mass. As a horror series, it’s awe-inspiring in its scale. As a religious and moral text, it’s simultaneously overwritten and underbaked. As a showcase for actors like Gilford and Linklater, it’s fantastic. There’s so much to Midnight Mass that it will no doubt be publicly re-examined again and again over time, like a Bible passage that challenges as much as it comforts. Perhaps that in itself is the legacy of a text that’s built to last.

Midnight Mass debuts on Netflix on Friday, September 24th.

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Valerie Ettenhofer is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer, TV-lover, and mac and cheese enthusiast. As a Senior Contributor at Film School Rejects, she covers television through regular reviews and her recurring column, Episodes. She is also a voting member of the Critics Choice Association's television and documentary branches. Twitter: @aandeandval (She/her)