‘Midnight Mass’ Review: Spoiler, The Church is the Real Monster

To imagine the mood of Midnight Mass, the latest work from Netflix darling Mike Flanagan, you need only conjure the words of John Mulaney: “Now, I was raised Catholic. I don’t know if you can tell that from the everything about me.” While Flanagan has become something of a household name in the past few years for directing adaptations of well-known horror works like The Haunting of Hill House and Doctor Sleep, his latest series is one that he tried to shop around all the way back in 2012. It’s the old story of a successful creator whose hard-won credentials mean they can finally work on that passion project they’ve been sitting on all these years. The result is seven episodes that feel both intensely personal and very in-step with the craft Flanagan has honed for Netflix in a way that might (or maybe should) represent a turning point for his career.

Genre Influences

Midnight Mass wears its Stephen King influence on its sleeve. There’s a man haunted by alcohol, a small northeastern town with something sinister lurking beneath its placid surface, and a semi-ensemble cast harboring various resentments and regrets that will make them vulnerable to the horror to come. After killing a woman in a drunk driving accident and spending four years in prison, Riley Flynn moves back into his parents’ house on the tiny Crockett Island. His arrival also happens to coincide with the arrival of Father Paul, who is filling in while the island’s longtime priest is in Jerusalem. Charismatic and lively, Paul’s preaching gains a lot more traction when he pulls off an apparent miracle.

The mystery behind that miracle drives the story’s intrigue only for a moment. And then episode three throws off its detective trappings and reveals exactly how Paul is working wonders: he’s a vampire. In fact, he’s the same priest who left Crockett for Jerusalem, only to stumble on a walled-up being he regards as an “angel” during his travels. Newly young, he stumbles home determined to share this holy blessing with his parishioners. At that point, the show becomes a lot less Twin Peaks and a lot more Hannibal, doubtlessly dividing viewership as it turns toward scenes of characters having long conversations about what might happen when we die. Personally, I haven’t stopped thinking about it since it debuted.

Vampires and catholic guilt have been a cozy match for a long time, at least since Anne Rice started doing her thing back in the 1970s. But while Midnight Mass has a certain Ricean cast to its musings about theology and existential terror, it notably brings vampirism squarely back into the realm of unambiguous monstrosity. Father Paul’s “angel” is a hairless, leathery creature whose sentience seems to exist only in service of finding new victims. It’s judiciously deployed but lurks in the back of the viewer’s conscience as the endpoint to all this free immortality, an unmasked monstrosity lurking behind the injury-curing and restorative powers of Paul’s miraculous communion wine. But of course, the true vampire is the church itself, a theme that becomes more and more charmingly unsubtle as the parish descends into exclusionary paranoia and violent zealotry. And it’s the execution of that theme that truly makes Midnight Mass something special.

Midnight Mass

Cultural Catholics

While it gives no quarter to the church as an institution, Midnight Mass explores the desire for faith and community with nuance and sensitivity. In one scene, Riley describes Catholicism as a fattening tick that sucks the lifeblood from poor communities to build opulent churches; in another, he and church-going old flame Erin gently talk out their thoughts on the mystery of dying in a way that neither privileges a supernatural viewpoint nor condescends to the desire to see greater organized meaning in the universe. It’s the writing of someone who no longer believes but understands intimately why people do. This extends to the larger cast as well. Its most active heroes are those who have been excluded or disillusioned by the church — atheist Riley, a local lesbian doctor, and the town’s new Muslim sheriff — but it also captured a familiar frustrated fondness at the duality of characters like Riley’s parents, whose interpersonal kindness is blunted by their initial unwillingness to look deeper at the demonstrable harm the church is causing in town. With the vampire thing, I mean. And in the end, what separates the “good people” from the monsters is that underlying community support after the mask is torn from the monstrosity.

It’s a very Catholic Atheist kind of work, which is distinct from “catholicsploitation” works like The Nun or Vatican Miracle Examiners, which are mainly about using Catholic aesthetic and pop cultural osmosis to delightfully schlocky ends. Flanagan’s examination includes not only the Church as a political entity or the objective spookiness of the whole “transubstantiation” idea but the way that ideas like “ritual” and “fellowship” bore their way into the everyday lives of this small town. It is, in short, as much about Catholicism-as-culture as it is the religious aspects. It also does its damndest not to fall into a binary of “faith bad, atheist good,” by situating its cast as a spectrum of belief and giving some of its best monologues to Sheriff Hassan — though there’s definitely room for more expert critics than I to speak on that subplot.

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Flanagan in Future

Those monologues, incidentally, are part of what make this feel like a culmination of Flanagan’s Netflix work. The quiet, deliberate speeches, delivered to camera as they reference an obscure work and then proceed to unfold its thematic significance, are likely to be familiar to Bly Manor and Hill House watchers. 30 hours deep, there’s a coalescing sense of what a “Mike Flanagan series” entails: those monologues meditating on the nature of humanity and morality, characters who struggle with alcohol addiction or the terror of Alzheimer’s, choked interior spaces, an ensemble cast pulled from a familiar but rotating cast of actors with a few new faces, existential horror, and lesbians.

Flanagan has continued to struggle with wrapping up his larger plots as satisfyingly as his character arcs: Hill House somewhat infamously rewrote a component of its ending to save a certain character the writers felt attached to, but failed to rewrite the extremely non-negotiably deadly situation that led up to the aborted death or weave in some relevant element to how the ghosts work; Bly Manor got weighted down in its middle parts pacing out its ghostly backstories before circling back around for an incredible bittersweet finale; Midnight Mass, in an inversion, is surefooted in its narrative bones from beginning to end but often loses track of its secondary cast members. Sherriff Hassan’s son Ali is easily the most criminal case of this, as his character arc occurs offscreen for a bulk of the series and functions mainly as a source of anguish for his father. Still, there’s a sense of growth and exploration that has a finality of sorts to it.  

Finally getting to come back to the passion project Flanagan nurtured a decade ago feels like an ideal time to do something different. Not because the above elements aren’t compelling, but because too many directors fall into comfortable routine without taking distance to grow and examine their obsessions. It’s the difference between David Cronenberg’s stealthy remakes of his early films and Tim Burton’s 2000s-era nosedive. With Midnight Mass, Flanagan has finally gotten to tell a non-adaptive version of these themes that are clearly dear to his heart, and to lay this particular form of them to rest. While I doubt it will be that clean a separation given the descriptions for upcoming series The Midnight Club, I’m eager to see Flanagan challenge himself and his cast going forward. They’re all too talented to waste.