For two of the past three Octobers, Netflix and filmmaker Mike Flanagan have teamed up to creep us out and unexpectedly poke at our emotions with 2018's The Haunting of Hill House and 2020's The Haunting of Bly Manor. Both limited series were ghost stories set in isolated locations that managed to terrify while simultaneously sneaking in romance, desire, and the bonds of family, fueling anticpation for their latest collaboration. But neither Haunting series even approaches the intensity and horror that Flanagan has queued up in the seven-episode limited series Midnight Mass, which drops on Netflix today.
While his previous two Netflix ghost stories were based on classic works of gothic literature, Midnight Mass is a Mike Flanagan original, although you'd be forgiven for thinking its origins lie in the fiction of Stephen King, whose work Flanagan has adapted in his two most recent feature films, Gerard's Game and Doctor Sleep. The town of Crockett Island isn't specified to be in Maine or anywhere else in New England, but the vagueness of city and state doesn't deter the trappings of its King-like northeasterly locale: the chilly windswept dunes and downturned economics of a once-bustling fishing village. Crockett Island is in many ways an island in recovery, from an oil-tanker spill that made them national news and sent their industry into a tailspin, to an accident that left the mayor's daughter paralyzed.
The first character we meet is Riley Flynn, played by Friday Night Lights' Zach Gilford. True to the form of both previous Haunting series, Riley is haunted by traumatic events in his past, and in his case also the crushing weight of guilt. He's returned to the island and his family to start over, where he finds himself faced with the small town he'd been glad to escape. He's not the only one. Erin (Kate Siegel) also left Crockett Island for a time, only to find herself back, pregnant, and teaching in the town's only school. Riley and Erin grew up together, and are each in their own way prodigal children. Both are also wildly attractive, so you can probably do that math for yourself.
The rest of the town is a curious ensemble with some familiar faces for fans of Flanagan's work. Bly Manor's Rahul Kohli plays the town sheriff, a single father and Muslim who has yet to earn the trust and respect of the deeply provincial islanders who can't seem to stop pressuring him to attend mass on Sunday even as they passive-aggressively hand-wave at his weekly sojourns to attend the mosque on the mainland. He's most overtly bothered by Beverly Keane (Samantha Sloyan), the pious marm who's in half the town's business and has a judgy glare for the other half. Also returning are Robert Longstreet and Annabeth Gish, who played the caretakers on Hill House, and show up in Midnight Mass as the drunken town pariah and the island's lone doctor, respectively.
This is the setup, a rather familiar-seeming gaggle of redemption arcs and small-town misfits. It can't possibly prepare you for what's coming next. Enter Hamish Linklater as Father Paul, the unannounced new priest at St. Patrick's whose vagueness about the absence of the aged Monsignor Pruitt is immediately suspicious, although that stops mattering so much to the residents of Crockett Island when the miracles start happening. Flanagan may not be adapting King, strictly speaking, but he's certainly taken some lessons from the man whose work became such successes for him, and one of them is the fine line that divides devout religious belief and supernatural horror. Clearly something is up with Father Paul, and Linklater is brilliant at torquing the friendly-young-priest vibe just enough to seem benignly creepy ... and then a little less benign. These miracles, well, they rarely come without a price, and the ominous signs of something dark and predatory on the island point to a steep price indeed.
The first few episodes of Midnight Mass put these pieces in place. Something's up with the priest. Something's lurking at the periphery. Riley's seeking absolution for a crime he can't be forgiven for. Half of the cast is inexplicably in old-age makeup. Unexplained dead cats point to something terrifying. And then it's like Flanagan just yanks a rope, and a curtain falls, revealing what this series is really up to. The painstakingly observed Catholicism that at first seemed like thematically-appropriate window dressing becomes quite central to the plot, as the series picks up steam and speeds recklessly towards a conclusion where the ecclesiastic and the supernatural become horrifically intertwined.
Flanagan's previous projects have done an excellent job creating atmospheres that present great dread in dark places, only to shed incrementally more light on stories that end up being as sad as they were scary. Midnight Mass, while never straying too far from the emotional core of its characters, isn't quite as elegant as its predecessors. In the absence of that elegance, though, there is a thunderous urgency to the themes at work here. You still get those signature Mike Flanagan moments, though; few horror auteurs are as skilled at springing bone-deep sadness upon his audience before they've even thought to expect it. The performances are crucial here, with Linklater as forceful and (eventually) terrifying as he's ever been, Gilford a reservoir of deeply grounding humanity, and Samantha Sloyan (who appeared briefly in Flanagan's Hush) transcending the stock nature of playing the town's judgmental busybody.
While Midnight Mass doesn't have the same spooky alcoves and sad ghosts of Flanagan's two earlier Netflix series, he hasn't lost his gift for combining the terrifying with the humane, and the further the show moves along, the wider your eyes get at its increasing audacity. He's traded in elegance for intensity and a bone-deep terror at the capabilities of true believers.
Midnight Mass is now streaming on Netflix.
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Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.
TOPICS: Midnight Mass, Netflix, Annabeth Gish, Hamish Linklater, Mike Flanagan, Samantha Sloyan, Zach Gilford