Fran and I often have trouble choosing what to watch. She’s seen almost everything, for one thing, and I hate making her rewatch things. The overlap in our tastes also isn’t that wide, so it can be difficult finding something we both enjoy. Last week I randomly picked Midnight Mass, though, and it turned out to be a very good choice.
To make it clear: we are not horror fans. I walked out of IT about ten minutes in, and my attempt at watching Ju-On ended after ten seconds. We’ve both been curious about The Haunting of Hill House, also by Mike Flanagan, but we weren’t together when it came out and neither of us wanted to watch it alone. (Maybe now we’ll try.) Jump scares are the real issue, at least for me. I feel them like a physical assault, and that’s not a feeling I want in my entertainment media. Fortunately, Midnight Mass doesn’t have too many,, and the ones it has are for dramatic effect, so I didn’t mind them too much. Overall, it’s a beautiful series, with great acting, wonderful music, and gorgeous cinematography.
SPOILERS below, for obvious reasons.
We start with Riley Flynn. While driving drunk, he causes an accident that kills a teenage girl and is sent to prison for four years. The story begins when he comes home to the dying fishing community of Crockett Island. At the same time, Erin Greene, Riley’s childhood friend and sweetheart, has come home pregnant from a bad marriage. She’s settling into life as a single mom-to-be, taking her own mother’s place as the island’s only teacher. At the same time, Sheriff Hassan, one of two Muslims on the island and a recent transfer from New York City, is trying to build a meaningful life in a small, hostile town where there’s nothing much to do. His son resents him for bringing him here, and both are generally made to feel like outsiders. Meanwhile, the island’s few teenagers do their best to keep themselves sane in a place where nothing interesting has happened in years.
Then something does happen: to the shock of everyone in the congregation of St. Patrick’s, the local Catholic church, a new priest has come to fill in for the old priest, Monsignor Pruitt, who supposedly fell ill on his return from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The new priest, Father Paul, is very good at his job: kind, charismatic, and a talented preacher. Everyone seems to like him, and attendance at mass is going up. Good things are happening, relationships are forming, upswing, and the community as a whole seems to be on an upswing.
At the same time, though, some pretty nasty things are happening, too. (Content warning, if you’re thinking of watching this show: there are lots of animal deaths, including one very graphic one that’s extremely awful.) Father Paul seems to know more than he should, and in general there seem to be lots of secrets for an island with 127 people on it.
Then a genuine miracle happens at St. Patrick’s, and suddenly the mood changes.
I won’t completely spoil the rest, but I will say we were just a hair disappointed by the revelation of what’s actually happening in town: the truth wasn’t quite as mysterious and strange as the first episodes suggested. But it was a really neat twist on the trope.
The priest (played by Hamish Linklater) was a cool character: earnest, devoted, well-meaning, and tragically misguided. The congregation was also mostly devoted and well-meaning (though, critically, not all of them were) and I thought the director did a good job showing the positives and negatives of deep religious faith. Mike Flanagan apparently grew up Catholic and is now atheist, and you can definitely see that in this series. The incorporation of religious music is very effective, and it’s neat how key moments of the story are set at key points during Holy Week, building up to a catastrophic midnight mass on the eve of Easter Sunday where everything finally goes down.
The final scene of the show is really beautiful, and it’s a great callback/final summation of all those religious themes, with what felt like a reenactment of some of the earliest days of Christianity. It was clearly very deeply thought through, and really effective. Addiction, the show’s other main theme, was really well dealt with, treating the subject with both honesty and compassion. The series also has things to say about life in a small, traditional, dying community. The depiction was really strong, but if it had been possible, I would have liked to see just a tiny bit more of Crockett Island before everything went to pieces. I’m not even sure what state it’s supposed to be–Maine, maybe? It’s not important, I guess, but it would have been nice to know a little more about some of the extras who died horrifically during the course of the show.
One of the strongest points of the series was Bev Keane, played by Samantha Sloyan. She was a fantastic villain in that I absolutely hated her from moment one. Well done. She’s a kind of person who feels very familiar, though I can’t think of specific examples: a judgmental zealot who resents all the sinners around her for having a good time, and who can’t understand why everyone seems to be happier than her when she’s following all the rules and they’re not. There was some interesting little-girl imagery her portrayal (hair in a single braid down her back, Peter Pan collars, a high-necked white dress for mass, and a general air of “malicious tattletale” attitude”) that shows you she’s always been like this. Having never matured emotionally past “teacher’s pet,” she has no real depth of soul and isn’t able to understand genuine human relationships. There’s a brief moment at the end where she seems to have gained a hint of maturity, but (spoiler) it doesn’t last. It was a really compelling performance and added a lot to the show.
Sheriff Hassan (Rahul Kohli) was another strong performance, though I would have liked to see just a little more of him throughout the series. I loved his relationship with his son and the way the show dealt with the issue of religious conversion and intergenerational culture gaps, plus the irony of Hassan bringing his son to Crockett Island for safety in the context of what actually happened. I would have liked to have gotten a bit more backstory earlier in the series, because I felt like his big monologue (episode 6, I think?) tried to push too much info into too little space, but Kohli is a great actor and did an excellent job.
Riley (Zach Gilford) was probably my favorite performance. I absolutely loved him. Remorse shone through every moment, every gesture, and every word he said, and the dream images of Tara Beth were incredibly vivid and effective. I absolutely understood what he had gone through, where he was coming from emotionally, and why–after being gutted by the guilt of accidentally killing an innocent human being–he would make the choice he did rather than live through that again. The AA meetings between him and Father Paul were some of my favorite scenes. Another of my favorite characters was Joe Collie, a distorted reflection of Riley, who was also incredibly well acted (I would like to see more of Robert Longstreet).
Erin Greene, probably the main female character, was not my favorite. She was… fine… but her line delivery was a little too theatrical for me, and her big final monologue went on for WAY too long. But the actress, Kate Siegel, is apparently the director’s wife, so I guess I should get used to her if I’m going to keep watching Flanagan shows. I did love the relationship between Erin and Riley, though (from the beginning to the end). Another strong note was how Riley and his parents kept trying and and half-succeeding at reconnecting with each other throughout the story after the physical and emotional rift caused by what Riley did.
The show did have a few downsides. My main pet peeve was the lighting: though the show was set during early spring, the constant darkness and general color palette kept making me think it was October. There really is a difference between spring and autumn light, and in a series where so much of the action happens outdoors, I think that should have been taken into account. (Just looked it up and apparently it was filmed in fall because of COVID, which is understandable but unfortunate. I think it would have been better to wait a few more months.) I also felt that the last two episodes of the show were weaker than the first five (possibly because of who was missing). Overall, though, it was a really good series and I definitely recommend it.
I’d like to watch other shows and films by Mike Flanagan, but I’m worried they’ll be too scary. The Haunting of Hill House is one of my favorite books (I reread it almost every autumn), so I’m definitely interested in that adaptation. I’d also like to see The Fall of the House of Usher when it comes out, since we read that story in high school. I’d like to read The Turn of the Screw before I tackle The Haunting of Bly Manor (which is based on that book), so I’ll put that one off for a while. What spooky, creepy, pretty, and not-too-scary horror shows and movies would you recommend?
Image source here.