Mike Flannagan's newest horror mini-series is a theological triumph
Mike Flannagan has singlehandedly brought prestige to the TV horror genre. By focusing on miniseries and self-contained stories, Flannagan has been able to encapsulate long films into his episodes, giving them an air of elevated drama. This was the case with The Haunting of Hill House (2018) as well as The Haunting of Bly Manor (2020). Now, Flannagan has moved on from the haunted house settings of his previous miniseries and transitioned into a much more philosophical and bonkers setting with Midnight Mass (2021).
Midnight Mass follows the characters of the humble fishing island of Crocker. The inhabitants and their routine, grey lives are shaken up when a new young priest, Father Paul (Hamish Linklater) arrives. Since his arrival strange and mysterious things begin to occur.
As with the other Flannagan series, Midnight Mass is an ensemble piece, and Flannagan once again shines in his picking of a cast. Flannagan has always kept some regulars collaborating in nearly all his projects, such as his wife the brilliant Kate Siegel and Henry Thomas, but Flannagan has shown a real skill at picking out actors who had been forgotten in bit roles and revealing them as diamonds in the rough. Such is the case in Midnight Mass with Linklater, Zach Gilford, and Samantha Sloyan. Flanagan’s taut writing and expert directing help deliver the type of incredible performances that one wonders if they would be more appreciated if they appeared in a drama instead of horror.
As with all of his previous film and series horror work, Flannagan frames his narrative around the drama and characters instead of scares and horror. This helps lay the foundations for characters and stories we are actually invested in. The scary ongoings in the series seem to be happening to the characters and their lives, instead of them being pieces of meat waiting to be slashed at by a murderer or monster. This helps raise the stakes and help you truly worry for the well-being of the characters, making moments of tension even more stressful. By having intelligent writing and a lack of overexplanatory exposition, Flannagan also triumphs by not treating viewers as if they were teenagers who are only looking for blood and sex (the demographic that studios seem to think make up horror audiences). Thus, Midnight Mass works well as a strong drama, which could easily work by itself if one took out the horror elements; the scary aspects only enliven and add to the thrills.
Midnight Mass, however, is more significant in Flannagan’s filmography, for its bold forays. The series is a real meditation on faith and religion, and specifically the blurred line between these two concepts. By infusing his debate within a horror setting, Flannagan is free to play around with symbolism and examples in the most extreme of ways. Thus, a real debate is wrought on screen, as we see originally pure spiritual ideas become slowly twisted and used to manipulate, control, and excuse violence. It is a brilliant microcosm of the effects that organized religion has wrought throughout history. However, Flannagan doesn’t go all out on religion in a Spinoza-like way, but instead offers an alternative way of worship and faith, based in a true self-reflection and introspection rather than a following of orders. There is much quoting from the Bible throughout the series, indicating the amount of work and research that Flannagan put into this deep analysis of a theme; he isn’t just projecting criticisms from the top of his head.
As with all of Flannagan’s work, every aspect of the series is curated to the most minute of details. The cinematography is spectacular, the visual effects rely on in-camera work so as to rely less on CGI and bring out more impressive visuals, and even the music and jump scares are used sparingly and in earned moments.
Midnight Mass is a delicious new horror miniseries from Flannagan, who demonstrates that this is once again a medium he is a master in. The series will surprise viewers along the way, and the strong writing, performances, and theological ponderings are enough to make the viewing of all seven episodes an enrichening experience.