Mike Flanagan has shown his ability to balance deep and emotive character struggles with high-concept horror stories before in his horror oeuvre. The Haunting of Hill House and Doctor Sleep stand out as spectacular entries with stunning writing, exceptional performances, and solidly executed horror, but Midnight Mass may, perhaps, be Flanagan’s best so far. Recently he’s shown his skill with adaptations—both Hauntings and Doctor Sleep are based, of course, on prior material, but Midnight Mass is an original religious mystery all its own, and one with a big-picture implication on the world if you really think out its full extent. It’s a frightening, emotional, well written spectacle, and it’s easily one of the best horror entries of the last decade if not longer.
Midnight Mass follows Riley Flynn (Zach Gilford), who is returning home years later following his tragic drunk driving accident. His ‘home’ in this case is Crockett Island, a small town with a small village, and at its center is a small parish. The town is somewhat split in religiosity… his family are devout Catholics, as are many in the town, but church attendance has waned with the times (which, for many on Crockett Island, are bad). Riley’s asked to go to church with his family, where we meet Father Paul (Hamish Linklater), a new, younger priest that unexpectedly arrives in lieu of their 80-something long-time priest.
Riley’s a bit of a spectator every Sunday, as his atheism and inability to drink leave him little room to participate in services other than being a man in a pew. Riley and Father Paul slowly bond as the latter holds Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and the former slowly opens up. It all gets weirder pretty quickly when the miracles start.
At its core, Midnight Mass is a lot about faith. The struggle to maintain it after the unthinkable occurs. The leaning on it in times of tragedy. The use of it to justify terrors. Regular people coming to terms with the miraculous and its price. It’s a thought-provoking and frankly stunning explanation with some major big-picture implications for Christianity if one were to really think through the logic, a bold series tacking complex questions in a thorough way… and of course, the drama works and it’s absolutely terrifying at times.
The series is slightly on the slow burn side but the pacing works, pulling the audience along for the increasing interpersonal drama and mysteries as the threat grows in power. The performances land as well, with Zach Gilford’s Riley and Kate Siegel’s Erin Greene showcasing true pain, Samantha Sloyan’s manipulative Bev Keane exhibiting a deep boiling menace, and Rahul Kohli’s Sheriff Hassan and Hamish Linklater’s Father Paul really excelling in their complex roles. (I should also mention Annarah Cymone’s turn as Leeza, which boasts one particular monologue that’s an absolute stunner).
The series’ cinematography is stunningly bleak when it needs to be, taking full use of the temperamental island weather and claustrophobic feel of the smallest of towns. The writing is itself a standout, allowing characters to explore complex themes in a stunningly poetic yet realistic way (with one particularly impactful moment coming as characters explore what comes after death over a slow instrumental of the Christian hymn “Nearer, My God, To Thee”—thematically, it’s perfect). It’s a great, complex, and thematically rich exploration of these themes right until its very harrowing end.
Flanagan has already hit rhetorical gold before, with truly masterful entries like Absentia, The Haunting of Hill House, and Doctor Sleep allowing him to explore a variety of horror’s subgenres with nuance, terrible beauty, strong writing, and strong, frightening suspense. Midnight Mass easily rivals The Haunting of Hill House for Flanagan’s best series yet—it’s a bold, high-concept horror show with the largest implications of any world he’s built yet and it absolutely lands. The characters are nuanced, the themes are rich and frequently turned on their heads, the dialogue is artful and adeptly performed, and it’s so loaded with nuance and detail that watching it an immediate second time is, frankly, a rewarding plan. And yes, it’s quite scary.
Midnight Mass showcases a showrunner at the peak of his talents. It’s a wonderful, emotive, evocative series. It balances scares and tragedy in a way that fits with the works of, say, Ari Aster, with deep-seated religious horror that fans of The Exorcist and The Witch will love. Those comparisons aside, the series’ best comparison is with Flanagan’s own The Haunting of Hill House, another masterpiece, but Midnight Mass lands with a little larger world and a much grander set of implications. It’s spectacular, don’t miss it.