I seem to have a trend going where I’m always a year behind on the Mike Flanagan-led horror series for Netflix. I’ve kept it up for the third year in a row, using a miserable weekend being sick as an excuse to watch Midnight Mass, long after the buzz has already died down around it.
None of the series has worked for me as well as The Haunting of Hill House did, but I’d still consider myself a fan. They’re all so thoughtful and ambitious, clearly trying to do something new with the horror genre by giving them some weight and thematic significance, without losing the fun of monsters, ghosts, and jump scares. I love that they’re not quite an anthology series, but have that feel because of the same actors appearing over and over in significantly different roles.
And you can see why actors keep wanting to work with this team again, too. I don’t know anything about the actual production — although Flanagan and Kate Seigel do seem like genuinely cool people with a real love of horror stories and what can be done with them — but it’s evident that these series give actors plenty work with. Similar to Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story and spin-off projects, which give actors the chance to go completely over the top, Flanagan’s series give their actors weighty monologues where they can rhapsodize about the nature of what it means to be alive.
So Midnight Mass is smart, thoughtful, frequently moving, full of some really strong performances, indelible imagery, perfectly understated visual effects, and a few genuinely scary moments. It’s also meandering and overlong; I think calling it “a slow burn” is a little too charitable, and it would’ve benefited from having two or three fewer episodes. It’s full of monologues that undermine any sense of urgency in the story; a character will drop a bombshell of information that needs to be acted on immediately, only for the other character to start going on a lengthy tangent about germ theory or 9/11 or a story from their childhood. (“Sir, this is a Wendy’s.”) It peaks about mid-way through, then kind of fizzles out through its ending. It’s all very well done, and it takes a while to realize what a big swing it’s making with its ambition, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it.
It’s too dense to pick just one thing I like about it, so here are four:
The oddly specific song choices from Neil Diamond
My mother was a huge fan of Neil Diamond, so hearing his songs always reminds me of her singing along with them with all the joy of a church service. In fact, my memories blend together into a medley of Neil Diamond songs and her favorite hymns. I hadn’t made the specific connection until Midnight Mass that some of the songs — “Soolaimon” and “Holly Holy” in particular — are secular pop songs with religious lyrics in their choruses.
Not everyone is going to have the same connotations, obviously, but it conjured up such a vivid memory that it felt like a specific connection between me and the filmmakers. Stories involving organized religion, and this one in particular, are going to focus on reverence, obligation, and somber ritual, so I appreciated its setting a tone early on that acknowledged the joy and celebration that the faithful find in their religion.
A moment of joy and recognition between Father Paul and Mildred
Midnight Mass often feels frustrating because the characters seem to be so behind the audience in catching on to what’s actually happening. The reveal of Father Paul’s true identity in particular seems to happen long after the audience has already understood it, but the show insists on driving it home repeatedly, as if it would take us at least a full hour to get it.
But there’s a moment when Father Paul arrives at Mildred’s house to give her usual communion, and it’s the first time she’s regained her memories and is able to recognize people. She sees instantly who he really is, and there’s such a feeling of happiness between the two. They’re so excited to be finally reunited. And it’s the first time Father Paul seemed to be showing genuine emotion, since he’d come across as very measured and guarded up to that point. The exact nature of their relationship is made more explicit later on, but even here, it’s a perfectly-performed scene of two old friends just delighted to see each other again.
That was the moment that I felt like I finally understood what Midnight Mass was going to be about: the big revelation1No pun intended. wasn’t so much what was happening, as what was the motivation for what was happening. Everything up to that point had set up the series with heavy Salem’s Lot vibes, implying an update to that story with a much more direct layer of Catholic symbolism slathered on top. The shots of Paul leaving the ferry with his big, mysterious, locked-up crate was an obvious giveaway; it’s been a long time since I’ve seen the adaptation of Salem’s Lot, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if that image was taken directly from the original, it seemed so familiar2No pun intended.. But this moment was the first indication I got that he actually believed in what he was doing. Not in the “interesting villains never see themselves as villains” sense, but that he sincerely believed he was acting on God’s behalf.
The universe of Midnight Mass seemed to have no cultural awareness of vampires — as far as I could tell, the word “vampire” was never spoken by anyone — because the entire premise was based on the idea of “flipping the script” in vampire folklore. Instead of being a creature from folklore that, over time, grew to be a blasphemous subversion of Christianity, what if they were real creatures that existed, and how would devout Christians perceive them? When so much of the ritual focuses on pain, suffering, sacrifice, and fear as being necessary to achieving eternal life — not to mention the comparisons to transubstantiation, which are of course central to the plot — it’s easier to see how a character could ignore all of the obvious perversions of the vampire mythos and instead see the creature as an angel. The most interesting twist to me was seeing Father Paul interpreting a creation of evil as being the gift of rebirth that he’d share with a town he loved.
The slow burn fights horror inflation
I still say that the series was too long, and I think it would’ve worked just as well if it had sacrificed some of the opportunities for weighty performances and monologues in favor of getting to the point faster. But it became clear that there was a side effect to its deliberate pacing, one that was necessary for its whole premise to work. I’d read it described as a “slow burn,” which isn’t quite accurate, since it implies that it goes over the top by the story’s end — things do escalate, but it’s still an awful lot of people watching what’s going on around them and then quietly talking about it.
However, it makes a bit more sense if you do accept the premise that this is a universe where not only are vampires real, but where the people have no fiction or folkloric frame of reference to explain vampires. It becomes easier to see why it’s important for the story to belabor the journey to its climax, and to avoid talking about the topic immediately at hand in favor of going off on a digression with a personal story.
Did I ever tell you that I’ve been trying to get started writing a novel? I have a few ideas currently fighting each other for dominance, that I’ve been trying to think through and plot out during my spare time. And in each one, even though none of them are horror stories exactly, there needs to be a memorably scary moment to drive the action forward. Each time, I’ve started by trying to imagine the things that scare me, the things that I would find abjectly terrifying if they happened to me. And each time, I quickly realize that the most pants-wettingly horrifying thing that could happen to me would barely even register as a blip at the beginning of even a mediocre horror story. Just the safe distance afforded by its being fiction is enough to render inert an entire category of primal terrors that are only terrifying if you’re experiencing them directly: suddenly seeing a monster at the foot of the bed, hearing deliberate footsteps upstairs when there’s no one else in the house, hearing an unfamiliar voice just outside repeatedly calling your name, seeing a face pressed against your window at night.
By having so much of the runtime of these episodes be slow and talky, it allows for the scary moments to land harder. Often, it pairs them with a weird sound effect or a character’s reaction to make a jump scare. But it’s most effective when it allows those horrifying moments of recognition play out like they would in the real world. When you see two pinpoints of light in the distance, that suddenly resolve themselves into eyes staring at you from the darkness. When those lights move in an unmistakably deliberate and eerie way, making it undeniable that something sentient is not just watching you, but hunting you.
The pacing helps break down your defenses, to help keep them from being continually primed for something scary to happen, since you know you’re watching horror fiction. It helps put your mindset back into the mundane, to replicate that feeling of seeing something that isn’t just startling, but so out of place as to be incomprehensible.
The last line of dialogue was perfect
And the last line of dialogue in the show3“I can’t feel my legs” is such a perfectly dense way to sum up the tone of the series, showing an economy of language the rest of the series lacks. Calling it “bittersweet” is a huge over-simplification, because there’s a level of tragedy there that goes beyond the already obvious tragedy of two teenagers alone and adrift after having lost everything and everyone. But it is ultimately hopeful: it implies that the contagion is making its way out of their systems, and they’ll be able to return to lives as normal as possible once they make their way to the mainland.
And the understated reaction from Warren implies that it’ll be difficult but not tragic. Throughout the story, Leeza’s been treated like a victim or an object of pity. Warren’s reaction is a reminder that he doesn’t care about her disability, he just cares about her. Combined with the scenes showing people’s last moments on the island, it communicates the takeaway message better than any number of powerfully-delivered monologues could have: even in a world filled with fear and horror and unfair tragedy, there’s always the possibility for hope where love exists.
- 1No pun intended.
- 2No pun intended.
- 3“I can’t feel my legs”