October 2021. Everyone is talking about Squid Game – Netflix’s new viral TV series. Just like Making a Murderer, You Don’t F*** With Cats, and Tiger King, this’ll be what everyone is buzzing about for the next couple weeks, likely resulting in thousands of track suit based Halloween costumes. But I’ve just finished another Netflix series that I feel deserves more attention than it’s getting, which is why I’ve gone ahead and labeled this “IRH Recommends” rather than just a normal review. I’m talking about Mike Flanagan’s 7-episode limited series, Midnight Mass.
This is a reference that will likely go over the heads of most non-gamers, but it’s too accurate not to use. Midnight Mass is to Haunting of Hill House as Bioshock Infinite is to the original Bioshock. Translated from Geek, Bioshock was an extremely well-received first person shooter game released in 2007. It had a direct sequel, Bioshock 2, made by a different team, that was not as well received. The original developers then released Bioshock Infinite, which while being a brand new story, characters, and setting, is considered the true sequel.
Which brings me to Midnight Mass. Mike Flanagan made huge waves with the Haunting of Hill House series in 2018, while its direct followup, Haunting of Bly Manor, felt a little lacking. Not that it didn’t have the same level of technical expertise, tantalizing mystery, great acting and dialogue, and abundance of hidden ghosts as Hill House, but Bly Manor’s story just didn’t click for me.
But Midnight Mass… oh, Midnight Mass… If you liked the Haunting of Hill House, you must, must, check out Midnight Mass.
This is not another haunted house movie – I’ll get that out of the way first. The initial couple episodes make you think it might be going that way, but then about halfway through, you discover that it’s actually an entirely different sort of classic horror story. I desperately want to spoil which one, but that would truly rob you of the surprise.
As you might guess, the whole series is awash in Catholic themes. The setting, a tiny, run-down coastal island and its Catholic church that acts as sort of the unofficial leadership of the little community there, is a far cry from the stone mansions of Hill House and Bly Manor. We get to know most of the residents there – who they are, what they believe or don’t believe, their past traumas and guilt… We meet the new sheriff and his son, the holier-than-thou, passive aggressive Church Lady, the town drunk, the sycophantic mayor… somehow all these people are made to feel real and fleshed out without the show being bogged down in endless pages of dialogue. (Though, it should be noted that some viewers have criticized the number of walk-and-talk scenes in this show – of which there are MANY, but I didn’t find them boring at all.)
The main thrust of the plot involves several characters, but the central one has to the do with the town’s elderly head Priest, who leaves the island for Pilgrimage at the start of the show, but doesn’t return as promised. Instead, a mysterious younger priest arrives and pretty much immediately starts to create a buzz in town with his quiet passion. But of course, ominous events seem to arrive along with him.
All the Mike Flanagan-isms are presented and accounted for. He’s one of those directors that constantly re-uses “his” group of actors – his wife, Kate Seigel, Henry Thomas, Alex Essoe, etc. His famous ultra-long takes are in here too, though they’re typically reserved for important monologues rather than the showy, elaborate setups like Episode 6 of Hill House. He asks a lot of his actors here – keeping the camera trained on their faces in long closeups while they talk about what they hope happens when they die and such – and they all rise to the challenge. Every member of the cast is stellar.
My biggest issue with Bly Manor was that it felt like it was spinning its wheels too much at times. It spent too long setting up mysteries and not enough time on the solutions. Midnight Mass does not suffer from this. It’s 7 episodes instead of the traditional 10, and by the halfway point you’re pretty much fully aware of what’s really going on, as well as the stakes. Each episode ends on either a cliffhanger or a dramatic moment that always propels the story forward.
On the subject of Catholicism, this series is incredibly deft at both challenging the conceits of God and religion, while also coming to their defense in truly compelling ways. Actual Catholics will certainly object to certain parts of the story that cast the Church as the villain, but if they’re willing to look past that, they might find a lot to love here too. I’m being vague on purpose, but it doesn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater as far as faith is concerned. I’ll leave it there.
7-odd hours is a lot to invest in one story for me – I’m not really a TV guy. But I really powered through this one. In fact, I might like it even more than Hill House. I count it as solid Halloween Season viewing, but it would be appropriate for any time of year really. Don’t sleep on it.