Skip to main content

It feels wrong, doesn’t it? To interrogate a miracle.

Midnight Mass
(2021)

(SPOILERS) Midnight Mass, Mike Flanagan’s “deeply personal” Netflix horror, at least comes to the party with something to say. The problem is that its discourse is neither terribly original nor insightful, and it proceeds to rehearse it again and again, to diminishing effect, in ever longer monologues throughout its characteristically luxuriant (some might say a little baggy) runtime. It’s probably more interesting, then, as a metaphor, albeit one that wasn’t Flanagan’s express intent.

I’m unconvinced by Flanagan’s growing rep as the second coming of the horror auteur. He seems to veer closer to a more proficient Mick Garris in several key respects, picking up Stephen King projects no one else will handle but delivering them to much greater critical notices, whilst also making a comfy bed for himself on TV. I didn’t bother with The Haunting of Bly Manor, as I was underwhelmed with his take on The Haunting of Hill House (just stick to the Robert Wise film). Doctor Sleep, though, despite some protracted adrenochromic-vampiric-ravening business he indulged just that little too much (I have little desire to see the Director’s Cut for further, unexpurgated feeding), was a more admirable Shining sequel than anyone would have expected from the novel.

Midnight Mass picks up on such blood harvesting, but with a religious – Roman Catholic – spin, and is thus ripe for overtly literal readings. Some of these make it into the series, courtesy of Flanagan-surrogate Riley Finn (Zach Gilford); this really is the Catholic church, whether it’s feeding off the population financially, predating on altar boys, leading them astray under doctrinal pretexts, or engaging in more systemic Elite-connected activities, as one of the world’s more powerful, prevalent and endemic institutions.

Flanagan’s tale hinges on self-deception, and for that self-deception to sustain itself, he requires the conceit of a world that has never heard the word – or concept of – vampire. Which I find ever-so-slightly irksome; it’s essentially a lazy way out of some heavy lifting on the writer’s part. Possibly as lazy as using the bloodsuckers themselves. Unless, of course, Flanagan has a specific reason for using them, which he evidently does; it’s the core of the piece. Nevertheless, I’m sure there was a way to have his characters be aware and not also achingly self-aware, in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Whedonspeak, meta- sense. Most likely, Flanagan felt the example set by The Walking Dead gave him free licence, but it’s no less a hack deal than a world with no concept of ghosts or aliens or werewolves (something The Howling couldn’t imagine, in the latter case. Wolf attempts to get away with it, but then, it’s lycanthrope is so ludicrous, it shouldn’t count anyway).

Getting past that hurdle, the challenge facing Father Paul Hill/Monsignor Pruitt (Hamish Linklater) is to recognise that a demonic winged beast in demonic winged beast clothing is not in fact an angel at all. Which wouldn’t be much of a stretch, you’d have thought. I appreciate Flanagan’s efforts in having Paul contort his perception and learning in order to perceive the Angel (Quinton Boisclair) as a divine messenger, but by visualising it as such an undiluted beast – there’s nothing even of the antichrist in its realisation, in the sense of appearing outwardly benign – Flanagan manages to double down on the idea that anyone with the remotest religious conviction is a blind, queasy fool, who necessarily can’t see the wood for the trees. His premise seems calculated to be as absurdly antithetical as possible in that respect, even as the creature’s designs conjures notions of Nephilim and Sir Ridders’ Engineers from Prometheus (this beast is depicted merely a force of nature, however, rather than an erudite and cunning prescriber of master plans and overall purpose).

Perhaps Flanagan considered that was part and parcel of the core Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation he’d placed under the microscope. Of which, I have to say, for all its validity, seems not a little juvenile when presented in such an explicit manner (I’m not even sure Kevin Smith didn’t bring it up, vomitously, in Dogma. Not that I want to revisit it to find out, but it’s certainly in that general ballpark of go-to attacks on the religion). Like the world without vampires, there’s something “too easy” about such an attack, one personified by Samantha Sloyan’s psycho zealot Bev, who, of course, embodies everything that loathsome about a human being while cloaked in the mantle of an exceptional Christian. Sloyan is outstanding in the part (probably the best player in the cast), but the role is pitifully prosaic, and continually reminded me of the equally one-note hateable Mrs Carmody in The Mist.

So, Holy Communion and the Catholic doctrine that the bread and wine therein transubstantiates to the receiver. Yeah, well done Mike. An obvious comparison to vampirism beckons (“Whoever eats of my flesh and drinks of my blood shall have everlasting life”). Run with it for all it’s worth. If Flanagan had really wanted to be daring, he might have suggested it was inscribed as doctrine – or even the scripture itself, in the symbolic sense, whenever it was actually written – for precisely that reason. To inform the faithful of this monstrous proclivity, but wrap it up as a positive, in the manner of subconscious programming, in exactly the manner Paul does the Angel/vampire.

Flanagan is too capable a filmmaker to make these elements seem exactly stale, but Midnight Mass is dogged by a sense of familiarity. The setting itself – a remote island, pop. 127 – is probably the series’ most unreservedly successful element, in terms of instructing atmosphere and character, but it is also undeniably redolent of isolated communities gone awry elsewhere (The Wicker Man, the more recent Midsommar).

And so, much of the discussion on doctrinal points in Midnight Mass can become a little wearisome, banal even, through the accompanying relish with which Flanagan “exposes” the all-purpose qualities of Bible verse, as a tool for warranting any given act or attitude, to the extent of ones that are outright immoral. Flanagan is clearly fluent with the scriptures, but that makes this no less well-trodden a path as he rakes over old favourites (the less-than-benign nature of the Old Testament God, and indeed much of the consequent law and reason). At times, as we keep returning to Riley and Paul at their two-man AA meetings, Midnight Mass becomes simply an indulgence, a vehicle for Flanagan’s philosophical-scriptural circular grandstanding, and he simply doesn’t have enough of cogent interest to say – or more still of nuance – to justify itself.

There’s also a sense of inevitability to Flanagan’s thematic architecture. Riley studied all the religious faiths and texts in prison – sentenced for a drunk driving fatality that haunts him still – and “came out of that an atheist”. One of the fatally long monologues (so long, you’d think Chris Carter was a consultant) finds Riley setting out his pedestrian treatise on what happens when you die to professed believer Erin (Kate Siegel, also Mrs Flanagan). We later hear Erin’s own account of what she expects, which far from being some kind of affirmation of faith, retreats beneath the covers of Flanagan’s own outlook. Albeit, in her case, a kind of quasi-mystical atheism (“We are the cosmos dreaming of itself”).

This apparently derives from Flanagan having “more of a spiritual reaction reading Pale Blue Dot” than The Bible. Carl Sagan’s Dawkins-approved brand of infinite-universe/insignificant-man humanism perhaps shouldn’t be surprising from a filmmaker who, when it comes down to it, gets his aesthetic kicks from winged demons quaffing blood form an open vein. Although, even Dawkins’ brand of religious – the religion of science – fanaticism can get in the way of the overarching mission statement at times.

Flanagan duly couches the blood disorder afflicting the community in terms of scientism and has Muslim sheriff Hassan (Rahul Kohil) inform his son miracles can’t happen, per Allah; Flanagan, as per the memo, is scrupulous in avoiding any critique or interrogation of the Muslim faith (except on the part of hateful Bev, so that counts as an inverse validation. Curiously, I don’t remember any slights at mixed-race marriages, which you’d have thought would be fodder for among such a group). There’s various cynically representational box-ticking in filling out the small community – Annabeth Gish’s good rationalist lesbian doctor Sarah; Annarah Cymone’s good, formerly wheelchair-bound, mixed-race daughter – but it’s with the sheriff that Flanagan really makes a meal of his signposted progressivism, offering Hassan a frankly risible speech in Book VI: Act of The Apostles, one that crudely dumps his entire motivational background in absurdly embarrassing fashion when Sarah shows up to ask him, of all things, to do his job.

The substance of the sheriff’s monologue covers some pertinent ground, in particular with regard to FBI activities (addressed more singularly by Chris Morris in The Day Shall Come), but it’s frankly a terrible piece of writing that has no business busting its way in at this point in the story; Gish’s reaction, doing her damnedest to look earnest and sincere throughout, says it all. On the face of it, the environmentalism element is more evenly addressed – the community’s ruin at the doing of big oil, but in the long term, it is fishing quotas that are damaging them most – but there’s also a nod to the ill effects of inadequate money management and grabbing church officials as primary (well, secondary) culprits.

Flanagan throws in some effective reversals and twists, most notably the attack on Riley at the end of Book IV: Lamentations, but he also makes a hash of executing some aspects. The makeup for Alex Essore as Sarah’s mother Mildred is effective and subtle, such that the “de-aging” carries, but Linklater’s is absolutely dreadful as Pruitt, so there’s never any doubt about his true identity before its revealed. Of which, I found no one – aside from Sarah – recognising his younger self a stretch, even of the “Father, you know, you seem awfully familiar” variety. I took time to be persuaded by Linklater’s performance too. I was familiar with him from Legion, and there seemed to be an overplaying, performative tendency that rather put me off – that of a comedian attempting to play straight – along with an evangelical degree of sermonising that didn’t strike me as very Catholic (Flanagan would know best, I guess).

Other structural aspects felt somewhat ungainly too. Riley’s brother Warren (Igby Riney) features heavily in the first episode, but then barely registers until the final one. And the finale itself is a bit of an ordeal of manoeuvring characters to a desired outcome rather than offering them coherent and consistent motivation.

Also notable here is Flanagan – whose tale was long-gestating – inscribing a layer of topicality with allusions to virus and contagion spread from person to person (here, via blood, and the danger of it spreading to the mainland… So, what… is this vampire generally extra choosy? Why hasn’t it been siring wayward humans everywhere already?) Flanagan even has Sarah invoke Ignaz Semmelweis (and with it, the false equivalence of germ theory and virus theory as discussed in respect of 12 Monkeys, where Jeffrey Goines rambles on about him).

I’m tempted to run with the implications of hidden elite vampires operating through the church and feeding secretly on the population, who in turn see the world in a new and more vibrant druggy way when inducted into the club (in particular, the adrenochrome idea that presents itself with Erin’s pregnancy, where this force directly sucks the life out of the unborn infant in order to thrive, and those with the craving for this fabled/alleged substance succumbing to its demands over and above any inherent morality that would keep them from preying on others).

However, the viral aspect had me considering a less obvious allusion. The grey elite ascribing its messenger (be that messenger a Gates or a Fauci) to sell to the congregation/ populace the benefits of a life-giving/ preserving substance they should take into themselves, one that actually does nothing of the kind – receive the sacrament/take the jab – and actually ebbs away their essence and humanity. In order to achieve this, restrictions are imposed and rights removed (travel is prevented, lines of communication are cut off or impeded), only to be restored when they have received the prescribed “medication”, free once more to interact and mingle with the larger world. Meanwhile, those that resist are to be forcibly detained and jabbed (some of these jabbed also become immediate causalities, to be redacted from the public eye/record until the full plan has been executed).

As I noted in the Don’t Look Up review, however, it’s in the nature of such texts promising subtexts that they’re perceived in ways their makers may not have conceived – be that original conception climate change or religious fanaticism – when world events overtake them. Midnight Mass is a serviceable series, certainly by Netflix standards, but goes to emphasise that Flanagan needs someone honest on hand to tell him when he’s giving himself too much rope. Of course, that’s true of almost everything the streamer has done with an auterish eye.


Popular posts from this blog

The Bible never said anything about amphetamines.

The Color of Money (1986) (SPOILERS) I tend to think it’s evident when Scorsese isn’t truly exercised by material. He can still invest every ounce of the technical acumen at his fingertips, and the results can dazzle on that level, but you don’t really feel the filmmaker in the film. Which, for one of his pictures to truly carry a wallop, you need to do. We’ve seen quite a few in such deficit in recent years, most often teaming with Leo. The Color of Money , however, is the first where it was out-and-out evident the subject matter wasn’t Marty’s bag. He needed it, desperately, to come off, but in the manner a tradesman who wants to keep getting jobs. This sequel to The Hustler doesn’t linger in the mind, however good it may be, moment by moment.

I said I had no family. I didn’t say I had an empty apartment.

The Apartment (1960) (SPOILERS) Billy Wilder’s romcom delivered the genre that rare Best Picture Oscar winner. Albeit, The Apartment amounts to a rather grim (now) PG-rated scenario, one rife with adultery, attempted suicide, prostitution of the soul and subjective thereof of the body. And yet, it’s also, finally, rather sweet, so salving the darker passages and evidencing the director’s expertly judged balancing act. Time Out ’s Tom Milne suggested the ending was a cop out (“ boy forgives girl and all’s well ”). But really, what other ending did the audience or central characters deserve?

Listen to the goddamn qualified scientists!

Don’t Look Up (2021) (SPOILERS) It’s testament to Don’t Look Up ’s “quality” that critics who would normally lap up this kind of liberal-causes messaging couldn’t find it within themselves to grant it a free pass. Adam McKay has attempted to refashion himself as a satirist since jettisoning former collaborator Will Ferrell, but as a Hollywood player and an inevitably socio-politically partisan one, he simply falls in line with the most obvious, fatuous propagandising.

Your desecration of reality will not go unpunished.

2021-22 Best-of, Worst-of and Everything Else Besides The movies might be the most visible example of attempts to cling onto cultural remnants as the previous societal template clatters down the drain. It takes something people really want – unlike a Bond movie where he kicks the can – to suggest the model of yesteryear, one where a billion-dollar grosser was like sneezing. You can argue Spider-Man: No Way Home is replete with agendas of one sort or another, and that’s undoubtedly the case (that’s Hollywood), but crowding out any such extraneous elements (and they often are) is simply a consummate crowd-pleaser that taps into tangible nostalgia through its multiverse take. Of course, nostalgia for a mere seven years ago, for something you didn’t like anyway, is a symptom of how fraught these times have become.

Doctors make the worst patients.

Coma (1978) (SPOILERS) Michael Crichton’s sophomore big-screen feature, and by some distance his best. Perhaps it’s simply that this a milieu known to him, or perhaps it’s that it’s very much aligned to the there-and-now and present, but Coma , despite the occasional lapse in this adaptation of colleague Robin Cook’s novel, is an effective, creepy, resonant thriller and then some. Crichton knows his subject, and it shows – the picture is confident and verisimilitudinous in a way none of his other directorial efforts are – and his low-key – some might say clinical – approach pays dividends. You might also call it prescient, but that would be to suggest its subject matter wasn’t immediately relevant then too.

You ruined every suck-my-silky-ass thing!

The Matrix Resurrections (2021) (SPOILERS) Warner Bros has been here before. Déjà vu? What happens when you let a filmmaker do whatever they want? And I don’t mean in the manner of Netflix. No, in the sequel sense. You get a Gremlins 2: The New Batch (a classic, obviously, but not one that financially furthered a franchise). And conversely, when you simply cash in on a brand, consequences be damned? Exorcist II: The Heretic speaks for itself. So in the case of The Matrix Resurrections – not far from as meta as The New Batch , but much less irreverent – when Thomas “Tom” Anderson, designer of globally successful gaming trilogy The Matrix , is told “ Our beloved company, Warner Bros, has decided to make a sequel to the trilogy ” and it’s going ahead “with or without us”, you can be fairly sure this is the gospel. That Lana, now going it alone, decided it was better to “make the best of it” than let her baby be sullied. Of course, quite what that amounts to in the case of a movie(s) tha

You just threw a donut in the hot zone!

Den of Thieves (2018) (SPOILERS) I'd heard this was a shameless  Heat  rip-off, and the presence of Gerard Butler seemed to confirm it would be passable-at-best B-heist hokum, so maybe it was just middling expectations, even having heard how enthused certain pockets of the Internet were, but  Den of Thieves  is a surprisingly very satisfying entry in the genre. I can't even fault it for attempting to Keyser Soze the whole shebang at the last moment – add a head in a box and you have three 1995 classics in one movie – even if that particular conceit doesn’t quite come together.

Abandon selective targeting. Shoot everything.

28 Weeks Later (2007) (SPOILERS) The first five minutes of 28 Weeks Later are far and away the best part of this sequel, offering in quick succession a devastating moral quandary and a waking nightmare, immortalised on the screen. After that, while significantly more polished, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo reveals his concept to be altogether inferior to Danny Boyle and Alex Garland’s, falling back on the crutches of gore, nihilism, and disengaging and limiting shifts of focus between characters in whom one has little investment in the first place.

It’s always possible to find a good moral reason for killing anybody.

The Assassination Bureau (1969) (SPOILERS) The Assassination Bureau ought to be a great movie. You can see its influence on those who either think it is a great movie, or want to produce something that fulfils its potential. Alan Moore and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen . The just-released (and just-flopped) The King’s Men . It inhabits a post-Avengers, self-consciously benign rehearsal of, and ambivalence towards, Empire manners and attitudes, something that could previously be seen that decade in Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (and sequel Monte Carlo or Bust , also 1969), Adam Adamant Lives! , and even earlier with Kind Hearts and Coronets , whilst also feeding into that “Peacock Revolution” of Edwardian/Victorian fashion refurbishment. Unfortunately, though, it lacks the pop-stylistic savvy that made, say, The President’s Analyst so vivacious.

This guy’s armed with a hairdryer.

An Innocent Man (1989) (SPOILERS) Was it a chicken-and-egg thing with Tom Selleck and movies? Did he consistently end up in ropey pictures because other, bigger big-screen stars had first dibs on the good stuff? Or was it because he was a resolutely small-screen guy with limited range and zero good taste? Selleck had about half-a-dozen cinema outings during the 1980s, one of which, the very TV, very Touchstone Three Men and a Baby was a hit, but couldn’t be put wholly down to him. The final one was An Innocent Man , where he attempted to show some grit and mettle, as nice-guy Tom is framed and has to get tough to survive. Unfortunately, it’s another big-screen TV movie.