(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.