Created by Mike Flanagan
Starring: Hamish Linklater, Kate Seigel, Zach Gilford, Samantha Sloyan
Mike Flanagan has built a hardcore following over the past decade by consistently directing solid horror projects, including Oculous, Ouija: Origin of Evil, and Doctor Sleep. Separately, Flanagan has cultivated a talented actors’ troupe, showcasing them in yearly projects for Netflix. Hush, Haunting of Hill House, and new addition The Midnight Club–all have been praised for their carefully crafted scares grounded by personal emotion and trauma.
Midnight Mass was informed by Flanagan’s personal experiences from being raised in the Catholic Church along with his gratitude/frustration with Alcoholics Anonymous during his addiction recovery. His searing dissertation on faith, religion, and the actions both can lead one to take had critics and audiences of all belief systems abuzz last year.
Especially vocal–both in praise and condemnation–were prominent Catholic writers and radio hosts. Normally, when the horror genre uses Catholicism as a backdrop, the material relies on laughably tired clichés, but Midnight Mass is much more accurate in its presentation (save for some minor quibbles). Thus, Catholic think pieces looked closer than they normally would.
Since October is–
–I was looking for horror content. I mentioned this to my friends over dinner, and they immediately sat me down to watch this show. I was engaged and intrigued, so I decided to show it to a Catholic family member.
Repulsion is, perhaps, too kind a word for his reaction. Surprised, I began researching religious opinions that had a bit more authority and found the aforementioned polarizing results. I couldn’t resist the debate’s seductive pull, so I had to finish the show, then chime in.
After killing a young girl while drunk driving and finishing a subsequent, apostatizing stint in prison, Riley Flynn must return to his childhood home–a secluded northeastern island of about 90 people. His parents make him attend mass, but, the only church on the island is without its elderly monsignor; a substitute is filling in.
Not long after, “miracles” begin happening to congregates, ones that make locals, including Riley, suspicious. Meanwhile, animals and local ne’er-do-wells begin disappearing. Once the truth is uncovered, a sinister plot to spread a “new Gospel” to the mainland is revealed. Before the conflict is over, every member of the island will be transformed–one way or another.
Yes, if you can stomach it. I was a practicing, properly educated member of the Church of Rome for many years, and I can personally tell you that Midnight Mass gets 95% of things right. There are a couple of moments that took me out (the parish sings quite a few Bach corrals, Monsignor Pruitt would NEVER be allowed to pastor that church for as long as he did, “Christ’s passion” and “God’s army” don’t mean what a character thinks it does, why do ALL confessionals on TV look like that?), but I found the show’s targets of criticism refreshing and thought-provoking. A senile priest who is long past retirement, an overzealous church lady who thinks religion is a contest that she’s winning, strict parents whose rules only encourage their children to rebel–this mini-series touches upon and deconstructs archetypes a parishioner is likely familiar with no matter their archdiocese. Additionally, characters of faith renounce these hypocrites, offering up valid Catechetical perspectives, keeping the focus on Jesus’ love and salvation.
The lump which many practicing viewers will have to swallow, however, is the Monsignor’s perversion of many Catholic practices and mass parts–some considered sacred. Led astray by an “angel,” the priest, though well-intentioned, supplants God’s will with his own. He knows his congregation is dying, and he believes fast-tracked power will restore his flock’s minds and bodies.
To appease his new bestial bestie, the Monsignor twists the Eucharistic prayer to serve the winged creature’s own monstrous purposes. The result is chilling. To some Catholic viewers, these portions may be too upsetting to watch while others may take issue with using such religious practices for “mere entertainment.”
To categorize Midnight Mass‘ aim as solely entertainment, however, callously dismisses the show’s grave warning: If someone in your parish is usurping God’s sacred rituals for their own personal gain, expose it. Evil is most repugnant when laid bare in the light.
My answer to this was going to be an emphatic “yes,” but then I read a review from a former evangelical who’d been ostracized for being gender fluid. They found the pervasive religious backdrop brought back some unwelcome memories, so, ironically, just like the Catholics addressed in the section above, this show may hit too close to home.
Beyond that caveat, I imagine Midnight Mass serves as a voice for many people’s frustrations. Psychologists and recovering alcoholics have raised concern about the Alcoholics Anonymous program’s foundational ties to religion. Undoubtedly, AA has provided life-saving help for addicts, but some members may find the faith of their chapter’s location incongruous with their own personal beliefs. Riley, Midnight Mass‘ protagonist, is rightfully vexed when the only chapter available to him (that he MUST attend as a condition of his parole) is of a faith he no longer practices. Conversely, Riley befriends an addict, Joe, on the island and convinces him to join the chapter as well. Joe, an island pariah, receives redemption and peace through these meetings.
This type of layered nuance is applied to the entire show, which, I imagine, led to its polarizing reception. Yes, Riley, the atheist, is frequently the voice of reason, but so is the practicing Muslim sheriff, Hassan. In a later episode, a scientist on the island tries to warn residents of the looming danger. Her sole allies–her mother and the island schoolteacher, are both Catholic. Far from playing the “both sides” card or opting for an “enlightened centrism” approach, Midnight Mass does its damnedest to approach its characters’ beliefs with empathy. It doesn’t necessarily agree with them, but it tries to understand where its subjects are coming from. I imagine that process is rewarding for audiences of near every creed.
Despite my earlier praise, the show isn’t perfect. It’s in desperate need of a third-party editor. Midnight Mass runs for seven, hour-long episodes. It should’ve run for six, fifty-minute episodes. Monolouges abound, often counterproductive to their intentions. Letting the actors, well, act would’ve driven the desired message home much harder.
One extended speech towards the end of the series, given by sheriff Hassan, details the islamophobia rampant in America after 9/11. Most viewers are aware of this discrimination (if not the details), so their eyes glaze over as Hassan elucidates the situation. The diatribe ends with a fantastic point, but the audience is half asleep when he says it. Instead, Hassan could’ve imbued the intention of that monologue into two sentences, then finished with the same point, giving the audience food for thought while letting them put two and two together.
The constant soapboxing also detracts from the truly powerful, necessary speeches. Monsignor Pruitt has a near ten minute piece in which he tries to convince Riley what the right path forward is (while also convincing himself). The scene is a tour de force, but the audience has been so bludgeoned with tongue lashings that the full impact is lost.
Ironically, the show’s moralizing comes off as didactic, a tone no one likes in their narrative media. After all, if people wanted a sermon, they’d just go to church.
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