About one year ago, I wrote the review for Mike Flanagan’s follow-up to his incredibly successful horror series The Haunting of Hill House, The Haunting of Bly Manor. Bly Manor, like Hill House before it, was a visual essay on the ghosts that haunt us. Not the spirits necessarily, but the regrets, the fears, the abandoned hopes, that follow us around day to day. Bly Manor was lovely, truly, it was, but in the end the two shows had a very similar central message: that not all of the ghosts that haunt us are spirits. As lovely as that message was, I was worried that Midnight Mass would be much the same, just another edition in that now tired story.
I am very pleased to have been proven wrong. Although Midnight Mass has the visual bleakness of those ten-a-penny Scandinavian murder shows, Mike Flanagan’s magnum opus is truly unique. Rather than revolving around a house like his previous series, Midnight Mass takes place on Crockett Island, an isolated, largely Catholic community 30 miles off mainland USA. In the beginning of the series, the island welcomes home Riley Flynn (Zach Gilford), who has just finished off a stint in prison for drunk driving, and Erin Green (Kate Siegel), Riley’s childhood sweetheart and recently returned runaway. The island also welcomes newcomer Father Paul (Hamish Linklater), who has come to replace the aging Monsignor Pruitt as head of the island’s church. When Father Paul performs a miracle that seems straight out of the New Testament, Riley, Erin, and the rest of the island are swept up in a religious fervour that threatens to consume them all.
Personally, I am a huge fan of the little discussed genre of religious horror. The Exorcist, The VVitch, Saint Maud, you name it, I love it. Many of my favourite horror movies have aspects of religion sewn into them, weaving their way through the story. The dichotomy between the comfort and purity of religion and the gritty uneasiness of horror seem to fit together in a way that just seems right. But for Mike Flanagan, the two are not mutually exclusive. In Midnight Mass there is not religion in horror, there is horror in religion, and in that way, Flanagan’s newest show shines amongst its peers.
In Midnight Mass, the monstrous is divine, and no one better demonstrates this than the two stand-out actors of the show, Hamish Linklater and Samantha Sloyan. Both play characters who are firmly Catholic, one being a priest and the other a religious zealot, and it is their believability that sells the horror. Linklater, besides being another strong contestant in the Hot Priest Olympics, shines in his role as Father Paul, bringing nuance to a character who could have been firmly placed as the show’s antagonist. Father Paul’s brush with divinity and his blind faith in his religion are utterly convincing; however, it is Sloyan’s Bev Keane that truly develops the horror of Midnight Mass.
Samantha Sloyan’s Bev Keane is every intolerant hyper-religious person you’ve ever met. She masterfully twists her faith for personal gain. Whether it is embezzling money donated to the church or cheerfully aiding and abetting murderers, she is able to write it off as God’s plan. Bev Keane is fun to hate, it’s true, but she is also genuinely terrifying in her realism. To me, the real horror of Midnight Mass is the way that humans are able to twist religion to their own ends, to make the monstrous divine. Mike Flanagan does not rely on cheap jump scares to make his show scary; he doesn’t need to. He knows that religious extremism is scary enough on its own.
In the end, Mike Flanagan’s newest horror series cements him as one of the best horror directors of this generation, because he knows that the scariest things on this earth are not monsters, but other humans.
It has been recently announced that Mike Flanagan will be directing a new horror show based on the works of Edgar Allen Poe, so I guess I will see you all then. I cannot wait.
Image via pxfuel