GORE IN THE STORE
MIDNIGHT MASS ***
Starring Zach Gilford, Hamish Linklater, Kate Siegel.
Horror, US, 7 episodes.
Streaming on Netflix from 24th September
Writer and director Mike Flanagan has certainly found a beneficial sponsor in Netflix. From his smart handling of adapting Stephen King’s bedroom set GERALD’S GAME into a taut, tension filled film and his reimagining of Shirley Jackson’s THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE into a family saga miniseries it certainly seems to be a working relationship producing results that capture the audience’s attention and imagination. Netflix, obviously happy with these results, have seemingly given Flanagan carte blanche to do whatever he feels like, hence MIDNIGHT MASS; a seven hour plus miniseries that takes a well-trodden horror premise while telling a tale that delves deep into the philosophical questions raised by its characters regarding faith and religion.
Such heady concepts have been tackled numerous times in the genre before but rarely to the extent attempted here and arguably at the expense of the storyline which often completely stops itself in its tracks. Set in Crockett Island, population 127, we follow Riley Flynn as he returns home after relocating to the city and four years in prison served for killing a girl while drunk driving. Coinciding with his return is the arrival of a priest, Father Paul Hill, replacing the islands aged Monsignor Pruitt who has been looking after his dwindling flock of worshippers over the years. The island has seen its population dwindle, particularly after an oil spill from years before that has decimated its once prosperous fishing community. However, the young priest’s sermons seem to galvanise the put-upon community in several surprising ways that will bring about the man’s mysterious past in a shattering and unearthly fashion.
The set-up is more than reminiscent of several Stephen King stories. The first two episodes mine the same vein of character set up and development that King excels at while placing enticing, sinister clues of a supernatural threat throughout keeping the audience hooked. The number of characters introduced here including Riley’s ex-girlfriend Erin, now pregnant after a disastrous relationship, and the Muslim Sheriff Hassan who is seen as an outsider by the islands mainly Catholic population, not least the intently devout Bev Keane who falls under Father Paul’s sway almost immediately. Alongside these nicely etched characters are the instances of a possible sinister influence taking hold of the island, the death of hundreds of stray cats being the first instance that may be related to the huge trunk that Father Paul has taken with him to his new home.
So far, so engrossing. Flanagan sets up his story with engaging characters and enticing mysteries and then places them to the side from episodes three to six in favour of in-depth discussions about faith and interpretation of the bible. These discussions, usually between Riley and Father Paul or in some instances Riley and Erin may be seen by some as a brave choice in doing something different with the genre; ignoring the usual tropes of a small-town horror story and looking at how interpretations of the Bible and God’s word can be interpreted and skewed to a genre lens. The discussions of a God who is as cruel as he is loving and the way it affects characters’ lives prop up with such regularity that it may prove a sticking point for those expecting something more straight forward and concentrated on telling its story.
At times such matters become repetitive, especially if you are an atheist with no interest in such matters. Many Netflix series seem to suffer from this bloated storytelling, last year’s HAUNTING OF BLY MANOR, which saw Flanagan relegating directing his writing and directing duties to others, being a prime example. As evidenced by the short and tough OCULUS and his directors cut of DOCTOR SLEEP Flanagan can work well with both extremes of length but when given free reign, as is the case here, the results are a bit spottier. By the time the final episode rolls around, its atmospheric and beautifully shot tale of a small community under supernatural siege feels like too little too late. With a tighter edit this could have been something special. As fascinating and deeply personal as it is MIDNIGHT MASS is a tale that is more sporadically interesting than gripping and ends up feeling more like a lecture on spiritualism than a horror story.