Throughout the Haunting anthology, creator Mike Flanagan has carved out a very particular brand of horror. Both Hill House and Bly Manor are slow and methodical, with intricate stories that carefully weave together ghostly scares with family drama. Their small scope keeps them focused. Flanagan’s latest, Midnight Mass, isn’t part of that anthology, though in many ways it feels like it is. It has the same patient build-up, the intense focus on family dynamics, and even some of the same cast. But Midnight Mass also increases the scope — and the scares. Instead of a single family home, its story encompasses a small fishing village, and instead of ghosts it’s more about monsters. It takes a bit to get going, but by the end it descends into pure and gruesome horror.
Midnight Mass takes place on Crockett Island, colloquially known as Crock Pot, an isolated island with a population of just over a hundred residents. There are two important things to know about the island. First, it’s going through a steady decline years after an oil spill decimated the local fishing industry. Second, it’s a very religious place, with St. Patrick’s Church serving as the de facto center of town. At the outset of the show, the big island drama has to do with the aging local priest, who went on a pilgrimage and returned sick, and is now resting in a hospital on the mainland. A mysterious, young Father Paul (Hamish Linklater) arrives to temporarily take his place. Paul reinvigorates the island’s community, turning the church into the bustling, vibrant place it once was.
Around the time he arrives, weird things start happening. One day, dozens of dead cats wash up on a beach. Later, a resident swears he saw the old priest going for a walk in the middle of a deadly storm. Stranger still are the miracles: aging residents start to regain their youth, and a young girl stands up from her wheelchair and walks in order to receive communion. All of these seemingly disparate developments are connected to the show’s big twist, which reveals itself about halfway through.
Like most small town mysteries, Midnight Mass is an ensemble. The story starts out with Riley Flynn (Zach Gilford), a former altar boy who left the island, only to return after a stint in jail for a deadly DUI that continues to haunt him. He’s joined by childhood friend Erin Greene (Kate Siegel), who is similarly back on Crockett after a lifetime away from the island, now pregnant and living in her mother’s old house, while working her old job at the local school. There’s also the town sheriff Hassan (Rahul Kohli), a former NYPD officer and seemingly the only non-Christian on the island; Bev (Samantha Sloyan), the archetypal judgy religious type who helps run the church and guilts people into attending; town doctor Sarah (Annabeth Gish) who is struggling to explain what’s happening to her patients; and Riley’s parents (Henry Thomas and Kristin Lehman) who are just trying to keep it together as they take in their troubled adult son.
Even though there’s a lot to keep track of, you’ll get to know these characters intimately over the show’s seven episodes, because if there’s one thing the residents of Crockett love more than anything, it’s talking. A huge portion of Midnight Mass’ run-time is dedicated to dialogue. You’ll hear long sermons from the new priest, intense and revelatory AA meetings, and too many childhood stories to count. Everyone seems to preface their thoughts with a monologue of some kind. The show is almost like a nesting doll of stories. It can border on overload at times, though it helps that the performances are uniformly great. As much as I wanted to see what happened next, I couldn’t help but get pulled into long, drawn-out speeches about death and the meaning of life. These moments also help set the tone. So much of the show is quiet and thoughtful, which makes the dark moments hit really hard.
And there are some very dark moments. In its first few episodes, Midnight Mass feels a lot like the Haunting shows. There aren’t really jump scares or bloody kills. It’s the kind of horror that you watch through your fingers anticipating something terrible happening … only it rarely does. Eventually the show lets loose in a big, bloody way. It’s gradual — a few deaths here, some horrifying revelations there — but by the end Midnight Mass descends into full-blown horror. Like, we’re-on-the-run-because-we’re-all-gonna-die kind of horror. Gruesome-killfest-that-will-keep-you-up-at-night kind of horror. And it’s all the more horrifying because of how the show slowly ramps up, and how connected you feel to the main characters.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Midnight Mass is how it manages to balance those more contemplative elements of the Haunting series — serious reflections on grief and guilt, faith and family — with more traditional horror elements. It doesn’t lose what made Flanagan’s past work so successful. Instead it twists it into something larger, more unsettling, and a whole lot scarier.
Midnight Mass starts streaming on Netflix on September 24th.