Ever since The Haunting of Hill House in 2018, showrunner Mike Flanagan has been on a steady run of dramatic horror series on Netflix. What’s made these shows so interesting is how they’ve all managed to take Flanagan’s horror sensibilities, where slow-burning drama trumps jump scares, with different kinds of stories. Hill House was about a family growing apart, while The Haunting of Bly Manor was a puzzle box crossed with a love story. Last year’s Midnight Mass took a turn for more gruesome horror (well, eventually). Now, we have The Midnight Club, which is clearly part of this anthology series but differentiates itself by playing like a collection of fireside ghost stories. It’s a little uneven, but when it works, it channels the best parts of Hill House.
This review contains light spoilers for The Midnight Club.
Based on Christopher Pike’s book of the same name, The Midnight Club is set in the ’90s at a hospice called Brightcliffe, where teens with terminal illnesses are able to live out their remaining days with dignity and do it with people who understand what they’re going through. The eponymous club is exactly what it sounds like: at midnight, the kids sneak out to the library, sit at a big table while wrapped up in their housecoats, and as they describe it, “make ghosts” by telling each other stories.
At the outset, Ilonka (Iman Benson) finds her big plans for the future — she just got into Stanford — completely derailed when she receives her diagnosis. After a bit of research, she convinces her foster dad that she wants to go live at Brightcliffe. It seems like a strange choice at first, leaving her loved ones behind to live with a bunch of strangers. But as you learn more about Brightcliffe and its history, Ilonka’s choice starts to make a lot more sense.
The show is essentially split into two parts. On the one hand, there are the kids and their stories. Each episode has a new tale — ranging from classic detective adventures to a thriller about really creepy doppelgängers — that are both excellent standalone stories and provide important insights into the storyteller’s life and history. They’re often autobiographical in a strange way. Kevin (Igby Rigney) constantly worries he’s hurting the people he cares about the most, so his story imagines himself as a serial killer driven by a dark force. Spence (Chris Sumpter), whose family doesn’t accept his sexuality, comes up with a sci-fi story about changing the future. Sandra (Annarah Cymone), meanwhile, is the lone religious member of the group, and everyone complains when her stories eventually devolve into “angel porn.”
These tales are the highlight of The Midnight Club. Over the course of the show’s 10 episodes, the group really gets to know each other deeply, in large part through the stories they tell each other. You, as the viewer, are along for the ride. Flanagan’s shows have always been filled with excessive dialogue at times. Midnight Mass, in particular, struggled with this, with characters constantly jumping into lengthy monologues about their lives. This is essentially what’s happening in The Midnight Club, except it feels much more natural and interesting: the monologues are the story. They’re fireside ghost stories with just enough reality to make them hit really hard when you realize what they’re really about.
This is helped along by a fantastic cast. Most of the kids at Brightcliffe are played by relative newcomers, but you wouldn’t know it if you didn’t check IMDb first because they’re all so good. Everyone brings something unique and important to the group: Cheri (Adia) is a compulsive liar who uses outlandish stories to tell real truths; Amish (Sauriyan Sapkota) hides his heartbreak behind humor; Anya (Ruth Codd) is a big softie who pretends to be tough and mean; and Natsuki (Aya Furukawa) struggles to connect due to a deep-rooted depression. Watching these kids deal with such extraordinary challenges is an often heartbreaking, often beautiful experience. I wish I had more time with all of them.
And since this is a Flanagan series, there are also some familiar faces for returning fans (including Cymone and Rigney, who were in Midnight Mass). Flanagan regulars include the likes of Rahul Kohli (Bly Manor, Midnight Mass), Zach Gilford (Midnight Mass), Robert Longstreet (Hill House, Midnight Mass), Samantha Sloyan (Hill House, Midnight Mass), and Henry Thomas, who’s in all of them. I especially loved Heather Langenkamp (making a return to horror after starring in the original A Nightmare on Elm Street) as the stern but caring doctor in charge of Brightcliffe.
But the other side of the show doesn’t quite match up to those ghost stories. Much like Hill House and Bly Manor, Brightcliffe is a place with a dark history. There are legends of ghosts and true stories of a murderous cult. Part of what lured Ilonka to the hospice in the first place was the story of a young girl performing a ritual that ultimately cured her. Some believe the grounds have a healing aura, if only it could be harnessed in just the right way. Early on, these mysteries present themselves in interesting ways: flashbacks to bloody rituals; the appearance of very spooky ghosts. Since the kids are on all kinds of medication, they never really know if they’re hallucinating or not. But these threads never really go anywhere. In fact, some are just abandoned altogether without explanation. In comparison to the rest of the show, the overarching supernatural mystery feels both underdeveloped and unfinished. The show even ends on a twist that’s basically a cliffhanger.
It’s disappointing that those two sides of The Midnight Club never fully gel together, but the ghost stories and the core group of young stars is enough to carry the show. It’s like a series of spooky short stories, except each one has an added layer of meaning as the show progresses. If nothing else, the consistency of Flanagan’s horror series is impressive — and it’s something that is turning into an annual event, with The Fall of the House of Usher, an Edgar Allan Poe adaptation, set for 2023. The Midnight Club adds an intriguing new flavor to that ongoing anthology.
The Midnight Club is streaming on Netflix on October 7th.