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Review: This ‘Midnight Mass’ may keep you up all night

MIDNIGHT MASS

Intrepid Pictures | Netflix

David Ives - published on 09/30/21

Netflix's new horror series offers a generous serving of gore with a dash of comparative religion.

There is a simply amazing scene approximately about halfway through the new miniseries Midnight Mass. It comes as one character, compelled by their faith, offers forgiveness to someone even though that person has done nothing to earn it. The effect this has on the two people involved is so wonderfully acted and visibly moving that it’s easily one of the most beautiful moments on television in recent memory. That such a scene comes in a show filled with copious amounts of throat slashing, unmitigated cat slaughter, and a final body count that numbers in the hundreds is somewhat surprising. That this astoundingly Christian moment appears on the typically non-religious friendly Netflix is, well, almost miraculous.

Miracles, though, are a big part of Midnight Mass. The plot concerns the increasingly supernatural events which transpire on Crockett Island, a small fishing community off the coast of Washington, following the unexpected arrival of a young priest. Father Paul Hill has come as a temporary substitute for St. Patrick’s older pastor who mysteriously fell ill while on a trip to the Holy Land. With his lively homilies and pastoral care for the island’s inhabitants, Father Paul brings an invigorating new energy to the parish. Unfortunately, he also brings along something else which he keeps locked in a body-sized trunk. Something that’s alive. Sort of.

It won’t take long for anyone who has seen even just a few horror movies to guess what’s in Father Paul’s box. The show, however, takes its leisurely time getting to the reveal. Instead, Midnight Mass spends most of its first few episodes letting you get to know the Island’s residents. More to the point, it lets you get to know what they think of God and religion. And for a small island, it’s an impressively diverse crowd, covering most of the philosophical spectrum from non-believer to devout worshiper.

There’s Riley Flynn, freshly returned to the island from prison, who is a former altar boy turned atheist after God “allowed” him to get drunk, get in a car, and kill someone. Erin Greene is his one-time love interest who still practices her Catholic faith, though mostly for the comfort it brings following a failed relationship rather than actual belief. Wheelchair-bound teenager Leeza Scarborough, on the other hand, is a true believer and faithful attendee of daily Mass. Bev Keane, the chief layperson at St. Patrick’s, is also at Mass every morning, but in her thoughts and actions she’s more the type of worst-case fundamentalist usually reserved for Stephen King novels. Representing the non-Christian viewpoint is Sheriff Hassan and his son, the island’s only Muslims, and Dr. Sarah Gunning, the community’s sole lesbian and staunch adherent to scientism. 

There’s a lot more, but you get the point. Director and writer Mike Flanagan wants to make sure he covers all the bases, giving equal time to each character’s viewpoint during the many, many discussions of faith, or lack thereof, that occur over the course of the series. And to his credit, Mr. Flanagan seems to have done his comparative religion homework, as most of the various belief systems are fairly accurate in their representations. Well, except for anytime the aforementioned Bev Keane opens her mouth, as her interest lies not in the truth of her stated beliefs, but in what she can get through the manipulation of them.

That distinction becomes an increasingly important factor in how events proceed on Crockett Island. As it turns out, the good pastor (and he is surprisingly mostly good) hasn’t just brought enthusiasm and religious zeal with him to the island, but also the ability to perform what appears to be miracles. The first of these occur when Father Paul beckons for little Leeza to arise from her wheelchair and walk, and the healing sparks a religious fervor on the island that brings with it a wave of goodwill and kindness amongst the citizenries. 

Unfortunately, this being a horror series, the good times don’t last. Ultimately, the denizens of Crockett Island come to learn that Father Paul’s miraculous powers don’t originate from the angelic source he sincerely believes it to be, but from something that is much more ungodly. And hungry. And once that ravenous source reveals its true nature, Bev seizes on it as an opportunity to acquire even more influence over her neighbors in the name of a religion she doesn’t really practice, at least not in her soul. It all ends in a really, really bloody mess.

But while the show doesn’t shy away from showing the graphic carnage its storyline demands, its primary interest lies elsewhere. From what’s come before, it may sound like the focus is going to be on what can happen when religion becomes misguided or corrupted, but that’s just a story-beat to get to the main point. What Midnight Mass truly wants to explore is how we humans use our various beliefs to process and deal with death. 

Now, not everyone on the island dies by the end (no spoilers), but most do, and the show gives each and every one of them ample opportunity to contemplate their mortality. As with their initial religious discussions, Flanagan allows each of his characters equal time to express their views on the possibility of what happens after death. Some approach the subject through prayer or the singing of hymns, some by scientific reasoning, and some by simply screaming hopelessly into the night.

Midnight Mass seems to want to take an “all views are valid” approach to the subject, though the writer perhaps tips his hat as to which side he personally favors through a long, poetic soliloquy delivered by one of the non-believers as they lie dying beneath the stars. It’s a flawlessly filmed scene, and Flanagan certainly gets an A for effort, but ultimately the “beauty” of dissolving into nothingness so your atoms can become one with the cosmos just doesn’t hold the same profundity as the possibility of spending eternity in the loving presence of the creative force behind the universe. While the show itself may not want to admit it, for its story to ultimately carry weight, there’s a reason it must inevitably end as it does to the strains of “Nearer, My God, to Thee.”

All seven episodes of Midnight Mass are available to stream on Netflix, and for those who can handle a healthy heaping of gore interspersed throughout their religious debate, it might just be worth a watch.

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