One of the unintended side effects of the Covid filled 2020-2021 years, is that I have watched far more than my fair share of movies and series’ on streaming services. Some incredible, some horrible, some merely pedestrian time fillers. Pre-Covid, I was rarely surprised when new content launched…word of mouth, You Tube, message boards, and email lists kept me well apprised of what was “Coming Soon”.
And this is why I’m writing reviews again, after a long time away.
These days, I pick what I see based off the initial impression of what passes for “cover art” or “poster art” on services like Netflix and Prime. Sometimes it’s a winner, like “Squid Game” and sometimes a dud like “Prey”. So you will have to forgive me if I was halfway through episode 1 of and thinking to myself, “This feels like a Mike Flanagan vehicle….” before realizing that “Midnight Mass” was a Mike Flanagan vehicle.
Flanagan is both blessed and cursed by how perfect “The Haunting of Hill House” (2018) was. Blessed, because there are millions of fans like myself who will dive into his new work on sheer name recognition and cursed because we all…rightly or wrongly…want everything he makes to live up to that “Hill House” benchmark. I thoroughly enjoyed “Doctor Sleep” (2019) for this reason. And I’m still angry at “The Haunting of Bly Manor” (2020) for the exact same reason.
I started playing “Midnight Mass” off the Drew Struzan-esque cover art alone, expecting something along the lines of “Stranger Things”, and was pleasantly surprised to find a nice little horror tale that feels like H.P. Lovecraft as told by Stephen King. Although it was shot in Vancouver, the location of the fishing village on “Crockett Island” feels like Stephen King’s New England, quaint, damp, well lived in and historic. The town looks like a place that has seen both tragedy and triumph, and the foggy wilderness that surrounds it gives airs of Lovecraft’s New England, as if any moment something wet and preternatural will wander in from the deep.
The principal story revolves around the arrival of two characters, one known and the other a stranger. Riley Flynn (played amazingly by Zach Gilford of “Friday Night Lights”) , who grew up on Crockett Island, left to become a bit time venture capitalist, now returns in shame, on parole from a four year prison stint. He killed a young girl while driving drunk, and the accusing eyes of his hometown neighbors and his parents, pales in comparison to the guilt he puts on himself. The other arrival comes in the form of Father Paul Hill (Hamish Linklater, in a positively stand out performance), who is there temporarily to fill in for Monsignor Pruitt, the islands aged priest. Pruitt took ill on his return from a trip to the Holy Land, that was in part financed by the devoutly Catholic residents of Crockett Island, but, Father Paul assures everyone that he is fine and will return soon.
With Father Hill comes a truly massive steamer trunk, the contents of which are unknown.
That’s as far as I can go, and have this remain spoiler less. But, I can say the “Midnight Mass” removed a lot of the bad taste that was left in my mouth by “Bly Manor”. I realize that a lot of you liked “Bly Manor”, which was Flanagan’s adaptation of Henry James novella “The Turn of The Screw”. I’m just simply not in your camp. Sorry. Maybe someday I’ll revisit it and write THAT review for you…
“Midnight Mass” is not perfect, but it is quite good, and features some great performances by talents like Samantha Sloyan (“Hush”, “Scandal”), who plays Bev Keane, a zealous and overbearing resident of Crockett Island, who is tolerated rather than liked. Rahul Kohli (“iZombie”, “Bly Manor”) who plays Sheriff Hassan, a Muslim widower, who came to Crockett Island with his son, and finds himself often at odds with the more devout Catholic members of the community he serves. Along with the outright prejudice he endures, the micro-aggressions, such as the gravely voiced town drunk Joe Collie (Robert Longstreet) insisting on calling him “Sharif” rather than “Sheriff” are a great touch in the script.
Some of the low points in the series will probably go ignored by most, but, to me they were glaring. The old age makeup on Riley Flynn’s parents Ed and Annie (played by Henry Thomas and Kristin Lehman) as well as a few of the other characters was a bit over the top. So much so that you wonder why it’s there from the outset. Sure, it becomes a central theme a few episodes in, but, because its so obvious you spend your time wondering WHY it’s there, waiting for the plot point to have meaning. You’re already aware of, and waiting for, the big reveal.
At times the monologues get a bit preachy, no pun intended, and heavy handed. The lack OF faith in some characters, and the presence OF faith in others, along with the obvious religious allegories in the plot were so drilled into the viewer, that at times you find yourself thinking, “Dude. I get it. Move on already.” Flanagan wanted to make some big points both in favor of and against “faith”, but, its like he didn’t trust us to get his gist on our own.
For me, the biggest sin was that of character development. The characters of Riley Flynn, Father Paul and Erin Greene, Riley’s childhood sweetheart, who has returned to the island after some time away to be a school teacher, all seem fully formed. Fleshed out. Erin is played by Flanagan’s wife and frequent collaborator, Kate Siegel (“Hush”, “Hill House”). Lest you think this is some nepotism hire, there is a reason Flanagan uses Siegel so much in his work: she’s fucking awesome. Go back and watch the sisters in the car scene from episode 8 of “Hill House”….Kate Siegel can act the fuck out of a scene. And “Midnight Mass” is no different. She does a great job of portraying the haunted yet hopeful character of Erin. The incredibly devout Leeza (played by Annarah Cymon), a wheelchair bound teen, has a fully resolved character arc, going from quietly religious young girl to brave and fearless young lady.
The problem lies in most of the other characters. Sheriff Hassan explains his story over two smaller discussions, one with his son and another with the town Doctor, played by Annabeth Gish (“Mystic Pizza”, “Halt and Catch Fire”)…but by contrast, her character of Dr. Sarah Gunning is mostly glossed over. So much so, that when a secret about her is revealed in a later episode, it’s not even shocking. Mainly because you had never been led to believe anything concretely…so when the secret comes out, you are more “oh” than “OH!”. Leeza’s parents feel like window dressing, even though they are onscreen a lot. You know there is SOMETHING of a story there, seeing as Leeza, her mom (and the Sheriff and his son) and literally the ONLY non-white characters in this entire town of less than 200 people.
And the character of Bev Keane is the biggest disappointment in my book. She is hateful and shrewish, and most people in town don’t like her. There are hints that she was involved in some shenanigans around the money that the island received in a settlement from a corporate oil spill that ruined the islands fishing economy. The town drunk at one point mentions that he has known her since grade school and she’s never been a good person. But that’s it. We don’t know WHY Bev is the way she is, why she would remain in a place she isn’t liked, why she’s done what she is accused of doing. Hell, there are things you’re pretty sure she did IN the series itself, yet you never find out for certain IF or WHY she might have done them. She’s just written as “a bad guy”, albeit with what she thinks are good intentions…somehow. Samantha Sloyan does an amazing job of making us dislike her, but, the character spends the entire series only half fulfilled.
All in all, my bitching and kvetching aside, “Midnight Mass” is well worth the binge. 3.5 stars out of 5.