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‘Midnight Mass’ (2021): Vampiric Catholic Guilt

Created by: Mike Flanagan || Written by: Mike Flanagan, Joyce Sherri, Teresa Sutherland, James Flanagan, Elan Gale, Jeff Howard, Dani Parker

Directed by: Mike Flanagan || Starring: Kate Siegel, Zach Gilford, Kristin Lehman, Samantha Sloyan, Igby Rigney, Rahul Kohli, Annarah Cymone, Annabeth Gish, Alex Essoe, Rahul Abburi, Matt Biedel, Michael Trucco, Crystal Balint, Louis Oliver, Henry Thomas, Hamish Linklater

No. of Episodes: 7 (~450 minutes total)

I’ve often wondered why more American horror films are not explicitly Protestant. Despite a population that is about 45% Protestant, 20% Catholic, 25% unaffiliated, and 5% miscellaneous, so many classical to contemporary horror films made in the United States, both independent and major Hollywood studio productions, are based around Catholic imagery, teachings, and subculture provided they have any religious themes whatsoever. I don’t believe this is a case of a majority culture demonizing a minority group, because most of these Conjuring (2013, 2016, 2021)-style horror films portray devout Catholics as their heroic protagonists. My hypothesis for the Catholic dominance throughout American horror filmmaking is the enduring influence of William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973), which inspired so many movies about demonic possession that I developed a prejudice against paranormal popular culture, ghost-hunting, seances, and spiritualism that persists to this day.

Hamish Linklater (foreground center), the acting highlight of Midnight Mass, demonstrates the wide range of charisma and public speaking talent characteristic to religious leaders.

That’s not to say plenty of great horror movies with Catholic themes haven’t been made, not least among them The Exorcist itself. Mike Flanagan, another notable filmmaker defined in part by his Catholic upbringing (see also Martin Scorsese) and a prolific horror specialist, defines his most recent (October 2021 as of this writing) Netflix Limited Series in broadly religious, but specifically Catholic terminology. As much a meditation on personal grief like his Gothic Haunting (2018, 2020) anthology series as it is a treatise on organized religious fervor, Midnight Mass stands apart from most other paranormal or Catholic-themed horror projects thanks to its well defined, if somewhat bizarre portrayal of small-town American life. The series is broad enough to appeal to most audiences who’ll give spooky films a chance, but how much one enjoys the aftertaste of Flanagan’s latest dour, melancholic examination of the supernatural depends on your tolerance for longwinded monologues and gratuitous diatribes about faith, God, and rationality.

Much of Midnight Mass’ reliable camerawork and production-design feel almost secondary to the series’ overwhelming, nonstop discussion of religion in rural USA, which is too bad considering how reliable Flanagan’s direction is, as always, and how tangible his depiction of a remote, East Coast island community feels. While not as flashy as The Haunting of Hill House in terms of cinematography, Flanagan executes a diverse range of camerawork and editing rhythms for a variety of dramatic set-pieces and casual but engrossing dialogue sequences. Multiple scenes involve long-takes of two characters strolling and talking in front of a dolly or Steadicam, which gives the dialogue a casual, natural feel and allows the viewer to absorb small but important visual details about their community life in the background composition. Other common scene arrangements involve co-lead Zach Gilford in deep, contested arguments with cast standout Hamish Linklater and/or Robert Longstreet in Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, whereby the characters remain seated and the edits jump from profile shots to medium singles to overhead fly-on-the-wall frames.

Top to bottom, the direction of Midnight Mass is solid, which is not unexpected from a Flanagan production. It’s in the overarching narrative’s pace and certain dialogue choices where the series struggles. For one, the show is stuffed with lengthy discussions about the nature of God, organized religion, and community piety that last way too long, featuring repetitive vocabulary and self-righteous, indignant quotes of Scripture ad nauseum. What could’ve been intriguing analyses of the role of faith in modern society often devolve into preachy monologues and cornball voiceovers that ruin otherwise powerful character moments, such as when Gilford and female lead Kate Siegel postulate about life after death, Rahul Kohli’s extremely detailed personal account of how a Muslim sheriff transferred to a rural Honky-town after 9/11, and Siegel’s redundant voiceover near the end of the final episode. Flanagan’s nonstop monologues give even Game of Thrones (2011-2019) a run for its money in terms of flowery TV-dialogue, but the latter show had the pacing and acting talent to deliver those endless soliloquies, while Midnight Mass does not.

Much of what saves Midnight Mass from shoving its head too far up its own ass are its use of music, Christian hymns in particular, and the neat diegetic mythology that serves as the premise for the show’s supernatural horror. So many original television and film scores nowadays feel like little more than repetitive background music, while most filmmakers who use popular music do so to distract from weak visuals. Flanagan takes a different track here with his emphasis on various hymns from the public domain and having his cast perform them diegetically in most cases. The thematic overlap between the show’s religious visuals and its religious soundtrack coalesce well, as one would expect. Last but not least, Midnight Mass’ interpretation of a classical monster of the horror genre in the context of Christianity is so creative that it retrofits much of religious-themed Western horror with nary an exorcism in sight.

An aging priest finds refuge amidst a sandstorm during his pilgrimage to the Holy Land (top), uncovering secrets that later lead to chaos (below) in the priest’s hometown.

While I enjoyed Midnight Mass enough to watch all seven hours of it, I recognize its significant, inherent weaknesses with respect to dialogue and, to a lesser extent, acting, make me hesitant to recommend it to general audiences. The show sidesteps many of the clichés of Catholic-themed horror in particular and religious-themed scary movies in general, but at the same time succumbs to the pitfalls of overexplaining its heady themes in every episode. Cinematic storytelling is about showing your audience your narrative, not telling them about it, and in that sense, Mike Flanagan’s latest Netflix series is almost a failure, save for its ingenious premise, reliable direction, and appropriate use of a rarer form of film music.

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SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Spooky, thought-provoking, and well visualized, Midnight Mass comments on the horrors of religious hysteria while never resorting to hamfisted social commentary (but see below), instead utilizing a creative spin on classical monster mythology to demonstrate how pious behavior can lead to madness. The series is well directed, doesn’t overstay its welcome, and uses music the way more filmic projects should.

However… just because Midnight Mass as a whole isn’t manipulative doesn’t mean its dialogue isn’t verbose, its characters not preachy, nor its monologues way overdone. Numerous dialogue-heavy dramatic sequences could’ve wrapped in half the time if Flanagan had his characters shut up and experience his story’s horror nonverbally.

—> ON THE FENCE; see it if you’re in the mood for a different type of horror series based upon Catholic Christian mythology, but there are much better Netflix Limited Series available.

? So, let me get this straight: A flying gargoyle was acceptable but fangs were too on the nose?

About The Celtic Predator

I love movies, music, video games, and big, scary creatures.

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