The screenplay of Midnight Mass, the new Netflix series from rising horror whiz-kid Mike Flanagan, could really use a slashing — ideally by a bold and clinical editor such as Freddie Krueger or Leatherface.
The show has been hailed by Stephen King, no less — which suggests that even King is losing his cutting edge. Because the less-than-disturbing truth is that most of Midnight Mass is as slow as the Second Coming.
The characters are all inhabitants of Crockett Island, a lonely fishing community off the coast of New England. As a malign force gathers in the darkness between their clapboard houses, they are clearly in mortal peril — but they blather on about their emotions as though they have all eternity to play with. Flanagan, who won plaudits for the Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House seems to think we’re interested in their whining and moping and bonding. By the time the scary stuff finally began in earnest, during episode four of seven, I was ready to spider-crawl the walls like that girl in The Exorcist.
Flanagan was born in Salem, Massachusetts, so it figures that he’s a keen inheritor of the American Gothic tradition. It’s a vision of horror that flowered from the neurotic cultural seeds planted by the original white Americans, the Puritan settlers of New England: paranoia, guilt, shame and the demonisation of difference. (All of which continue to convulse the American imagination in the age of Covid-19.)
The show’s mistake is to muddy the dramatic power of those impulses by baptising them in a tepid basin of pop psychology. Our self-helper-in-chief is the protagonist, Riley Flynn (Zach Gilford), a young man who returns to his hometown island on parole from a prison term on the mainland, for killing a young woman while driving drunk.
Back home, Riley is confronted with the unconditional love of his mother, the cold condemnation of his father, and the flirty camaraderie of his first love, the town schoolteacher Erin Greene (Kate Siegel), who is pregnant by her ex.
Erin has also fled home from a traumatic misadventure on the mainland, and she and Riley are the worst blatherers, busting out arch little jokes as they pore over each other’s woes and tell each other their dreams. Then the island’s new Catholic parish priest, Father Paul (Hamish Linklater) starts an Alcoholics Anonymous group to spare Riley a weekly ferry trip to the mainland. During their meetings at the St Patrick’s Church recreation centre, the rationalist Riley spars with the unsettlingly patient Father Paul about why God seems to be such an active promoter of human suffering.
Which is a valid question, to be fair. But all this counselling and undergrad philosophising just makes one bored, not scared. Proper horror shouldn’t have time for inner worlds and slow-burning character arcs. All that stuff is fresh garlic to the vampire of fear. It’s no surprise that Flanagan feels compelled to throw in a beach-load of dead cats during one of the early episodes, to very little effect, which seems like the horror-film equivalent of padding one’s bra.
Let me not exaggerate. Midnight Mass isn’t all awful. Flanagan has a great feel for half-seen horrors: he crafts some excellent jump-scares by granting us little glimpses of the swooping awfulness that hovers in our peripheral vision. For too long though, he withholds those frights, giving us latter-day miracles instead.
To be fair, the relationship between daylight miracles and midnight terrors is the crucible of Flanagan’s story, and there is an ancient power in its concerns. Stick with Midnight Mass to the end and you will get some shocks. It’s just a pity about all those goddamned arcs.