Midnight Mass: a truly great show I never want to watch again

It is befitting that a man like Mike Flanagan, who seems to inspire a profound and deep devotion among both his fans and his actors, would eventually make a show like Midnight Mass. The US writer-director has made his name adapting other people’s horrific visions for screen: Stephen King (Gerald’s Game; Doctor Sleep); Shirley Jackson (The Haunting of Hill House); Henry James (The Haunting of Bly Manor, based on The Turn of the Screw) and Edgar Allan Poe (The Fall of the House of Usher, currently in the works.)

But Midnight Mass was Flanagan’s passion project: entirely his, and inspired by his upbringing in Catholicism, his subsequent atheism, and his love for horror. It was an idea for a novel, then a film script, then an unsuccessful television pitch – before it entered limbo, becoming just the title of a prop book Flanagan put in the background of his films, his way of “keeping the idea alive”.

But with the success of The Haunting of Hill House and Bly Manor, Flanagan got the green light to finally make Midnight Mass – a show that even those who loved it, like myself, could not bear to watch a second time. If you have any dregs of Catholic guilt stirring in your guts, brace thyself.

Midnight Mass opens with Riley Flynn (Zach Gilford), a young venture capitalist who kills a woman while drunk-driving. After being released from prison, Riley seeks sanctuary by returning to his home town, Crockett Island: a sleepy, insular place, 30 miles out to sea and fondly known by its 127 residents as “the Crock Pot”. Riley moves back in with his reticent father Ed (Henry Thomas) and kindly mother Annie (Kristin Lehman). The Flynns are faithful members of St Patrick’s, the town’s dwindling parish, which is normally overseen by Monsignor Pruitt, an elderly priest who is away on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

Riley’s shameful return is overshadowed by the arrival of a new priest, Father Paul Hill (Hamish Linklater), a charismatic, young clergyman who says he is filling in at St Patrick’s to help Pruitt, who has fallen ill on his trip. Riley, a reluctant drag-along to church, sits among the newly eager parishioners who want to see Father Paul at work – and before long, they’re seeing him perform miracles.

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Father Paul’s reason for coming to Crockett Island may be spotted a mile away by some, and to say much more about the nature of the horror in Midnight Mass would ruin the mystery. You can arrive at multiple conclusions about what it is, and all are satisfying. But Flanagan’s true concerns are not divine or supernatural, but human; they are about the ways in which we wound and heal one another on this earthly plane.

Actors tend to loyally follow Flanagan from project to project (his Wikipedia page even has a chart mapping his collaborations) and Midnight Mass stars some familiar faces if you’ve seen any of his other shows or movies. Henry Thomas, perhaps still best known as Elliot in ET, now regularly plays fathers for Flanagan; Kate Siegel, Flanagan’s wife, plays Riley’s childhood sweetheart Erin; Rahul Kohli is Sheriff Hassan, a Muslim policeman on an island of Catholics; and Samantha Sloyan, who is an all-timer villain as Bev Keane, a self-righteous fanatic who wields scripture like a weapon.

The new face in Flanagan’s flock is Linklater, who is captivating as Father Paul: his mournful, rubbery face means that, even when his plan is revealed, you can’t help but be drawn to the guy. Horror is often overlooked when it comes to awards season, and the Emmys failure to recognise Linklater’s performance last week was widely criticised. Flanagan is known for his fondness for writing monologues – and while some critics don’t love the Flanalogues, Linklater’s performance of Father Paul’s fiery sermons and gentle interventions is outstanding. All of the monologues worked on me – one where Riley dissects Catholicism’s attitude to suffering has stayed in my mind ever since.

The seven episodes are named for books in the New Testament and the finale, Revelation, is biblically bloody – and surprisingly tender. Some don’t enjoy horror because the genre can sometimes be an emotional vacuum; when underdeveloped characters are hard to care for, it can be hard to mourn when they’re killed off. Tragedy brews slowly on the Crock Pot, as we come to know its residents, so that when violence and utter bleakness does finally arrive, there is still beauty and hope too. I bawled my eyes out at the end; I have had friends who don’t normally like horror do the same. So maybe I will never watch this wonderful, harrowing show again – but Midnight Mass will stay with me for ever.

  • Midnight Mass is streaming in Australia on Netflix