Netflix’s Midnight Mass (2021) seems to be polarizing, repelling viewers in search of a shocking, action-packed scare-fest while mesmerizing others with its moody atmosphere, chilling backdrop, and nuanced, thoughtful critique of Catholicism. Consider me in the latter camp: I found it an intelligent, haunting, and powerful series that elegantly uses the classic tropes of supernatural horror to explore religious themes.
The remote Crockett Island is a tiny, ramshackle place supporting (just barely) a rapidly dwindling population. While there are notable exceptions, most of the citizens are devoutly Catholic. The drama begins when Father Paul Hill (Hamish Linklater) arrives, with news that the local monsignor — who had been traveling abroad — has fallen ill and is recovering in a mainland hospital. Father Paul has come to Crockett Island to fill in, and his eloquent sermons and kind demeanor quickly win over the congregation. He also becomes something of a foil for Riley Flynn (Zach Gilford), a former altar boy who grew up on Crockett Island but escaped to the mainland for many years before addiction and tragedy landed him in prison — and robbed him of his faith. Now he’s back home, trying to figure out his life in the shadow of his still-devout family, with Father Paul serving as his Alcoholics Anonymous sounding board. Riley’s personal struggles are aided by his childhood sweetheart, Erin Greene (Kate Siegel), another Crockett escapee who returned after a disastrous experience on the mainland. As the pair reconnect after years apart, Father Paul’s incremental but dramatic effect on the community leads to an atmosphere of momentous change — when the congregation witnesses a miracle that turns out to be the first of many.
If you’re looking for jump scares and wild terror, Midnight Mass probably isn’t what you’re looking for. But for me, its subtle approach and eerie vibes really worked, thanks to an absorbing script full of thought-provoking monologues and conversations. Part of the outward appeal is the isolated bottle-show world, a surreal, unspecific place full of dilapidated structures and proud, hearty locals. Effective, high-angle CGI views of the island emphasize its remoteness and vulnerability, making the slow-creep suspense all the more effective. It’s true that the supernatural tropes underlying the scenario aren’t going to surprise seasoned horror fans — or even casual ones — but creator/director Mike Flanagan weaves the speculative furniture seamlessly into the exploration of the religious culture. It’s primarily a critique of Catholicism’s more toxic aspects, which finds its most strident voice in Bev Keane (Samantha Sloyan), a judgmental, passive-aggressive zealot of the church. Sloyan’s villainy is epic, but it’s just one of many sensational performances. Linklater leads the way, anchoring the proceedings with a brilliant, all-in performance as the controversial Father Paul. But Gilford, Siegel, Annarah Cymone, Annabeth Gish, Rahul Kohli, Kristin Lehman, Robert Longstreet, and Henry Thomas all contribute exceptional performances as well. The pacing is deliberate and Scandinavian much of the way, which combined with a dialogue-driven script may make some viewers impatient. But the debate is extremely absorbing, so much so that even as the horror tropes become increasingly predictable, it’s well worth sticking around for the explosive and satisfying final episodes. A riveting, intense limited series.