author of unreal suspense fiction

Wow! The best horror series I’ve watched in ages! (“Midnight Mass”, Netflix, 2021)

I couldn’t get enough of the brilliant 2021 Netflix horror series “Midnight Mass.” Just seven episodes long, the show uses the best of traditional story-telling (character arcs, carefully selected tropes, foreshadowing, implacably escalating tension) to give us a pretty fresh take on the tale of a small town facing down monsters. That’s “monsters” in the plural: here, the bad guys are not just supernatural creepy-crawlies, but also men and women who think that they’re doing the right thing. How topical in today’s political and social climate!

The story takes place almost entirely on Crockett Island, a fictitious place an hour or so by ferry from the U.S. mainland. (The show was actually shot in British Columbia, so I imagine Crockett Island lying just off the coast of Washington state.) The island is small, the fishing-based economy isn’t good, and there aren’t many people living there. Everyone knows everyone, and plenty of local families go back several generations. Communal life revolves around the local Catholic church. 

Things kick off when a local lad, Riley Flynn, returns to the island from the big city. Riley had a hotshot business career but blew it all when he drove drunk and got someone killed. Acting as a kind of audience surrogate, Riley is pretty skeptical when a new priest, Father Hill, arrives in town. The village’s longstanding priest, a certain Monsignor Pruitt, had been away on pilgrimage and, due to Monsignor Pruitt’s suddenly being taken ill, Father Hill has been dispatched as a temporary replacement. 

The actor portraying Father Hill, Hamish Linklater, does a splendid job letting us know—without being too obvious about it—that something is very, very wrong with this youthful new priest. Hamish Linklater’s portrayal simultaneously keeps us in thrilling suspense about Father Hill’s true nature. As the story unfolded, I kept asking myself: Is Father Hill bad? Or is he good? Or something else entirely? As a viewer, this kind of uncertainty is spine-tingling! Few aspects of narrative are more rewarding than being kept in lingering suspense while character slowly reveals itself.

Just as Father Hill appears on the scene, something nastily vampiric starts prowling about Crockett Island. Our fellow Riley Flynn, who has abandoned his childhood Catholicism for a dry, cynical atheism, glimpses some very strange things, and he sets about investigating. After a somewhat slow build-up, the story rolls forward at a cracking pace, a thrilling and bloody tale of naivety, hubris, and good intentions gone wrong. 

In the course of this, we get to know a bunch of different characters from the local community, all given their rightful place in the story: the new sheriff, a Muslim from New York; Riley Flynn’s earnest working-class parents; the out-of-his-depth mayor; the devout, misguided church stalwart; the young schoolteacher who has returned to the town with her tail between her legs; a lesbian doctor; a crippled high-schooler; and the local drunk and ne’er-do-well. Each individual is portrayed convincingly, a credit not only to the actors but also to the production staff who cast them. Though these small-town characters might echo certain tropes, the writing is good enough that the usual old stereotypes become the foundation—and not the ceiling—for each character’s journey.

What affected me most about “Midnight Mass”—and it’s not something you necessarily realise until well after you’ve finished its final scene—is the emotional intelligence of the script. This is not a show where the writers force events to happen in order to move the story forward, like second-rate gods dutifully moving human chess pieces around a chessboard. Instead, the characters are formulated, they are placed on stage, and their personal traits and propensities then cause each to react to certain inciting events, this triggering further reactions from the other characters, and then so on and so forth, human action and human reaction piling up and tumbling toward the story’s very satisfying conclusion. It’s character and emotion which drive “Midnight Mass”, not a writing-by-numbers chainlink of contrived incidents.

“Midnight Mass” also shines in other ways. In my view, the best kind of horror takes nice, ordinary things—both the concrete and the abstract—and sheens them with a patina of evil. Well, the writers here do this: communion wine becomes an instrument of supernatural malevolence; traditions of loyalty, decency, and simplicity lead to moral downfall; vessels of worship and refuge forge monsters instead of saving us from them. 

The writers combine this with ample foreshadowing, dropping numerous early hints of awful things still to come. The story becomes terribly uncertain—and also deliciously suspenseful. Who will ally with evil? Who will stay true to their humanity? How far can we fall, and how can we rise again?

What’s more, the writers utilise this thematic and emotional complexity to serve up some outstanding dialogue. In today’s mass entertainment, much of what characters say to each other feels like it’s written by an old mechanical computing machine on the back of a cereal packet. Not here! There’s an incredible scene between our audience surrogate, Riley Flynn, and his schoolteacher love interest on the topic of life after death. And the final lines said by Father Hill to an old paramour, uttered as their world destroys itself around them, are deeply moving.

This wraps up with a poignant, meaningful conclusion that makes full sense in terms of plot, theme, and character. It’s a pretty horrifying finale but also, in a certain sense, hopeful. I won’t give anything away (I really want you to watch this show, I daren’t spoil it for you!), but the climax proves how simple truths and selfless bravery can save the day—even from human hubris and bloodthirsty vampires. 

Folks, if you want to spend time on a carefully crafted, highly effective tale of supernatural horror, I really, thoroughly, truly recommend “Midnight Mass”.

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