Film and TV

Horror and Religion Mix to Good Effect in Midnight Mass

Things become murkier and murkier after the arrival of a fill-in priest.
Things become murkier and murkier after the arrival of a fill-in priest. Screenshot

St. Patrick's Catholic church is surprised by the arrival of Father Paul Hill (Hamish Linklater), who walks down the aisle flanked by the remains of a once vibrant congregation with reverence.

Father Paul is filling in for the longtime priest ailing Monsignor Pruitt after he fell ill visiting the Holy Land. He is adorned in a gold chasuble and introduces himself to the congregation, addressing their concerns and assuring them that the monsignor will be back very soon. He proceeds to continue with mass, as usual, delivering an inspiring sermon.

After the service, Bev Keane (Samantha Sloyan), the overbearing and overly invested, and self-appointed church manager, corrects Father Hill telling him the Gold chasuble is only used for special occasions and it only an ordinary Sunday. Father Paul acknowledges his mistake, saying he couldn’t find the standard green over cloak in a peculiar exchange. The Sunday was anything but ordinary, and the isolated community would soon be on a dark journey of faith and blood.

Something isn’t right from the beginning in Midnight Mass, Netflix’s standout horror miniseries. Even through the positivity and smiling face of a young priest who is charming and good at his job—there’s something not quite right. By instinct, you are anticipating the other shoe to drop, revealing the evil machinations of what horror stories usually promise: a monster in the shadows. The beginning of the series does a great job of raising questions. Through its slow-burn revelations and increasingly chilling flourishes, it excels at displaying its big ideas about faith. Midnight Mass deliveries on that promise and then some, with a thrilling, contemplative, and emotional horror story that is all those things and also really terrifying.

Created by Matt Flanagan, one of the best horror filmmakers in film and TV, Midnight Mass is his third Netflix horror miniseries after The Haunting of Hill House and The Haunting of Bly Manor, both of which are well regarded in their own rights. Midnight Mass is a passion project for Flanagan, having worked on it for several years. It is the most personal of his works, weaving his experiences with addiction, religion, and death in a narrative that wants its audience to contemplate everything taking place, like its cast of characters that inhabit Crockett island do.

One of the big questions at the center of the show is death. What happens after death, and the fear and anxiety we as human beings feel about the subject. The series’ ideas are woven throughout the narrative through religious symbolism, showing the fine line between faith and fanaticism.

The idea of decency and how people with good intentions can often be led down a path of darkness if it numbs their guilt or pain or, in some cases, their superiority over those who are unworthy of grace in their eyes is fulfilled, making them the ones truly saved. How quickly an idea can take over a group of otherwise decent people and turn their passion into cultish behavior is interesting and subtly approached through different prisms around the community. The themes pulsate throughout the slow burn mystery of the show until its final act begins and its frightening conclusion and everything that is laid out throughout the story and everything sandwiched between its narrative and themes was black powder leading to a bomb.

Without spoiling what exactly lurks in the shadows of the narrative, the horror elements mirror the religious elements and really flesh out the arguments and ideas Flanagan has about the fine line between good and evil, decency vs. depravity. The series is very careful and respectful in its portrayal of religion, offering a look at what it means to the different people that make up St. Patrick’s congregation and those who have sworn off religion or don’t practice Catholicism. The way things meant to be sacred can be twisted and corrupted into something it was never meant for is a constant throughout the series, and the people who remain good even in the face of pressure and those outside the church confront what others give in to.

Beyond its themes and ideas, Midnight Mass is just good horror. Matt Flanagan knows how to stage a mystery, and his commitment in the series to display religious themes with accuracy and care as the centerpiece for what is a dark story is masterful. Crockett Island is reminiscent of something out of a Stephen King story (Flanagan recently directed an adaption to King’s Doctor Sleep). This idyllic foggy isolated town is ripe for some supernatural force to latch on to it. Some moments call back to the Exorcist and several other horror predecessors from a creator who has a deep knowledge of the genre and likes to flex it. The monster lurking throughout the shadows of the island and the mystery around it are terrifying and made effective by some excellently laid bread crumbs and the symbolism laid out from the beginning of the show.

The cast is incredible, highlighted by Hamisk Linklater as Father Paul, Rahul Kohli as Sheriff Hassan, the lone policeman and Muslim on the island. Zach Gilford plays Riley Flynn, a former venture capitalist who returns to Crockett Island sober after serving a prison sentence for drunk driving. Kate Siegel plays Erin Greene, Riley’s childhood sweetheart and a teacher on the island. In one of the best villainous performances, you will see this year, Samantha Sloyan plays Bev Keane, a smiling, devious and formidable antagonist throughout the show. Midnight Mass shows a horror auteur at his most personal, and it is one of the most unique series of the year and one of its best shows, and a perfect binge for Halloween.

Midnight Mass is available to stream only on Netflix.
KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Contributor Jamil David is a native Houstonian and Texas Southern University alumnus. He is interested in TV, sports and pop culture. @JMLJMLD
Contact: Jamil David