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Midnight Mass review: Haunting series’ follow-up is a holy terror

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Mike Flanagan’s projects are quickly becoming a Halloween tradition on Netflix, thanks to a pair of terrifying limited series collectively known as “The Haunting anthology” that premiered to rave reviews in October 2018 and 2020. Following the success of those series, The Haunting of Hill House and The Haunting of Bly Manor, Flanagan brings another stylish thriller to the streaming service just in time for Halloween this year titled Midnight Mass.

Along with offering plenty of fascinating narrative twists to go along with its big frights, Midnight Mass delivers the sort of smart, character-driven scary story we’ve come to expect from one of the genre’s most talented storytellers.

Think again

Written and directed by Flanagan, Midnight Mass is a seven-part series set on an isolated island where the arrival of a new priest and the return of a former resident with a troubled past seem to coincide with the occurrence of miraculous, supernatural events that begin to shape the local community. As a sinister shadow begins to loom large over the events transpiring on the island, its residents grapple with issues of faith, grief, redemption, and morality in the modern world.

Flanagan had a great track record in horror long before Hill House and Bly Manor put him on mainstream audiences’ collective radars, with 2013’s haunted-mirror thriller Oculus and 2016’s slasher Hush both earning heaps of praise for their fresh, innovative approaches to the genre. That positive critical acclaim carried over with the two Haunting series — both adaptations of well-known novels — as they each explored themes of trauma, addiction, love, and loss through the lens of a truly terrifying haunted-house tale.

With Midnight Mass, Flanagan continues to explore some heavy emotional and existential concepts through the horror genre and does so with a cast that includes several returning actors from the Haunting series. The series veers off into a fresh direction within that genre — one better left a mystery in order to preserve one of the story’s core surprises. It will have to suffice to say that Midnight Mass stakes out a place for itself among some of the best examples of the particular horror sub-genre it occupies, and speaks volumes to Flanagan’s versatility and understanding of how to make a film stand out in a crowded field.

Creeping dread, perfected

Like the Haunting series before it, Midnight Mass is a slow-burn story that succeeds on its character development as much as its scary elements.

In Midnight Mass, Flanagan isn’t afraid to spend the bulk of an episode focusing on just a few characters’ relationships and taking a deep dive into what’s brought them to this very particular point in their fictional lives, and the patience he shows with each and every character tends to pay off in the emotional connection we develop with them and their stories. It’s an approach that could easily bog down less skillful storytellers, but Flanagan’s use of framing and other visual techniques, as well as sound and subtle motion, manages to make even the most drawn-out dialogue scenes feel clever and captivating.

Those familiar with the Haunting series should probably adjust their expectations coming into Midnight Mass, though, as this story’s scares are neither as frequent nor as shocking as the jump-out-of-your-seat moments that filled Hill House and Bly Manor. Much like the pace of the story, the scares in Midnight Mass tend to be slow-developing frights that unnerve you gradually, ratcheting up the sense of dread and foreboding as events on the island become increasingly grim. That sense of impending doom lingers well after each episode ends, too, and Flanagan’s use of persistent, ambient sound over the credits amplifies the impact of each episode’s closing moments.

Familiar faces

Among Flanagan’s frequent, on-screen collaborators returning for Midnight Mass, Kate Siegel provides some powerful, emotional gut-punches in her portrayal of a woman who returns to the island after a lengthy absence, hoping for a fresh start but struggling to leave behind her past. After playing the house cook in an understated but memorable role in Bly Manor, Rahul Kohli delivers another excellent performance as the island’s sheriff in Midnight Mass, a principled man who desperately wants peace for himself and his family, even when the island’s community makes it hard to find.

Samantha Sloyan, who previously appeared in Hush and Hill House, also gives a wonderfully infuriating performance as Bev Keane, the island’s scripture-quoting, conservative busybody. Her self-righteous belief in her moral superiority often outshines the story’s supernatural elements when it comes to inspiring fear in the audience, and that speaks more to Sloyan’s portrayal of the character than any lack of potent scares.

The series’ standout, however, is Broadway and television actor Hamish linklater, whose portrayal of the newly arrived Father Paul is absolutely stunning across all seven episodes of the series. Deeply sincere at times, and entirely unreadable at others (as the story dictates), linklater’s performance is the glue that holds both the central narrative of Midnight Mass together and poses some of the series’ most intriguing questions. Father Paul is the proverbial riddle wrapped in an enigma, and linklater does a brilliant job of drawing you into that puzzle, bit by bit, never revealing more than is absolutely necessary while simultaneously teasing an answer to all of your questions that’s well worth the wait.

linklater’s role in Midnight Mass is by far the best single, standout performance to date in all three of Flanagan’s Netflix series, and despite the show’s ensemble foundation, it’s hard to imagine the story unfolding as effectively without him in it.

Looking forward

Anyone expecting a third installment of the Haunting anthology will be surprised by the pivots Flanagan takes in the Midnight Mass, but experiencing a story that goes unexpected places is a big part of what makes the series so entertaining and rewarding. More than just the sum of its scares, Midnight Mass is Flanagan’s most thoughtful, carefully paced exploration of the horror genre’s potential so far, and that’s saying a lot.

If a new limited series from Flanagan is something we can start expecting every Halloween season on Netflix, Midnight Mass makes it clear that binge-watching sessions on the streaming service are going to become an annual tradition for horror fans.

Mike Flanagan’s Midnight Mass premieres September 24 on Netflix.


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