As sweater weather approaches and we wait for the leaves to turn this time each year, there’s a noticeable change at the local movie theatre, as well. Gone are the summer blockbusters and we’re still a month or two away from an onslaught of Oscar bait, and to fill the gap, this is the season of Halloween and the horror movie.
As a genre, horror is typically underestimated by fans and detractors alike. And it’s true that a lot of horror films are not great in terms of acting, writing, or direction—but that’s not to say they can’t be. Viewed dispassionately (which is difficult, because people generally love them or hate them with very few in between), horror stories are like any other kind of story—they exist to provoke an emotional response.
It’s just that unlike comedies that are designed to provoke laughter, or dramas that are made to move us to tears, horror films are meant to explore fear. There’s nothing that says that horror movies can’t also feature well-drawn characters who change from the first reel to the last, showcase great actors at the peak of their craft, or explore meaningful themes. Those kinds of prestige horror films—think Silence of the Lambs—are few and far between, but they can happen—and as an admitted fan of the genre, I often wish there was more of a market for them.
Which is why I’m becoming such a big fan of the works of Mike Flanagan. If the name doesn’t ring a bell, Flanagan is a hot new horror writer/director whose last three major projects (The Haunting of Hill House, The Haunting of Bly Manor, and Midnight Mass) didn’t play at your local theatre, because they would have been over seven hours long. Instead, you can watch them one episode at a time on Netflix.
Flanagan’s latest, Midnight Mass, premiered on the Netflix service in late September. And for the first few episodes, you might not categorize the show as “horror,” necessarily. There are very few scares—but in their place, there are characters, and there is a setting. The setting is Crockett Island, affectionately known as “The Crock Pot,” 30 miles off the coast of Maine and accessible only by ferry. The characters are Riley (Zach Gilford), newly released from prison after a fatal crash caused by his drunk driving; Sarah (Annabeth Gish), the town doctor who cares for her bedridden mother; Bev (Samantha Sloyan), a devout busybody who works at the island’s small Catholic parish; Erin (Kate Siegel), the pregnant schoolteacher who lives alone; and Father Paul (Hamish Linklater), a young priest sent to the island to fill in for the old Monsignor, who fell ill during a pilgrimage to Israel and is recovering on the mainland. These are real, complicated, flesh-and-blood people in an unusual, isolated place, doing their best, day by day.
But hang in there, because the scares that will make you spill your popcorn and the moments that will cause you to watch through your fingers are not far off. But, by the time the more horrific elements surface, you care about the people you’re watching and curious about what motivates them. But what I truly loved about this show was that it’s about something. The most persistent theme of the series is religion: what is faith, why do some people believe in things that cannot be proven, and why do others reject those beliefs. In a pair of absolutely gorgeous monologues (yes, monologues! in a horror series!), Erin and Riley theorize about what happens after death, beautifully making the case for both religious faith and atheism.
As a gay man who was raised in the Catholic Church but no longer participates in any religious exercise, I loved the intelligent and respectful way that both Erin’s religious views and Riley’s atheist beliefs were treated—and, I deeply appreciated that Father Paul and especially Bev were there to personify the kind of manic religiosity that causes real harm to people.
And yes, there’s a bit of queer content as well. In the second episode, Dr. Sarah is shown on a date with another woman, and part of their repartee is noticing the weird stares they are receiving from the mysterious Father Paul.
If you enjoy watching things that make you jump or tickle your existential dread, but you also appreciate a well-crafted story that inspires inquiry and thought combined with a truly bonkers final act, you should attend Mike Flanagan’s Midnight Mass. Just be careful when Father Paul gets to the whole turning-the-wine-into-blood part.
Eric Peterson is a columnist and novelist. He will be signing copies of his new book, Loyalty, Love & Vermouth, at Browseabout Books on December 5, 2021.