‘Midnight Mass’ on Netflix Review

It feels unfair to judge Midnight Mass as a television show. Even as networks and streaming services premiere a never-ending list of miniseries, the shortest of these projects often follow the same pacing rules designed to make them always feel at home on the screen. It would be even less fitting to call it a seven-hour movie. That overused conceit offers a finality that Mike Flanagan‘s latest project never quite delivers. Midnight Mass is best understood as a visual novel with theatrical flourishes. It’s not a continuation of The Haunting series, but an expansion of Flanagan’s earnest take on horror; standing as its own contemplative, bold, and often bizarre reflection on religion and blind faith.

It’s important to make that distinction because Midnight Mass is sure to confuse and enrage fans looking for another season of The Haunting anthology. On its face, the series is about the return of the disgraced Riley Flynn (Zach Gilford) and the arrival of a young priest named Father Paul (Hamish Linklater) to an isolated island community. But as Father Paul spends more and more time with the congregation, miraculous events start to become commonplace. As a religious fervor takes hold of this island, its inhabitants are forced to ask whether these miracles are real; and, if so, if they’re worth their price. It’s a premise that’s exactly as creepy as you’ve come to expect from Flanagan, and there are distinct horror touches from the creator that are sure to haunt your nightmares. But Midnight Mass never truly starts in the traditional sense of television, it quietly unfolds.

In fact, little to nothing happens in the miniseries’ first three episodes. Riley sulks around the island, hating his return to his hometown as much as he hates himself. Erin Greene (Kate Siegel), the island’s teacher, routinely appears beside Riley to either encourage his new path in life or gently mock him for his self-hatred. Sheriff Hassan (Rahul Kohli) watches from the sidelines, issuing stern warnings and throwing drunkards in jail as need be. The religious devotee Bev Keane (Samantha Sloyan) annoys everyone with her holier-than-thou attitude. And Father Paul stands at the middle of it all, stuttering and smiling through sermon after sermon. The whole setup feels less like a story and more like watching non-playable characters from a video game go about their daily lives. Nothing much happens other than people existing. Even Father Paul’s sermons contain that energy, channeling the familiar themes and cadences of any Christian church.

RAHUL KOHLI as SHERIFF HASSAN in episode 101 of MIDNIGHT MASS
Photo: NETFLIX

It’s because Midnight Mass goes to such great lengths to make this world feel lived in that what happens next feels so jarring. There is an excellent story hiding in Midnight Mass. The series questions the repercussions of faith, the tolls of love, and the selfish uses of God by man with a solemnity horror rarely lends to religion. But getting to these pivotal moments requires three hours, almost half of the series’ seven-hour runtime.

This isn’t to say that the slow side of Midnight Mass is a waste. In some ways it’s actually a strength. You’re never more than 10 minutes away from another heart-stopping monologue from the series’ cast of immensely talented actors. Where its slow-paced execution feels draining, its acting is extraordinary. Linklater is especially compelling, infusing Father Paul’s intense stares with a conviction that’s at once unsettling, suspicious, and spellbinding. Likewise, Sloyan nails the contradiction of a God-fearing  narcissist who hides behind her faith, and Kohli is once again excellent as an empathetic bystander who’s simply trying to be a good man. Every actor — literally everyone — is given at least one big speech to show off how great they are at their job. But as superb as every actor is, it’s a parlor trick that gets old fast once you notice it.

During a time when everyone’s queue is miles long, asking to give any show a few episodes before it “gets good” is almost insulting. But that’s exactly what Midnight Mass requires. If you give Flanagan’s new miniseries the time and respect it deserves, you’ll be treated to a soulful and gorgeously acted novel about what faith, religious or otherwise, means that concludes with a truly spectacular finale. Seen in its entirety, Midnight Mass is haunting, one of those shows that threatens to lurk in the corners of your mind and question your long-held beliefs long after you finish the last episode.  But if three hours of buildup seems like too much, you may be better off rewatching The Haunting of Hill House.

All episodes of Midnight Mass premiere on Netflix Friday, September 24.

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