Warning: Spoilers from the entirety of Midnight Mass are discussed in this article.
It was after Mike Flanagan's first communion in the Catholic church, but before his confirmation, that he faced a conundrum. "So, if we're drinking blood and eating flesh to stay alive forever, aren't we vampires?" He was asking his parents, much to their dismay, about drinking "the blood of Christ" and eating "the body of Christ" at every Sunday ceremony as a child. He even posed this query during Sunday School.
"The thing about Catholicism isn't that the bread and wine represent the body and blood of Christ or are a stand-in for the body and blood of Jesus," Flanagan muses as he thinks back on this topic, "it's that they physically transform into flesh and blood supernaturally on the altar. And that is how you achieve eternal life. The fact that this hasn't been explicitly linked to vampirism surprises me. You're dealing with a mythology that is steeped in blood ritual and resurrection."
Well, Flanagan has now explicitly linked this practice of Catholicism to vampirism in his buzzed-about horror series Midnight Mass. Chances are if you're reading this article, you too have been worshipping at the church of Father Paul since the show premiered on Netflix Friday and are looking for somebody to talk with about it. Why not talk about it with Flanagan himself?
The creator spoke with EW about the major twists and turns Midnight Mass takes.
Let's start with the obvious one. The "angel."
Ever since Father Paul (Hamish Linklater) arrives in the night on Crockett Island with a mysterious crate, questions have lingered. Who is this priest who conveniently shows up out of the blue claiming that the church's Monsignor Pruitt has fallen ill on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land? What is that... thing that knocked from inside the crate, whose glowing eyes scared the kids drinking booze at their secret spot, that killed all the stray cats? Through flashbacks, we learn that, yup, it was a vampire.
Netflix The "angel" of 'Midnight Mass'
It turns out that Father Paul is also in fact Father Pruitt. While on his pilgrimage, Pruitt, struggling with dementia, wanders off into the desert when he's beset upon by a sandstorm. He takes refuge in a cave where the blood-sucker with enormous bat-like wings preys upon him. Mistaking the vampire for an angel, Pruitt drinks his blood and becomes young again, and, eventually, turns into a vampire. Believing this to be a sign of providence, Father Pruitt masquerades as Father Paul and smuggles the vampire back to Crockett Island in the hopes of giving the angel's blessing to his parishioners.
The idea of slipping his followers vampire blood in the communion wine, a literal interpretation of everything Flanagan has been thinking about since childhood, wrote the series by itself. "If you play by even the basic accepted variations of the vampire lore, [parishioners are] all gonna start to feel better, and all the miracles are going to flow so easily from that," he reasons.
These miracles start out small. Ed Flynn's (Henry Thomas) back doesn't hurt anymore, Annie Flynn (Kristin Lehman) no longer needs glasses. There's also a reason why Thomas sported aging makeup at the start of the series and slowly shed it by the end. Then, of course, there are the bigger phenomena: Leeza (Annarah Cymone) rising from her wheelchair and Mildred Gunning (Alex Essoe in aging prosthetics) emerging from the dark of dementia, transforming into her younger self.
But a big part of the angel was shaped by the 1995 film The Prophecy, starring Christopher Walken as the Archangel Gabriel, who comes to earth to strengthen his power. Paraphrasing, Flanagan recalls a particular line that struck him on first watch as a high school teen: "Whenever God needs to do something horrible to someone in the Bible, he sends an angel. Do you really want to meet a creature like this? Imagine what that creature must be like. This is what you send to slaughter the first borns of the Egyptians. Angels are scary. The idea that you could reasonably mistake this terrifying creature for a biblical angel was a little irresistible."
EIKE SCHROTER/NETFLIX Zach Gilford as Riley Flynn in 'Midnight Mass'
Some might think it cruel to have Riley (Zach Gilford), the recovering alcoholic haunted by the life he took in a drunk driving crash, to be forcibly made into a vampire after he finds himself at the wrong place at the wrong time. From a writing standpoint, it made total sense.
Flanagan has been developing Midnight Mass for years, and, "at a certain point" in this process, he says "it became clear that no one was going to live, that the story had the kind of Jonestown sequence that made it clear we were fully telling a parable and a tragic, terrible one at that."
Flanagan and the show's writer's room did, however, spare Leeza, as well as Riley's younger brother Warren (Igby Rigney). "We felt like they'd been through enough, but [they're] kind of a new Adam and Eve out there on the water," Flanagan says. What changed the ending for Flanagan was how he's grown to think about death over the years.
"For most of this project, there was a preoccupation that I had with what happens after we die. What is the correct answer? How do we answer that question in life?" he explains. "I think it took me until very recently, until the last real swing at this [script] to realize that doesn't matter, so much as the question about what we do when we're alive. To the degree with which what you might believe or what I might believe happens after we die. The only thing that matters is how that belief changes our behavior toward each other while we're alive."
When faced with the reality of his vampirism and what he will need to do in order to achieve eternal life, Riley makes the ultimate sacrifice. He knows no one will believe him unless he offers proof. The person he decides to show is Erin (Kate Siegel), his high school sweetheart. The pair row out onto the ocean in a boat before sunrise — an image Riley has been dreaming about for some time — and he decides to let himself burn before the morning's glow so that he doesn't have to take another life, especially Erin's.
Which brings us to...
"Can't kill Erin"
EIKE SCHROTER/NETFLIX Kate Siegel as Erin Greene in 'Midnight Mass'
To show just how long Flanagan has been thinking about Midnight Mass, look to his 2016 horror film Hush, in which Siegel portrays a deaf writer who authored a book titled Midnight Mass. (Flanagan actually wrote the concept for the show as a book first.) In one particular scene, Siegel's Maddie is trying to figure out how to end her sequel novel, titled Sweetwater. The voice of her mother sounds in her head: "Can't kill Erin. Will piss 'em off."
Well, Flanagan does end up killing Erin in the end of Midnight Mass, fans be damned. But it's done in a way that Siegel finds very moving.
Bev Keane (Samantha Sloyan) has taken over Father Paul/Pruitt's mission, and everything devolves into chaos. After a few parishioners are killed and resurrected as vampires, they can't contain their thirst and attack their neighbors. Knowing that none of them can be allowed to leave the island for the mainland, Erin, Sarah (Annabeth Gish), and Sheriff Hassan (Rahul Kohli) frantically work to destroy all the boats and burn all the houses so that nobody can escape the sun come morning.
"We don't see Erin burn. You see everybody else burned and you don't see Erin [but] she does, right? 'Cause she took communion [with the blood] and she dies," Siegel says. "I love that. I love that we got to remember Erin as a whole thing, and we didn't have to really say goodbye to her in that way."
"When we were looking at, 'There'll be pissed off if you kill Erin,' there wasn't any room in that idea for the nuance about what it means to die for her as a character, what that death scene will mean to us as viewers," Flanagan adds. "What Erin got to do instead of just be a character who dies was get to voice what I think is a beautiful wish about what it could be like to die and what matters. While she and everyone else dies, there's a poetry in the way that they do — hers in particular. I'm biased by that. Kate just killed that scene." (Siegel and Flanagan have been married since 2016.) "It's my favorite thing I've ever seen her do. But we did kill Erin. We killed them all. And you know, I'd do it again. Obviously, it's not the show people would say, what about a second season? It was like, just wait until you get up to [episode] 7. I think we're done. We're not gonna be able to stretch this one out any further."
Ghosts of movies past
Netflix; EIKE SCHROTER/NETFLIX Samantha Sloyan in 'Hush' and 'Midnight Mass'
Flanagan loves an Easter egg. Is there a movie or show he's done that hasn't had at least a couple? Midnight Mass is full of 'em. Some are not-quite hidden in the casting.
Sloyan worked with Flanagan on Hush, appearing as Maddie's next-door neighbor Sarah, who sadly gets murdered by the masked home invader. But Sloyan's first scene involves holding a copy of Midnight Mass and singing its praises to Maddie.
Flanagan gets "a kick" looking back on that movie and watching Sloyan's Sarah voice her love for the characters of Riley and Erin, because as Bev, the church's administrator in Midnight Mass, she doesn't love anyone.
Another actor in that movie? Michael Trucco, who too returned for Midnight Mass, playing Wade, the town mayor.
"We'd loved working with both of them so much," Flanagan says of Sloyan and Trucco. "At the time, we never would have imagined it. Sam and Kate are really great friends, which is how Sam got involved with Hush. I'm not sure at what point we both were like, 'She'd be a great Bev, but it was certainly years after Hush. She's never scared me in real life. She's the sweetest person in real life and plays a monster so well."
EIKE SCHROTER/NETFLIX Zach Gilford as Riley Flynn in 'Midnight Mass'
Another figure from Flanagan's filmography makes a surprise appearance — or rather, her voice does.
Carla Gugino, who starred in Flanagan's Gerald's Game, The Haunting of Hill House, and Bly Manor, had a voice role as the judge who sentences Riley to prison at the start of Midnight Mass.
"We haven't gotten to work with Carla on set in a little while, and when we were gearing up for Midnight Mass, she had a conflicting project, but this is a way to keep her as part of the show in a small way — at least until the next time we get to collaborate properly," the director says.
One could see Gugino's vocal presence as another throwback to Gerald's Game, since the film also had a Midnight Mass Easter egg; a copy of the book rests on the shelf just above Gugino's Jessie after she's handcuffed to the bed.
Netflix Carla Gugino's Jessie reaches for a copy of 'Midnight Mass' in 'Gerald's Game'
The biggest Easter egg, which some viewers (including this reporter) might have missed on first viewing, is the Oculus mirror. The titular prop from Flanagan's 2013 haunted mirror movie can be found in the rec center scenes, most notably whenever Father Paul and Riley have AA meetings.
"It's behind them in the profile [shots] on stage," Flanagan points out. "It's all becoming incredibly convoluted, really connected. That's our goal. I want all of [these projects] to just be a big ball of rubber bands by the time we're done, just impossible to extricate from each other."
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