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Midnight Mass review: blood-soaked horror loses the faith – and the plot

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No one wants to hear this when Netflix drops a seven-hour miniseries, but Midnight Mass only really gets going in episode three. And, when it finally sets off, it doesn’t seem to know where it is heading. Directed and written (mostly) by Mike Flanagan of The Haunting of Hill House fame, this is a more philosophically ambitious take on spooky horror that searches for something profound, but frequently loses its revelations in a thick fog of bloated dialogue and fake blood.

The 127 residents of Crockett Island, a fading maritime community accessible by a twice-daily ferry from the US mainland, are dealing with three developments. Riley (Zach Gilford), a young man previously imprisoned for a shameful crime, has returned home, reuniting him with his childhood sweetheart, Erin (Kate Siegel). A vigorous young priest, Paul (Hamish Linklater), has arrived to replace the island’s beloved elderly monsignor, who went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and never came back. And, as the islanders look out from their wooden houses at night, something seems to be stalking the darkness.

We spend two lengthy introductory episodes getting to know Crockett, a genteel but tense place. It is yet to recover economically from an oil spill three years ago and is unbalanced by the school’s aggressively pious teacher, Miss Keane (Samantha Sloyan), whose attempts to bully everyone into attending mass are indulged because the residents wonder if God might relieve their individual burdens: guilt, loss, addiction and a small-town dearth of hope.

Spoilers preclude discussion of exactly which horror tropes are eventually used to bring those anxieties to life, but Flanagan is once again concerned with death – and how to defeat it. He wants to explore ancient, heavy questions about religion – whether there is an afterlife or a God; why any such deity would allow suffering; which belief system captures the story’s essence; why humans crave these answers. Too often, though, he does this by sitting two characters down on chairs and having them conduct a long, long debate about it. Even when the townsfolk’s hysteria spills over and the gore starts flowing, the talky interludes persist.

The result is an unholy clash of the sacred and the profane. There is a good reason why horror tends merely to toy with religious symbolism, leaving viewers to fill in the gaps themselves. If you try to unpack what lurking monsters have to say about the meaning of life to the extent that Flanagan does here, the illusion collapses and you are left with something boring and absurd.

Midnight Mass is formed of seven discursive episodes when four or five allusive ones would have been more powerful. This is all the more frustrating, given Flanagan’s evident film-making skill. He is a master of the jump-scare, an exponent of unnecessary but pleasing long takes – there is a cracker to introduce episode two, the camera carefully circling actors walking and talking on a beach for seven unbroken minutes – and a lover of unexpected camera angles, particularly domestic scenes seen unsettlingly from above.

The early, less serious episodes also showcase a love of late 60s/early 70s singer-songwriters, leaning on Harry Chapin, Gordon Lightfoot, Leonard Cohen and especially Neil Diamond. Diamond’s songs And the Grass Won’t Pay No Mind and Holly Holy soundtrack coolly strange montages that feel like moments from a different show – one that might be more fun.

This is another way in which Midnight Mass tries to do too much. It hints at the generational divide in Crockett, and the idea of left-behind boomers finding refuge in a wilful irrationality that helps bring about the end times – before drenching all those nuances in the crimson spectacle of the main plot. A couple of minor surprises are too easy to predict and there is a whole subplot about dead cats that doesn’t fit in. The series is doomed for ever to be almost great. When the end comes at last, there is a lot of fire and viscera, but no rapture.

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