There is no storyteller’s sin you can commit so deep and so perfect with your story than to inspire in the viewer a much better version of the story you were going to tell without ever being able to deliver on it. Such is the tragedy of the third Mike Flanagan Netflix Thing, Midnight Mass.
The story starts on an isolated, impoverished island community out on the edge of some part of America, where there’s not a lot of reason to be there but for the fact you’re already there. In the sad country song way of things, people simply are, the place simply is, and eerie supernatural events start to haunt the town in time with the arrival of a young (hot) Catholic priest.
The poster for the series sets the tone; people, seen through distorted visions of paintings past; the church, a symbol unto itself; candles, leading into fire.
The series’ tagline stands out, simple and pure: Be Not Afraid.
Spoilers below the fold.
Anyway it’s about fucking vampires.
Oh do I sound disappointed? Do I sound like somehow ‘vampire on isolated island’ is boring to me? Is it somehow a badly done vampire-on-an-isolated-island religion-is-bad-but-not-very-bad, excellent-character-work-with-at-least-one-long-shot-monologue story by Mike Flanagan? Because it’s not. It’s not bad at it. It’s really good. I didn’t like it as much as I liked either The Haunting of Hill House, which I liked quite a bit, or as much as I liked The Haunting Of Bly Manor (which I liked more than both).
But what stands out to me about Midnight Mass is how a creator with a really interesting vision for how to treat the metaphysics of horror stories and how to weave that into the conventional storytelling techniques of prestige TV has shown an ability to elevate so many basic ideas like ghost possession or the scary imaginary friend, and yet when seemingly setting up this genuinely interesting idea, instead opted for…
I dunno, I get it. Vampires are fine, vampires can be used for lots of purposes. Their weaknesses are well understood, their wants are often simple enough. The vampire here isn’t a plotter, it isn’t something with an elaborate scheme, the scheme kinda comes from a human who is… a bit of a tool, whatever. Also, the series does do animal death in a really distressing, affecting way – both large numbers of dead animals (to be disquieting to people in universe) and a specific dead animal (killing off a dog cruelly), which is a tool horror storytellers have, but I don’t need anyone to dwell on it. I’d much rather focus on human agents and take it on faith that the death of a dog sucks and is distressing.
Why so disappointed, then?
Well… there are two reasons really.
The first is that Midnight Mass does position itself as having Something To Say About Religion but a lot of what it has to say is somewhat undercut by the instigating event requiring a man with dementia to accidentally discover and feed a vampire. Questions about fundamentalism and faith and control are obviously of interest to me, but in the context of ‘a vampire and an evil priest can, together, exploit this’ just doesn’t feel like a meaningful insight especially compared to just what evil priests can do. It doesn’t feel like it’s heightening anything, and there’s already a lot about the relationship with blood sacrament and the drinking of blood in Christian myth as it is — like, I dunno, maybe if the vampire had been the priest, not the creature the priest brought with him?
There’s a lot you can do with stories about how ‘the church and its associated systems are bad’ but I feel you sort of have to commit to the bit. In Midnight Mass, a lot of the worst stuff can be tied to accidents, mental illness, and a vampire, which also offers tangible, meaningful benefits for what it’s doing: It’s not nearly as true to my own experiences of exploitative, cruel religion and the way that people can be demanded to pay immensely for literally nothing.
The fundamental question this series wants to ask is ‘What if our dynamite monkeys were bad?’ as opposed to the question ‘why the fuck do we have dynamite monkeys in the first place.’ The ‘good’ Christians never confront Bev, who represents a sickness in every church that there is someone who behaves unacceptably, but the church not only tells you you have to tolerate them, you should enable and empower them. The story begs forgiveness and offers comfort to the vampires at the end, and there is no justice for the man who ruined this community. At best, Bev suffers indignity. But the priest dies, knowing he is loved, and sharing his grief.
The other reason, the much bigger reason, though, is that Midnight Mass pitched itself to me with an exciting idea that I was on tenterhooks to see explored. That pitch, Be Not Afraid?
That’s iconically, a line used in the Bible about Angels.
I thought this was going to be a story about a biblically accurate angel and the ways that its presence might warp a completely conventional non-evil non-dementia driven church community. After all, it has no humanity; it has no reason to understand humanity; it’s a messenger, who’s to say its presence doesn’t have unnatural impacts on people. Who’s to say people would not fight over it as if they could control its intentions?
And so I was looking at things that sounded like Biblical prophecies (which are much more like oaths) or references to the book of Revelation and instead…
I mean we got a vampire story.
It’s a pretty decent vampire story.
I was thinking it’d be something more than vampires.