How MIDNIGHT MASS Pays Homage to Stephen King - Nerdist
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How MIDNIGHT MASS Pays Homage to Stephen King

A remote New England locale. Characters with dense interpersonal turmoil. A religious fanatic whose beliefs taunt and torture her community. Addiction and trauma narratives laced with supernatural horror. But at the center of it all a through line of hope and, most of all, love.

This may sound like the recap of a Stephen King novel when in fact they are facets of Mike Flanagan’s latest Netflix horror series Midnight Mass. Not that it comes as a surprise to those familiar. Flanagan has adapted and directed two King adaptations in his short career: Gerald’s Game and Doctor Sleep. More impressively, both are adaptations of novels that seemed nearly impossible to do right. Yet Flanagan made them with ease. Flanagan’s Gerald’s Game, a chamber piece of sorts, and Doctor Sleep, a sequel to The Shining that’s divisive among book fans, are horror masterworks. It’s clear that Flanagan gets King. Like, really gets him.

Spoilers for Midnight Mass.

Zach Gilford's Riley and Hamish Linklater's Father Paul chat on a bench with ashen crosses on their head for Ash Wednesday in Midnight Mass.Netflix

So of course his first wholly original Netflix series feels like a major tribute to King’s oeuvre. Flanagan previously adapted and brought to life two classic horror novels in his Haunting series: The Haunting of Hill House and The Turn of the Screw (adapted into The Haunting of Bly Manor). Both are excellent, the former being a nearly undisputed horror masterpiece. (King himself sung its praises and Tarantino called it his favorite Netflix series.) And while both took major liberties with the classic text, Midnight Mass is still Flanagan’s first wholly original project since Hush in 2016. (Ouija: Origin of Evil, also released in 2016, is a sequel and his other 2016 project Before I Wake filmed in 2013 and had a delayed release.)

Flanagan’s been teasing Midnight Mass for a while. There are Easter eggs for the project in both Hush and Gerald’s Game. He’s said that Midnight Mass is “more than a decade in the making” and also, for a while, “the best thing I never made.” Until now. Now, Midnight Mass is here and real with a gristly beating heart. Critics are calling it Flanagan’s best project to date. (I, an on-the-record Haunting of Hill House devotee, would have to agree.) That’s due in large part to Flanagan’s own unique genius. But also thanks to the lessons he’s learned along the way from King, who is clearly his foremost influence. And in many ways, it feels like Midnight Mass learned from King how to avoid certain pitfalls.

Kate Siegel as Erin in a canoe in Midnight Mass.Netflix

The seven-episode series is set on a small New England island called Crockett and centers on Riley Flynn (Zach Gilford), a man recently released from prison for killing a young woman in a drunk driving accident. Riley returns to Crockett Island—population 127—to be with his family: mom Annie (Kristin Lehman), dad Ed (Henry Thomas), and younger brother Warren (Igby Rigney). He’s a hollow husk of his former self, colored by prison life and his forced sobriety, haunted by guilt and a specter of the woman he killed.

Riley recalls many such King protagonists. Like Billy Halleck in Thinner, he accidentally commits vehicular manslaughter. Like Jack and Danny Torrance in The Shining and Doctor Sleep—or Thad Beaumont in The Dark Half—he’s a recovering alcoholic whose demons keep true growth at an arm’s reach. And like Dale Barbara in Under the Dome or Jake Epping in 11/22/63 or Mike Noonan in Bag of Bones, he wanders through life disillusioned after his confrontation with darker universal truths.

Zach Gilford as Riley and the men of Crockett Island in Midnight Mass.Netflix

Crockett Island isn’t just the blanched of color, boring hometown of his youth. Riley returns just as a mysterious newcomer Father Paul (Hamish Linklater) arrives, stepping in for the elderly monsignor who he claims is getting medical help on the mainland. Paul’s arrival—along with Riley’s—summons a darker entity. Something that rots and feeds on the religious population of Crockett. Soon, the island’s small Catholic church is home to miracles. The paralyzed walk again, the elderly become young, the dead rise. The fanatically devout Bev Keane (Samantha Sloyan) feels vindicated by these so-called acts of God.

But, as you might expect from a horror series, there is something sinister afoot. Something preying on the naïveté of the Crocket Islanders. Riley, cursed by circumstance to see beyond the surface level and into the cosmos, senses this malignancy. Father Paul isn’t the miracle worker he purports to be, but has brought evil to Crockett. Evil that stokes a fire among the devout, too simple, too gullible. Too confused by what they can’t understand that they hone in on divine design. It’s up to a crop of attuned and science-minded folk—Riley, his pregnant former flame Erin (Kate Siegel), Dr. Sarah Gunning (Annabeth Gish), and Muslim sheriff Hassan (Rahul Kohli)—to put a stop to the devilish force wreaking havoc on their home.

Annabeth Gish as Doctor Sarah in her lab in Midnight Mass.Netflix

At one point in time, Mike Flanagan was working on an adaptation of Stephen King’s Revival, before the project fell apart. Those who’ve read that 2014 King novel will see several parallels to Midnight Mass. Revival is set in a tiny Maine town visited by a newcomer Methodist minister named Charles Jacobs. After personal tragedy strikes, Jacobs denounces God and is banished from his town. He eventually turns heretical and comes a faith healer, a gift that seems miraculous but has a darker origin and dangerous consequences. Though not a plot-for-plot remake, it’s clear the bones of Jacobs’ fanatic faith found their way into Flanagan’s story.

I also thought of ‘Salem’s Lot and The Mist when watching Midnight Mass. The former, for its vampire antagonists, which parallel Mass‘s dark angel. The Mist—the King novella published in his 1985 collection Skeleton Crew and adapted into the beloved Frank Darabont film in 2007—explores an apocalyptic scenario and the religious extremism that blossoms around the attempt to make sense of it. As in Midnight Mass, a group of level-headed victims band together for survival in the face of unknowable evil.

Hamish Linklater as Father Paul stands before his congregation in Netflix's Midnight Mass.Netflix

Midnight Mass isn’t attempting to succeed King. But it’s clear that Flanagan shares stripes with famed author. Flanagan recently shared that he is three years sober, and that Midnight Mass is a personal story for him. King, likewise, is sober from drugs and alcohol, and his earnestness about life post-recovery factors into his later work. Where earlier efforts like Carrie and Pet Sematary are nihilistic in tone and ending, King’s latter works have a streak of gee-golly optimism. Flanagan’s work, while melancholy, feels of a similar piece. When characters monologue peacefully about the afterlife or gaze longingly to the stars as their throats get ripped apart by demonic forces, it is as horrific as it is beautiful.

That’s the thing about King. He knows that the scariest truths are anchored by their opposites. There is no Hell without Heaven. Hate is only conquered by love. The inability to understand why the universe pummels and maims is beget by the freedom of submission to that which we’ll never know. It is awe-inspiring to see a new horror maestro come into form and pay respects to the granddaddy of the genre. And to understand—in a fundamental sense—what makes horror everlasting. It’s not the gristle. It’s what glitters in the carnage. Flanagan gets it.

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