The Catholic Church, like the Conservative Party, is in a permanent state of crisis. Who is it for? What is the appeal? Can it put past failures behind it?
In this neck of the woods, as this newspaper reported, there are now questions about whether the Catholic Church lived up to the terms of a legal commitment to help residential-school survivors. It must be hard to be a believing, faithful Catholic these days.
Midnight Mass (streams on Netflix) deals with this issue and ultimately goes into the major angst that can envelop a Catholic. It’s a seven-part horror series and it’s a huge hit. You have to wonder why, and in answer one can only speculate about what the series reveals about church leadership.
It was created by Mike Flanagan, who has a reputation these days for popular, scarifying stories. Mostly Flanagan has adapted and directed other people’s material, as he did with The Haunting of Hill House (also on Netflix) and Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep. Here he’s working on material he created himself and you can tell he’s thought long and hard about the rites, rituals and core beliefs of the church. It’s ambitious and slow-burning, this series, with a lot of talk and, eventually, a dose of horror that is not entirely unexpected if you’ve been paying close attention from the opening hour.
It is set on remote Crockett Island, a place to which Riley (Zach Gilford) has returned after serving jail time for his role in a terrible car crash. Just as he returns to brood about his life and actions, a new young priest, Father Paul (Hamish Linklater), turns up, telling the congregation that the long-serving parish priest became ill while travelling somewhere. He’s charismatic, this new priest, and seems to take exceptional pleasure in the ritual of mass. In particular, the blood and wafer part of communion. It’s as if he relishes the communion with new vigour at every mass and the congregation is transfixed.
Soon, mind you, strange things start happening. There’s the inevitable storm followed by dead animals appearing on the island. But there are miracles too. The sick are healed and ailments that afflict the elderly seem to ease or disappear. Riley’s parents, Annie (Kristin Lehman) and Ed (Henry Thomas), are devout and impressed by the miracles and Father Paul. Riley has spent his prison years reading and brooding about his faith and fate itself. Mainly, however, he’s a bit smitten by childhood crush Erin Greene (Kate Siegel), who is also back on the island to escape her past.
As the slow build-up unfolds toward horror, the Riley/Erin love story takes up a lot of space. The viewer hardly notices that the only two people on the island not swept up in sweet religious fervour are the local sheriff (Rahul Kohli), who is not Catholic, and the doctor (Annabeth Gish), who prefers a science-and-medicine-based approach to strange events.
Before the series gets to major revelations about what is happening, there is much, much contemplative chat. Several characters are given to speechifying, and not just Father Paul in his florid sermons from the pulpit.
Riley has a long scene with Father Paul that is all about the existence of God and morality. Riley and Erin take long walks and think deeply about the afterlife. You can tell that Mike Flanagan has read a lot about theology and what the promise of an afterlife means, and he is giving speeches to characters that might be best included in private journals, instead of acting as dramatic dialogue. Mind you, the actors, being actors, seem to take pleasure in the speechifying.
Yes, there are characters to hate, in particular the overly pious and sanctimonious Bev Keane (Samantha Sloyan), whose petty snark obviously disguises a deep weirdness. And the sense of evil lurking on the island eventually becomes frightening. But when Midnight Mass gets down to the business of revealing what Father Paul has actually done, the series has an almost adolescent approach to the core Catholic beliefs. It’s not giving away much to say that the rituals that are part of the promise of eternal life are not distant from some genres of horror storytelling.
We are meant to be angst-ridden by the end, but we’re not. We anticipate fully that Father Paul is a church leader who has taken a false path. But the major revelations present no real crisis, and they should.
Plan your screen time with the weekly What to Watch newsletter. Sign up today.