Thursday, September 30, 2021

"Midnight Mass" on Netflix

Horror films frighten me. Hence, I tend to avoid them. But Netflix' seven-episode limited series Midnight Mass not only comes highly recommended, but its title, with the obvious religious resonance and the implied Catholic context and concerns, was enough to make me at least curious. I still don't like horror. I have no absolutely interest in vampires. Yet, even at the cost of averting one's eyes at its worst, Midnight Mass is so much more than just a fright night.

Midnight Mass is a horror show set in an intensely (if increasingly bizarre) Catholic context, created by film maker Mike Flanagan, who is apparently known for his successful horror productions. Dramatically, almost all the action takes place on Crockett island, home to a small and shrinking island fishing community, that unexpectedly experiences surprising - possibly supernatural - events after the arrival of a new young parish priest, Father Paul Hill (Hamish Linklater), who replaces their old monsignor, who has been pastor on the island for most of the characters' lives. Just as in our real life liturgical abuses often indicate even deeper disorders, likewise the increasingly strange liturgical life of the parish (culminating in a bizarre parody of an Easter Vigil) highlights how much is going wrong in the underlying experience of the community and the lives of its individual members.

The other principal protagonist is island native and former altar boy Riley Flynn (Zach Gilford). who, having left the island and apparently become quite successful, has now returned to his hometown after serving a four-year prison sentence for a drunk-driving accident that killed a young woman. Having lost his faith in prison, Riley struggles with lingering guilt over the woman he killed, even as he tries to reunite with his devout parents and with the island's Catholic community, which includes his former girlfriend, Erin Greene. She, having herself likewise earlier gotten away, has left her abusive husband and returned to town pregnant, and is now working at her mother's old job as a schoolteacher.

There are many other characters, of course. Among them are Riley's parents and his teenage brother, Warren. There is a girl Warren likes who is confined to a wheelchair after having been (accidentally) shot by the island's resident alcoholic. There is the local doctor, who, like Riley, rejects religion, while caring for her senile, but once very devout mother. Also outside the Church is the local sheriff, a widower and a Muslim, recently arrived along with his teen son. And at the center of the parish community is Bev Keane (Samantha Sloyan), who is portrayed as obviously unlikable, the very embodiment of the sort of self-righteous and self-serving religiosity that people like Riley and Erin find so off-putting. As such, she represents what to many today sadly seems to be the public face of religion. She is the sort of person who functions as the proverbial stumbling block for so many.

To say more would reveal too much and spoil the suspense for those who desire it. Suffice it to say that those attracted to horror will find enough of it. But, although weird things happen even in the first episode, it takes a while for the really scary stuff to emerge. Meanwhile, much of the series is taken up with some very serious dialogue on religious and spiritual issues, which is what makes it worthwhile for non-horror fans to tune in. And then there is an Easter sunrise that is worth the wait.

Perhaps one of the most interesting conversations occurs between Riley and Erin concerning what happens when we die - while Nearer My God To Thee plays softly in the background. Having lost all faith, Riley still understands the appeal of religion, but rejects it for himself. He understands death in totally materialistic terms. Everything stops: "clinical death." Yet, in the brief interlude before his brain dies, he believes his brain will release all of its dream drug, and he will dream bigger and better than ever before, "this firework display of memories and imagination." Then, it stops, "and there is nothing left of me." Erin, however, is completely preoccupied with the fate of the baby she has just miscarried, and tells Riley how her daughter has floated back above to where she came from, where she will wake up "wrapped in a feeling of love. Just pure, amazing love." Then, she will meet her family, achieve her perfect age, and happily await her reunion with her mother. That is heaven for Erin. "You are loved. And you aren't alone." In short, her hope is the opposite of Riley's despair.

Meanwhile, as miracles and seemingly supernatural phenomena appear to accumulate, different characters react differently. Bev, of course, exploits what happens in order to advance her own agenda, with catastrophic consequences for the entire community. Some seem innocently taken in, while others remain skeptical and look for rational explanations. There is, of course, another obvious - what I would suggest might be the correct - religious response: that, while real enough, some seemingly supernatural manifestations may be demonic instead of divine.

But even demons cannot defeat the power of love.

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