Netflix's 'Midnight Mass' Is Not What It First Appears to Be
Mike Flanagan's new horror series conceals its true nature behind priestly garb until Episode 3 when it reveals its fangs, so to speak.
Midnight Mass has proven to be one of Mike Flanagan's most personal, and polarizing, projects. It's a biblical horror story that holds a mirror up to our present-day society, exploring the insidious ways corruption can transform a belief system, and change the psychology of normal everyday people to commit abhorrent, murderous deeds.
Warning: If you have not watched Episode 3 of Midnight Mass, tread lightly. There are major story spoilers below.
The seven-episode series, which dropped to Netflix on Friday, tells the story of a disgraced young man named Riley (Zach Gilford), who returns to his childhood home of Crockett Island to regroup and figure out the next steps in his life, only to grapple with a personal tragedy, the damage his addiction caused, his fractured relationship with religion, and his rocky journey to recovery.
When Father Paul (Hamish Linklater), the mysterious priest who arrives at St. Patrick's Church, takes over the duties of the tenured Monsignor Pruitt, the island community becomes galvanized at the tiny miracles that begin happening in and outside of the church. For Riley, Father Paul becomes a foil, as doubt in him grows through the events he witnesses. Only to discover one unbelievable truth—a concept that alters the trajectory of his life and the series, as a whole.
Father Paul is a vampire, and Midnight Mass is a vampire story.
"I read Dracula young enough for it to really burrow in for me and I read Salem's Lot young enough for that, too, I think, to color an enormous amount of the work I'll do for the rest of my life," Flanagan told Thrillist and select members of the press during the official junket for the show. And to be clear, there are definitely hints of both those pieces of literature sprinkled throughout the series. It all starts to come into focus in Episode 3, titled, "Book III: Proverbs."
It's here we find Father Paul confessing his sins in the empty church. His penance provides a wraparound narrative that allows the true nature of Midnight Mass to come into focus. Through his narration, we hear the story of Monsignor Pruitt, who had allegedly fallen ill, and we watch as the preacher journeys to the holy land, only to be overcome by dementia.
He quickly becomes lost from his tour group, ventures away from civilization, and nearly dies from a sandstorm in the vast Middle Eastern desert. In the maelstrom, he finds a cave. He finds shelter there, a sanctuary. But also, he discovers something ancient, maleficent, and evil.
A creature emerges from the darkness and drains Pruitt of life, only to have the holy man drink from its wrist and be resurrected, young and new. Surprise: Monsignor Pruitt and Father Paul are the same person.
The creature who saved him, he believes, is an angel of God. It's not, though. Obviously, it's a freakin' vampire.
The beast in question resembles Klaus Kinski's Nosferatu, in some stylistic ways. But the vampire mythos explored in Midnight Mass is vastly different from the common representations we've seen of the monster legend. There are no appearances of fangs in the series, but the overpowering hunger for blood is absolutely there. Sunlight still results in fiery death, but crucifixes do no harm at all.
"The thing that I love about the vampire, as a cinematic tool, is how malleable it is," Flanagan revealed. "There is no canon, there are no rules. In fact, part of the joy is seeing what rules people cherry-pick, as they approach a vampire story. I get a thrill out of it. It's really neat to see what ingredients people choose and then how they mix them together into something fun."
Pruitt's return to the island as young Father Paul invigorates an isolated, disenfranchised community with his energized sermons. But it's through administering the blood and sacrament during Mass that we learn of his real plan: He's serving microdoses of vampire blood (which he still views as the actual blood of Christ) to the practitioners.
"You can't be a Christian without believing in a man rising from the dead, that is a prerequisite for membership," Flanagan said, plainly.
He continued: "Doesn't transubstantiation turn everybody into a vampire? Which was a question [I used to ask] in Bible school. What I used to say is, if the wine turns into Jesus's blood—and it's literal, not symbolic—and we're drinking it so that we can live forever, this seems to me like a short leap to vampiric myth."
The Bible's texts are malleable. And Flanagan, who knows the book front-to-back, revealed one of the challenges of the project was to find a biblical passage to justify vampirism. "That was delightful," he admitted. "And really fun to kind of dig into."
As Father Paul continues doing Mass and repeatedly serves the blood to his practitioners, medical conditions and ailments begin disappearing, citizens start to de-age, and an unquestioning devotion (or shall we say allegiance) begins to develop in the congregation to follow the preacher's commands. Thus, bringing the story into dangerous fundamentalist territory. So, then Father Paul is the villain of Midnight Mass. Right? Not exactly.
"As we talked about morality, belief systems, tribalism, and things like that, the thing we kept coming back to was that, authentically, through-and-through, evil people are very rare," Flanagan said. "We're all way more complicated, the heroes are flawed, and the villains have good traits and, you know, it's hard to navigate people because of that. When it became clear that Father Paul could still do all of the horrible things I needed him to for the story while being a good person with a pure motive, then I felt like we had a show that was about something."
"There's only one character in the whole show who I think is evil," he added. "And it wasn't Father Paul."
It's interesting to note that the angel is never actually identified as a vampire in the series, much like how The Walking Dead never features the word "zombie." That choice was obviously a purposeful one because, while the series acknowledges vampirism and the lore that comes with the iconic creature, it's not the big bad of the series, either.
"This is a parable," Flanagan explained. "The angel doesn't represent vampirism or harm, it represents corruption in any belief system that represents fundamentalism and fanaticism. That's never gonna go away. You might chase it away from your community for a minute, you might send it off into the dark and hope the sun will rise and that corrupting ideology will disappear… but it won't."
Sure, that may sound bleak. And that's because it is. Let's remember, this is a Mike Flanagan show. He doesn't shy away from exploring the profundity and darkness lurking in all corners of the human condition. There are also slivers of hope and, as he puts it, "sunlight," sprinkled throughout the series.
When Flanagan became a parent, and especially now that he's three years sober, he has made the conscious effort to weave themes of love, compassion, and hope into each of his projects. Midnight Mass immerses itself in the darkness, but the series is also chock full of light.
"I would argue that the show celebrates faith, itself," Flanagan said, once again pointing to the fundamentalist, fanatical thinking that can lead to any extreme belief system which could rob a person of empathy for their fellow man.
"[Midnight Mass's] core values, in a sense, are very Christian: empathy, kindness, concern for your fellow man. So, in a sense, we're very pro the values that most religions espouse. And we'd invite anybody who is worried about that, to watch the show, and I hope they find that in there, too."