Midnight Mass features a poster of Se7en that I owned as a teen

Mike Flanagan’s latest horror series questions who gets to determine what is and isn’t a sin

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Hello, I’m Jared Richards, editor of Netflix Pause and — as much as I try to fight it — a baby when it comes to horror (and in a few other ways, but let's not get into that now). That being said, horror is one of my favourite genres. Men — we contain multitudes!

But this week, I decided to be an adult for a moment and watched The Haunting Of Hill House and The Haunting Of Bly Manor creator Mike Flanagan’s latest supernatural series Midnight Mass without closing my eyes in the scary bits. (Fine, it happened a few times, but old habits die hard.)

Streaming 5pm AEST
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Midnight Mass

It’s never mentioned directly during Midnight Mass’ seven episodes, but when our handsome, troubled protagonist Riley Flynn (Zach Gilford) returns to the tiny fishing island he grew up on, after four years in jail for drink-driving and manslaughter, he sleeps below a poster of the David Fincher movie Se7en

The rest of his childhood bedroom, mostly untouched since his teen years, is non-descript. Se7en is an odd film to venerate as a teen: I say this because I, too, had that exact poster in my teen bedroom. I was drawn to its Big, Serious Themes about morality: A serial killer taking revenge on a society who daily indulges in and promotes God’s deadly sins? That’s deep, dude! We really do live in a society! (Brad Pitt was also very important to me, for obvious gay reasons.) 

Riley’s interest in sin comes from growing up deeply committed to the Catholic Church. The hundred-population Crockett Island has St. Patrick’s at its civic centre, and Riley was once an altar boy and disciple of Monsignor Pruitt — a man now suffering dementia in his 80s, and recently sent with the town’s donations to Israel for a pilgrimage. Pruitt is due to return to the island the week Riley arrives, but an illness means the church sends the charming priest Paul Hill (Hamish Linklater) to cover while Pruitt recovers in hospital.

Riley and Paul both arrive to find a dying town, as each year more and more people leave after the fishing industry struggles to recover from an oil spill. But this priest is a burst of energy — at his most impassioned, he’s giving not Cher, but a mixture of Fleabag’s Hot Priest with Robert Pattinson in The Devil All The Time

But let’s get to the horror! The call is coming from inside the house, as characters battle their internal demons: Riley’s alcoholism has ruined his life, and other addictions across the town create everyday terrors. There’s a little more going on too, though. Is there a strange creature on the loose (It’s probably nothing, right)? And wait, could that huge ancient chest the priest lugged onto the island have anything to do with it? And that energetic priest is a little weird, hey? Then add in hundreds of dead cats washed ashore (Shawn Mendes would be right to say it’s giving Twin Peaks), and you’ve got an unnerving, intelligent psychological horror so compelling (and pretty) that I watched it in the dark (instead of, you know, turning on every single light in the house and ruining the fun). 

Even with all of that going on, it’s corruption of the scriptures that are the most divisive force on Crockett Island, as the self-appointed town leader Bev Keane (Samantha Sloyan), a pious and beyond passive-aggressive church volunteer, cherry-picks verses for her own cruel needs. Keane seeks to ostracise all ‘sinners’, whether they’re alcoholics, unwed pregnant women, or Muslims. Pardon the blasphemy, but oh my God, she’s among the most (delightfully) detestable characters of 2021.

Propelling Midnight Mass to its bloody finish is a fury running through it, pointed at those who feign benevolence to judge others or act out a higher power’s ‘plan’. Speeches on morality in between bloodbaths can be naff (Se7en, hello??), but Midnight Mass balances the two impulses well. Like Paul Schrader’s First Reformed, it’s a scathing excavation of moral corruption, always remaining empathetic to the why behind the scramble, a compulsion to make suffering meaningful. 

I was a little surprised that my own bloodlust rose while watching: I’m usually too much of a wuss to enjoy carnage, but there’s something to be said for reckoning for our sins. Maybe that’s why both the teen Riley and I loved Se7en enough to put its ugly promotional poster up on our walls.

Midnight Mass is streaming on Netflix from 5pm AEST.

Watch these too:

  • The Haunting Of Hill House & The Haunting Of Bly Manor, Mike Flanagan’s other limited horror series, respectively based off the works of Shirley Jackson and Henry James. ‘Elevated horror’ is a bit of a reductive term (it’s all a metaphor, babe), but Flanagan adopts the best of the genre’s recent trends (cerebral scares) while steering clear of over-labouring, instead letting the horror speak for itself.

  • Gerald’s Game and Hush, if you want to dive deeper into Flanagan’s oeuvre. Hush is a slasher about a deaf woman being taunted by a masked murderer; Gerald’s Game sees a wife struggle to survive after her husband has a heart attack mid-coitus, leaving her handcuffed to the bed.

  • Ratched, Ryan Murphy’s prequel to ‘70s classic One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. Come for Sarah Paulson as a monstrously unhinged psychiatric nurse, stay for Cynthia Nixon as her political campaigning lesbian lover. 

  • Brand New Cherry Flavour, a new body horror series set in the scariest place on Earth: Los Angeles’ film industry. After a vindictive producer asks a witch (Catherine Keener) to curse hopeful director Lisa, she has to deal with all manner of supernatural issues — including routinely vomiting up kittens. Bizarre and gross, like a wonderful cross of Lynch and Cronenberg.

The internet can’t stop talking about:

  • Gillian Anderson, a personal favourite topic. It’s been a big fortnight for her: she stunned (and photobombed) at the Met Gala, got won an Emmy for playing Margaret Thatcher in The Crown, and with Sex Education’s new season out, so too arrives the yearly surprise that she is American, not British. She was also sent this gigantic penis cake. Mostly though, I just want to point you towards Anderson being asked at the Emmys about whether she’s spoken to the extremely dead Thatcher about her portrayal: her polite rebuff of the question is remarkably polite and British, which only further confuses things.

  • Sex! Specifically, the sex in Sed Education season three, which is kinky, queer, and fantasy-filled. Over at Junkee, Kristen Amiet asked sexologist Aleeya Hachem how the show’s changed public perceptions of both sex and her job (spoiler: people now realise it’s not made-up). They also examined Netflix’s Pleasure Survey, which asked Australians about what we do (and don’t) enjoy in bed. Spoiler: we’re a nation of masturbators, with 1.9 million of us doing it daily.

  • Michaela Coel’s acceptance speech, after winning an Emmy for writing I May Destroy You. Dedicated to all survivors of sexual assault, she spoke to the importance of healing: “In a world that entices us to browse the lives of others to help us better determine how we feel about ourselves, and to, in turn, feel the need to be constantly visible — for visibility, these days, seems to somehow equate to success — do not be afraid to disappear. From it, from us, for a while. And see what comes to you in the silence.” 

  • The 21st of September. For the past eight years, comedian and writer Demi Adejuyigbe has celebrated the day mentioned in Earth, Wind & Fire’s ‘September’ with a dance video. This year’s is Grease meets La La Land, and it’s eight minutes of pure joy.

As a farewell gift, a video that induces more serotonin than I knew my brain was capable of receiving:

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Jared Richards is a critic living on Gadigal Land who has written for The Guardian, The Monthly, Junkee and more. He tweets at @jrdjms
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