A man returns to his remote home community after years away, haunted by ghostly visions. A mysterious stranger also arrives, taking up residence in the town’s most foreboding building and bearing a suspiciously heavy crate. Before long, the residents notice strange happenings: spooky sightings at their windows, people going missing. Then everybody starts to change…
The plot, of course, to Stephen King’s classic 1975 novel Salem’s Lot, which was turned into a truly terrifying 1979 miniseries that psychologically scarred anyone unfortunate enough to grow up in the ‘80s for life with its scenes of floating townsfolk, cloaked in mist, scratching at windows in the dead of night. And is now resurrected (in more ways than one) for Mike Flanagan’s Netflix follow-up to The Haunting Of Hill House, Midnight Mass.
Here, rather than David Soul trying to shake off the shadow of Starsky & Hutch by going full Van Helsing with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre director Tobe Hooper, we find drink driving convict Riley Flynn (Zach Gilford) returning to the tiny island community of Crockett Island after four years in jail, plagued nightly by the spectre of the woman he killed in the crash. As he goes about confronting his demons and repairing his relationship with his childhood sweetheart Erin (Kate Siegel), an enigmatic new priest Father Paul Hill (Hamish Linklater) arrives at the island’s church to replace their reportedly ill Monsignor, dragging that cumbersome trunk. And everything – very, very slowly over seven talky episodes – begins to go a bit glow-eyed.
Beyond the obvious echoes of Salem’s Lot – and this is one of the few modern series to capture the slow-burn menace of what was undoubtedly one of the scariest TV films ever made – there’s something deeply retro about Midnight Mass. As the story progresses it also touches on the classic themes of cult fundamentalism central to the likes of The Wicker Man and Rosemary’s Baby. The shuffling bushes and snatched cats of early episodes hark back to every classic creature feature at the bottom of Netflix. And its musical touches – single scrapes of viola at the ‘jump’ where most supernatural shows would have whole cataclysms of cat-shrieking strings, like the entire Royal Philharmonic have shat themselves at once – give it the stark atmosphere of a 1970s BBC horror like Dennis Potter’s Brimstone And Treacle.
Likewise, Midnight Mass’s lengthy discussion scenes, in which Flanagan expands on his skills of interweaving personal tragedy with horror (a key feature of The Haunting Of Hill House and The Haunting Of Bly Manor) to take in intricate dissections of faith, religion and afterlife, also throw back to the philosophical musings of Play For Today style TV dramas of yesteryear. As it sets about painting social and religious fundamentalism as a vehicle for untold terror, casting Crockett Island as much a watery Waco as Stephen King’s vampire infested Maine town, Midnight Mass reverts to a classic less-is-more approach.
One hour-long episode consists almost entirely of religious one-on-one debate in an empty church hall, interrupted by brief interludes of raging bloodlust. Jump scares, rare as they are, generally involve a static woodland shadow scene from which a cat-eyed figure you didn’t notice will dart out of shot like a fox caught trying to shag your lawnmower. This is no low-budget show, but it is one that recognises that televisual horror is heightened by realism and rendered ridiculous by moneyed manipulation. We need to feel as though the undead kid could be tapping at our window, the freaky priest slipping supernatural fluids into our sacrament.
As such, the theatrical staging and thoughtful pace of Midnight Mass, particularly if watched in the kind of HD that could make No Time To Die look like an iPhone home video, does make the series a (far slower) Salem’s Lot for our times. Its intricate character building and stretches of theological preach-talk help give the key bursts of horrific action more depth, and illuminate the show’s wider allegories. How faith, in politics as much as religion, is used as a manipulative tool. How leaders bend masses for personal gain. That evil and good can be interchangeable in systems, like the church, which rely on blind belief in theoretical rhetoric. You won’t want to let it in, but you’ll be powerless to resist.