October 16, 2021

Streamin' Meemies: Midnight Mass, or, How I Stopped Worrying and Learned To Love "Angels"


There are many stories of religious horror. There's the original Exorcist, of course (the movie; I haven't seen any of the TV series, but I've heard it's very good); The Omen; Stephen King's The Stand (with added prescient pandemic bonus); and the current streaming series Evil. The X-Files' Dana Scully was a scientist and a devout Catholic. Mike Flanagan's Midnight Mass, a seven-episode limited series on Netflix, takes elements of Catholic liturgy and mythology and marries them to a very different kind of mythology to stunning effect. 

This show has been out long enough that the main plot elements have already been discussed, but just in case:


I must begin by saying that I came to this with a religious background. I'm not Catholic, but....oh hell, there's no way to say it except to be blunt: I was raised and baptized as one of Jehovah's Witnesses. For most of my life I was all-in; I "pioneered" (preached door to door full time, at that time defined as at least 90 hours a month) for five years. I went to New York when the world headquarters was still in Brooklyn and toured the beautiful buildings (and saw the World Trade Center a scant few years before it fell). I had dear friends in the congregation. I studied my Bible (and still have it, with pages upon pages of scribbled notes in the margins). I was, for most of that time, a good "sister," and didn't think much about it. 

About fifteen years ago, I started...not attending meetings so much, not studying so much, and wanting to do other things. I quit pioneering because, frankly, I got tired of talking to people every damn day and trying to convince them of...what? That the end was coming? I never had any trouble with sexual abusers in the congregation (though I don't doubt it happened, and I'm sure it was covered up), and I didn't have any run-ins with the local elders. I guess the main cutting off point with me was reading more widely, learning to love science, and realizing that if I ever did get married, I was not going to be a goddamned submissive wife. And so I gradually just stopped, and never went back.

But the many Bible verses remained with me. You can't read them over and over for years on end and not have them scorched into your brain, after all. This miniseries was full of Biblical quotations, from the prophets of the Old Testament to Psalms to the Gospels to (especially in the final episodes) Revelation. (The episode titles are drawn from Bible books.) And that hammered the story's themes home to me, because it was made patently obvious how easy it was for people to take these verses, often the same verses, and twist them to fit their own agendas, for good or bad. One character, Father Paul Hill, gives a long sermon about the resurrection of Jesus, quoting the usual things: "I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die," and so on and so forth. (He gets quite worked up during this particular sermon, sounding more like a Pentecostal preacher hurling out fire and brimstone than a Catholic priest in love with his mysteries. I've never seen the actor, Hamish Linklater, in anything before, but damn he was riveting. He deserves an Emmy nomination, and unfortunately probably won't get one, because the Emmys won't touch horror.) By this time you know exactly what kind of "resurrection" he's talking about, and what "eternal life" he means his congregation to have.  Watching him, the slow creeping horror steals through you as you realize just what he wants to share with the people sitting before him, and how utterly convinced he is that it will be for their good--even though we've already seen it is completely evil


The central MacGuffin of this series is revealed in Episode 3, when we see exactly why Father Hill came to the island. This story takes a page from Stephen King's isolated communities as the perfect breeding ground for horror, supernatural or otherwise, as it is set on Crockett Island, an island thirty miles off the coast (of which Eastern state isn't made clear). Father Hill is an unexpected replacement for Monsignor Pruitt, the aging previous cleric who was sent on an expense-paid trip to the Holy Land by the grateful congregation at St. Patrick's, meant to be a final hurrah before his retirement. But John Pruitt is further lost in the maze of dementia than anyone knows, and he wanders off from his tour group and gets lost in a sandstorm. The storm uncovers the entrance to an ancient cave, and Pruitt wanders in. He lights matches and sees two eyes gleaming in the darkness....and a snarling bat-winged thing comes out of the depths and attacks him. 

That's right, John Pruitt has just met a Nosferatu-style Jewish or early Christian vampire. I say that because as it is sucking him dry, he utters the Our Father prayer--and it recognizes the words. (The show doesn't outright state who the vampire is, but given the fact that Lazarus is mentioned a lot, one wonders if that's who it's meant to be.) It backs off, bites its wrist, and drips some of its blood into the monsignor's mouth. The father passes out (it's not a true death, not yet) and the next morning he has dropped about forty years, regrown a full head of dark hair, and regained his mental faculties. Thinking this is a miracle--which I suppose it is, just not from the source he naturally attributes it to--he starts chanting to this demonstrably evil creature, calling it an "angel."

(This is the one thing that bugs me about this show, the inconsistent and plot-coupony progression of the vampiric turning. Monsignor Pruitt can still face the sun that  morning, and doesn't completely die until a couple of episodes later. On the other hand, another character the "angel" bleeds dry shows a more typical overnight turning.)

This is where the horror begins, because John Pruitt, convinced that this thing has given him life eternal that he now wants to share with everyone else, puts the vampire in a trunk and brings it back to Crockett Island. He turns it loose that night, and it flies to another smaller, nearby island inhabited by feral cats, and proceeds to slaughter and drain every last one of them. There's a storm coming in that night, and all the dead cats wash up the next morning on the beach. After that, in search of more prey, it flies back to Crockett Island--as shown in a gorgeous aerial tracking shot; one of several long complicated tracking shots from the show's creator and director, Mike Flanagan--and starts hunting there. The question might be asked, "Why doesn't it fly off to the mainland?" but as the story goes on, we gradually see the full extent of the devil's bargain Pruitt has struck.

(I just rewatched the first episode, and it's really masterful how all the plot and character beats are laid down. We're introduced to all the main characters, shown all the conflicts and seen artful hints placed for the later revealed backstory, and also given a sense of the Catholic liturgy, mysteries and atmosphere the story uses so well, all in a tidy and well-paced 59 minutes.)
The central conceit of the series is the marriage between the Bible, Catholic ritual and mysteries, and vampire mythology--and how well it all fits together.  How creepily, frighteningly well. Hubris also plays a big role, both in the character of Monsignor Pruitt/Father Hill and another character who is almost more of a villain than the vampire itself--Beverly Keane. She is the smug, manipulative town busybody who is up in everyone's business, trying to control the flow of everything on the island and its people behind the scenes. She is also the first one to realize exactly what is going on--the word "vampire" is never spoken in this miniseries, but you realize Bev Keane knows damn well who and what Father Hill is--and she doesn't care. She wants the power turning into a creature of the night will give her, and this is brought home in the final episode when she quotes Revelation and dreams of spreading the "good news" to the mainland. 

Father Hill/John Pruitt's hubris lies entirely in another direction, out of very misguided love and a desire for redemption. The reason he wants redemption is not made clear until the bloody and apocalyptic final episode, but he is shown throughout as sincerely wanting to save his little congregation, by giving them miracles and, eventually, eternal life. But how he does it is a betrayal of everything his faith claims to stand for, because he starts feeding the people the vampire's blood during the daily mass--the phrase "blood of Christ" was never as scary as how it's uttered here--and he doesn't tell them what he's doing. Oh yeah, people's injuries start healing, their eyesight gets better, they start looking younger and a young girl, Leeza, paralyzed after an hunting accident, gets up and walks--but the Father never tells them the price they will pay or asks for their consent. I imagine Beverly Keane and probably several others would have paid that price anyway, but the point is that John Pruitt was so sure that he, as their faith leader, knew what was best for them that he never asked. 

And even in the very last episode, when he performs a Midnight Mass that he intends to end in a mass vampiric transformation, by poisoning everyone with rat poison and having them awaken as a vampire, he doesn't really think what he did was wrong. He calls it "monstrous," but what he means is that the people in the church didn't die and come back to life the way he wanted them to and it turned into a mass slaughter. That's what was monstrous--how they reacted to it--and not the deed itself.

So yeah, we have a religious horror vampire story here--but it's so much more than just a vampire story. It's an interrogation of faith and rationality, a discussion of death and suffering, an examination of power and authoritarianism and even how a sincere love and religious belief can lead people badly astray. 

I really liked Mike Flanagan's previous Netflix series, The Haunting of Hill House. This one is better. It has a razor-sharp focus and terrific performances, and given my background it cut me to the quick. Don't miss it.

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