Mike Flanagan’s Midnight Mass

Mike Flanagan has done it again with his new Netflix limited series Midnight Mass, but at this point I’m pretty sure the man is incapable of making a misstep in his craft and is the front runner for consistency, quality and innovation among filmmakers working in the horror genre these days. Mass is the best thing he’s done since his now legendary foray into long-form Netflix storytelling The Haunting Of Hill House, a benchmark masterpiece that now sits alongside this equally breathtaking crown jewel in his career so far. Set on the tiny remote Crockett Island off the Canadian coast, it tells the story of many different townsfolk whose lives are all changed significantly with the arrival of a mysterious, unnerving preacher (Hamish Linklater), whose coming heralds other scary, biblically relevant events all over the island. Who is he? What has he brought with him from wherever he came from? The mysteries, revelations and narrative surprises here are too darkly delicious and exciting to spoil in a review so that’s about as far as I’ll go plot-wise. As is always the case with Flanagan, the human elements of character, dialogue, emotion and slow burn storytelling are just as important to him as gore, scares, horror elements and this is what makes him such a strong filmmaker. The acting sees uniformly career best work from Flanagan regulars and newcomers alike, with personal standouts for me including Robert Longstreet as the town drunk with a painful past, Kate Siegel as the deeply soulful schoolteacher, Zach Gilford as a haunted local returning after years and a guilt ridden tragedy, Samantha Sloyan in a terrifying showstopper as the world’s most despicable clergywoman and so many more, all excellent and all with their keystone moments to shine. Linklater himself is a force of nature, so horrifyingly effective as a serial rapist in the phenomenal Amazon Prime series Tell Me stout Secrets and again providing a masterclass here, he’s somehow perfected this acting vernacular and line delivery that is simultaneously as intense as a dragon staring you down but as gentle and lilting as a summer breeze, he’s an artist on another plane. The story and themes here are heavily rooted in Catholicism and Flanagan delves deep into issues of guilt, forgiveness, penance, reconciliation and delusional wayward souls mistaking evil for angelic salvation, but the material never feels preachy or aimed solely at the religious demographic, these are ideas, emotional arcs and universal concepts that are accessible for any viewer, simply refracted through the prism of an isolated town where Catholic values and practices are still a way of life. There are numerous monologues on life, death, the universe and the nature of the soul that are beautifully written and performed with aching soulfulness by several of the actors in Flanagan’s trademark patient, sedimentary long takes that allow words, conversation and emotion to flow freely and organically from the actors on their own time. The horror is at once human and otherworldly as we see this community descend into an escalating downward spiral that feels like the darkest nightmare, the atmosphere and tone straddling this sort of “Atlantic Coast Gothic” meets “Olde Worlde Demonism” type aesthetic that’s just the perfect flavour. This is the real deal; assured, immersive, eerie as all hell, humane, an emotional wrecking ball and one of the best experiences I’ve had with any show or film this year.

-Nate Hill

Netflix’s The Haunting Of Bly Manor

Stunning. Sensational. Complex. Deeply heartbreaking. Surprisingly romantic. The creators of The Haunting Of Hill House have done it agin with The Haunting Of Bly Manor, a lush, emotional, Victorian Gothic puzzle box of human drama, tragedy, memories that won’t die and yes, horror too although there’s less of it this time round. As one character remarks, “this is a love story, not a ghost story.” It’s true, and while Netflix hasn’t marketed it as such, if you go in expecting a romantic tragedy instead of full on horror like Hill House (think Guillermo Del Toro’s Crimson Peak) you’ll absorb the material with a clearer, fairer palette.

Our story starts as young American nanny Dani Clayton (Victoria Pedretti) journeys from London to Bly Manor in the countryside, hired by nervous, boozy Henry Wingrave (Henry Thomas, dutifully flaunting a posh dialect he’s clearly worked hard on) to look after his young niece Flora (Amelie Bea Smith) and nephew Miles (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth). Henry keeps well clear of Bly and the two children, content to wallow in his fancy London office, always at the bottom of a bottle for painful reasons we later are privy too. There she meets various complicated and, well written and flawlessly acted characters including tomboy gardener Jamie (Amelia Eve), stoic housekeeper Mrs. Grose (T’Nia Miller), lovable cook Owen (Rahul Kohli) and the black sheep among them, Henry’s shady, maladjusted valet Peter Quint (Oliver Jackson Cohen). Bly Manor itself, referred to in baroquely quaint terms by several characters as “a great good place,” is a world away from the omnipresent shadows, oppressive blue hued austerity of Hill House. Bly is rich, ornate, painted in deep chestnut browns, opulent dollhouse purples (the 80’s setting is proudly reflected in colour here) and the grounds adorned in brilliant green topiary, verdant meadows and beautiful rose gardens.

Now, my favourite part: the story. As told by a mysterious, wistfully mournful narrator played by the always brilliant Carla Gugino, this is a very dense, layered arrangement of interweaving love stories and subsequent tragedies, several ghosts and a host of human beings who all feel real, full of life and vitality and whose pain is shared greatly by the audience because of how excellently character development is cultivated, performance is calibrated and episodes are spun together on a loom of effortlessly fluid storytelling. Pedretti is a wonder as Dani, luminous and charismatic but one can see in her wide, drawn eyes and flighty mannerisms she has a painful past. Past and memory are important themes here, and every character, even the one painted as a flagrant villain, has something in their past that haunts them, causes them pain and dictates the choices they make in our narrative. Thomas is achingly restrained as Uncle Henry, Kohli raw and potent especially in an affecting campfire monologue that encapsulates everything we know, feel and wonder about life and death in one pure utterance. The two children are superb in quite difficult roles that require them to change tone, pitch and mood quite frequently. This story reminded me of those staircases in Harry Potter that continually shift their angles and pitch people out into unfamiliar hallways without warning. This narrative does the same for its characters, trapping them in ‘tucked away’ memories that seem arbitrary at first until you realize it’s for them to come to some realization or epiphany. I love that sort of reality melding, spaced out storytelling that uses memory and the mind in a literal sense and setting, it’s used to fantastic effect here and the story, while structured similarly as Hill House, is its own nesting doll narrative full of complexity and shifting components. Is it scary? Well, aside from a few effectively chilly moments no, not really, and nothing comes close to some of the skin crawling sequences in Hill House. But like I said, it’s more of a human story with life in its veins, and the most disturbing, distressing elements are the emotional rigours these human beings must endure, the torment that memory can inflict, the potent pain of a deep heartbreak, the deep wounds that grief imprints on one’s soul and the ways in which some may find redemption and others… not so much. It’s a tough, emotionally devastating tale and especially so for those who feel deeply and get invested in story and character, it takes its toll. But it’s a gorgeous, challenging, complex, beautifully rewarding experience in the same token, and I’m grateful to Mike Flanagan & Co for doing something equally as spellbinding as Hill House, yet cut from a different sort of cloth altogether. If this were a nine hour film (which is how I recommend you view, it demands to be binged in rapturous immersion) it would be my number one of the year.

-Nate Hill