As is often the case with such fare, “Midnight Mass” begins as a creepy, provocative horror yarn and finally can’t deliver on its promise. Created by “The Haunting of Hill House’s” Mike Flanagan, the Netflix series deserves praise for its distinctive ambitions and jolting surprises but too often plays like a long-winded sermon, frittering around the edges of its homily.
Flanagan wrote the screenplay for the 2019 Stephen King movie “Doctor Sleep,” which is appropriate, since this seven-episode project feels like a King miniseries, for good and ill. Good, because the scary buildup draws the audience in, and bad, because the finish is – as is frequently true of King-derived works – a significant letdown. (For his part, the prolific author has already tweeted favorably about the show.)
Students of the genre will see other derivative elements – the 1979 remake of “Nosferatu” comes to mind – in this macabre and cerebral tale, which plunges deeply into the relationship between religion and vampirism, what with the rising-from-the-dead, blood-drinking aspects of the latter.
Set on remote Crockett Island, the plot hinges on the return of Riley (“Friday Night Lights’” Zach Gilford), a young man trying to get his life back together after serving time for a fatal car accident; and Father Paul (Hamish Linklater), a mysterious priest who arrives to replace the elderly clergyman who had long served the community.
Riley reconnects with a high-school crush, Erin (Kate Siegel, reuniting with Flanagan, her husband, after the “Haunting” series), ruefully discussing how their lives didn’t go according to plan. Soon enough, strange and seemingly supernatural events begin to occur, spurring talk of miracles and religious fervor, though the origins of those acts – and Father Paul’s relationship to them – could be far more sinister.
The first few episodes meander along without much sense of urgency (most of the episodes run more than an hour), sprinkling just enough clues to indicate that something wicked this way comes.
When the explanations finally do come pouring out, they’re not wholly satisfying, though they provoke some serious conversations about interpreting the Bible and unexpected reactions within Paul’s flock. There’s also an interesting if somewhat underdeveloped subplot about the Muslim sheriff (Rahul Kohli) and how he and his son fit in as the church’s role becomes more inflamed.
Buoyed by a cast that includes Henry Thomas and Annabeth Gish, what distinguishes “Midnight Mass” perhaps more than anything is the nature of its ideas and the extent to which Flanagan clearly wants to contemplate them while toying with horror conventions, seeking to engage the audience in unexpectedly layered fashion.
The climax, however, is more puzzling than stirring, proving chaotic in ways that ultimately don’t make much sense. That doesn’t necessarily undermine the more interesting aspects, but as it closes the books, “Midnight Mass” triggers too much soul-searching about whether it was worth the time investment.
In that sense, Flanagan’s trip to church certainly works in mysterious ways, but not wholly satisfying ones.
“Midnight Mass” premieres Sept. 24 on Netflix.