I’m not a fan of horror films. Many are simply exploitative, and the genre in general has normalised extreme violence.
But once in a while I come across something that, to me, is exceptional, and only in the genre of ‘horror’ out of misunderstanding; or even better, because the ‘film’ has two layers of meaning… and if you stick with it, you get to the second, deeper one.
Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, although sci-fi and not horror, was a case in point. It was really about the ultimate evolution of the human race – in the face of its imminent extinction, though that was much easier to ‘get’ if you’d read Arthur C. Clarke’s book – which came after the film, which was jointly produced by Kubrick and Clark. Many people who watched the film had no idea what was really going on…
We’ve recently finished watching the Netflix series of ‘Midnight Mass’, and, though this is classified as a horror/mystery film, it’s really something a lot deeper.
A charismatic young priest arrives on an island some miles off the coast of Maine on the eastern seaboard of the USA. The small Crockett Island is much diminished from its former days of being a fishing haven. Spillage from an oil tanker several years prior has reduced the standard of life to general poverty.
The Catholic Church on the island used to be the centre of its life, but is now sparsely populated. Drugs have found their way into the lives of the younger people; ‘pushed’ into their meagre existence by a couple of low-life types who masquerade as fishing boat mechanics.
As if that wasn’t enough, all the cats on the island are disappearing.
The film’s opening takes place in a quite different location: New York. We later find that the man siting in handcuffs on the pavement between his wrecked sports car and the police vehicle is the emigrated son of one of the fishermen on Crockett Island. Across the glass and metal strewn street, we see the dead body of the girl he’s just killed in the crash – caused by his being drunk. The image of the newly-dead girl, her face encrusted with fragments of shimmering glass, reflecting like jewels, is to haunt him for the rest of the film.
Later, we discover that he’s a successful investment banker on Wall Street… was a successful banker, because he’s sent to jail for several years for causing the death of the girl whose image now follows him.
We fast-forward to the day of his release from prison, when he arrives on Crockett Island on the mainland ferry, to return to life with his ‘only friends’ – his parents. His arrival coincides with that of the sudden appearance of a charismatic young priest, whose mission is to revitalise Crockett Island’s small church, and restore the once-vibrant spiritual life of the remote community.
The banker is now reduced to living with his family and being a poor fisherman, again. While the priest enjoys enjoys a rise to local fame – and a full church – with the aid of a series of miracles, although his health seems strangely suspect. As the congregation grows, we see the rise of the usual suspects – the zealot (a woman Deacon) who considers the rest are not holy enough; the town mayor, getting in on the act and asserting his temporal importance; the local violent drunk, whose only soft spot is for his beloved dog.
But the priest keeps ahead of this, and, each week, challenges the congregation to increase their efforts to ‘imitate Christ’. Soon, the church is full. Even the disgraced banker attends; at the behest of his father, though he will not take the communion wine.
Gradually, the entire life of the island gets drawn into this new pattern of life and worship; until, one morning after a storm, the beach is found to contain a long line of all the dead cats that had gone missing…
I’ll not spoil the story, whose plot is clever and surprising. But, throughout the film (series) you can feel what’s happening, even if you don’t understand it. The direction is subtle and sinister – while remaining deeply understated.
Sufficient to say its conclusion is shocking in the extreme, but not for the sake of it. It becomes the meeting and clash of two worlds: the vision of the priest for his flock versus the reality of what’s happening behind the scenes.
The dreadful confrontation between what’s been killing the cats and the full congregation is difficult to watch, but has a purpose way beyond violence. In that conflagration is shown all the best and worst of human nature and the crisis results in a condition where most of the island’s people are faced with possible death.
At the centre of this is the relationship between the disgraced banker and his former girlfriend, from when he lived on Crockett Island, There is a beautiful late-night scene where the two of them talk about their respective views on death and the afterlife – a motif repeated at the very end of the film, as the sun rises on the beach, where the remaining islanders are lined up to greet it…
The purpose of this blog is not, generally, to promote films, but the underlying wisdom of ‘Midnight Mass’ is beautifully and bravely crafted, and results in an ending filled with hope and wisdom, rather than the usual ‘vengeance’ aftermath of such scripts.
The film is also about ignorance, and those who follow what they want to hear, rather than seeking the reality – the truth.
You can’t describe it as a ‘feel good’ film, because it’s too shocking. But you can describe it as a brilliantly crafted story – filled with redemption, in the deepest sense.
©Stephen Tanham 2021
Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye, a journey through the forest of personality to the dawn of Being.