‘Midnight Mass’ is the best vampire show ever made, and it’s not even about vampires

Why is Midnight Mass so affecting? Why is a story about a vampire descending on an isolated town — a description that would fit 30 Days of Night or any number of inferior genre films — the best work of Mike Flanagan’s career?

Never mind that vampires do not “descend” on the town so much as coalesce out of the town itself. Never mind that the story is more a meditation on where our beliefs come from and the innate fallibility of human interpretation than that of a traditional horror film. Writers and directors remix horror elements all the time, so what makes Midnight Mass different?

The answer, I think, is that the show is true. No, “Crockett Island” does not exist and vampires do not stalk remote caves in Jerusalem (as far as I know. I haven’t checked any caves in Jerusalem). But this is a rare, almost singular story in which, despite the presence of a supernatural entity, its themes and emotional power ring completely true in the real world. That sounds deceptively obvious and simple, but let me try to explain.

The show is not based on a tired gimmick, such as showing what might “really” happen if a “real” vampire showed up in the “real” world. Such films ultimately create their own universe, trapping anything they have to say about the human experience within that bubble. You can even make the vampires Nazis, CEOs, or United States Senators, but ultimately the analogies and metaphors and satire will only really make sense within that world, because it isn’t “our” world.

A scene from 30 Days of Night, which teaches us the valuable life lesson that a UV lamp can kill a vampire. Also, vampires love, too. Relatable!

And yet, as a side effect of brilliant storytelling, Midnight Mass creates a convincing depiction of what might really happen if a real vampire showed up in the real world. Huh.

That’s because the story isn’t making a point about vampires, figurative or otherwise. The film’s trio of main characters — Riley (Zach Gilford), Erin (Kate Siegel), and Monsignor Pruitt (Hamish Linklater) — are not primarily metaphors or satirical stand-ins. They are human beings wrestling with how to see the world in the face of unimaginable horror: the horror of guilt, of miscarriage, of an untested system of beliefs being truly tested for the first time. Nor is the vampire a symbol in the show’s eyes. It is a humanoid creature with the wings of a bat; the characters, not the camera, interpret the creature, a dynamic that forms the crux of the show’s power.

Indeed, the mystery surrounding the vampire’s existence is one of the show’s masterstrokes. Flanagan never stoops to the stereotypes of the genre, which would usually demand that a character googles “vampire” and reads from someone’s blog as if it’s the Encyclopedia Britannica, or else visits a renowned “vampire expert” who is inexplicably paid by a major university to research vampires for a living. In Midnight Mass, the word “vampire” is never mentioned — I use it here only for convenience — and a muted, vague, two-second reference to “myths” in this 7+ hour show is the closest we ever get to a confirmation that these characters are familiar with the concept of a vampire. This frees up the show’s more logical characters to speculate about scientific explanations while the mostly kind-hearted Pruitt and his manipulative, hypocritical scumbag of an apostle, Bev, work overtime to convince themselves that the vampire is a biblical angel.

To Flanagan’s credit, despite the show ultimately becoming one of cinema’s most savage takedowns of religion’s susceptibility to erroneous interpretation, Pruitt and his flock are not dismissed as idiots, nor is religion and spirituality as a whole tossed out with the bathwater. Pruitt’s story — from the moment he meets the vampire in that cave in Jerusalem and feels, for the first time, that confusing mixture of fear and reverent awe that he will struggle with for the remainder of the show, to the moment he awakens to his mistakes and tries to set things right — is told with empathy, not mockery. A few inspired scenes of wood blocks depicting Pruitt’s meeting with the vampire and his subsequent tribulations are infused with the same contradictory blend of earnestness, tragedy, grandiosity, and humility that Pruitt himself feels. Despite knowing better, we want to believe in his conviction that all things, no matter how horrific, have a grain of goodness within them.

Pruitt comes face to face with a vampire. Or is it an angel?

On the other side of the philosophical divide is Riley. As an atheist myself, Riley initially struck me as a Christian’s idea of an atheist, given that his worldview as expressed in the first few episodes can be boiled down to something like, “a kind god wouldn’t let children starve in Africa.”

But as the show progressed, I realized that the point of Riley’s character is not his atheism, but his refusal to compromise on his belief that certain things in this world are simply bad. No silver lining, no redeeming truth, just evil and bad luck and mistakes. It’s this rigid moral compass, forged by his accidental killing of a young woman in a drunk-driving accident, that Riley’s simplified philosophical musings early on are supposed to express. This sets up a clear confrontation; not between Catholicism and atheism, but between moral elasticity and a clear-eyed appraisal of good and evil. While Pruitt bends, hiding behind his belief system when his moral fiber is tested, Riley chooses to die rather than lie to himself and become the very evil he cannot ignore. In death, Riley sets into motion the events that will ultimately lead to Crockett Island’s salvation.

Finally, there is Erin, who falls roughly in the center of this ideological divide. With Riley’s death occurring in Episode 5, Erin becomes the de facto protagonist, and the conversation she has with him only days before his death becomes the emotional and philosophical core of the show. In that conversation, which takes place quite informally in Erin’s living room — a purposeful decision that I think makes the scene all the more relatable to anyone who has experienced the most challenging conversations of their lives on a couch beside a friend or family member — Riley describes what he imagines death will be like. His speech pairs a strictly biological description of the body’s death with a mystically tinged interpretation of the body breaking down into its elemental particles and seeding the universe, representing a blend of rationality and non-specific spirituality that a good portion of viewers will relate to.

Erin and Riley have a couch convo about life and death.

Erin, who has just discovered that she has miscarried — a consequence of the vampire blood Pruitt has been mixing into the sacrament at mass — opts for a comforting fantasy in which she meets her unborn daughter in something like Heaven. In a scene of incredible emotional complexity, Flanagan projects both empathy and hope for her take on death while also subtly suggesting that she doesn’t really believe everything she’s saying. Erin’s speech, in which she constantly teeters between extreme sadness for the loss of her child and happiness at the prospect of seeing her again, is the first example of a recurring question in the show: why does death, whether our own or that of others, cause so much grief and fear in people who believe they will live on?

Flanagan’s answer seems to be that belief isn’t real until it is tested. That’s true of Riley, whose prior religiosity broke under the weight of his mistakes, but whose subsequent moral convictions did not falter when faced with death. It’s true of Pruitt, who finds his faith morphing exponentially to account for a monstrous being that grants him seductive gifts, only to discover a more resilient and honest faith near his end that sees him through his death with grace. And it’s true of Erin, who, as she dies after essentially saving the world, realizes that what she really believes is a happy medium between Riley’s rationality, Pruitt’s hopefulness, and even the stunningly beautiful way that vampires perceive stars. She is energy, the same energy that burns within stars and vibrates with the constant, invigorating thrum of life. And that constancy, that ever-cycling and ever-expanding flow of energy, is hope.

Hope. Riley rejects it, Pruitt is seduced by it, and Bev preys upon it. But only Erin accepts it.

In the show’s final seconds, as Bev tears at the sand beneath her, flailing frantically for any way to escape her death, we ask ourselves what she believes. But perhaps we should be asking ourselves a different question:

What do I believe?

Note: There is so much going on in Midnight Mass that I can’t possibly talk about it all — not in this analysis, anyway. In the interest of economy, I did not mention the incredible performance of Rahul Kohli as Sheriff Hassan (Yes, Hassan. Apparently some people have missed that “Sharif” is a racial jab — a reference to actor Omar Sharif and a bastardization of “sheriff” — used by characters in the show to belittle him; it’s not the character’s name). Nor did I mention Robert Longstreet as Joe Collie. Longstreet plays a sad, lonely man better than anyone on the planet. I didn’t even mention my favorite scene in the film, which I will probably write about in the near future. I could go on and on, but the point is: it couldn’t all go here. Sorry about that.

Valhalla Rising: A masterclass in cinematic stillness

With The Green Knight, David Lowery’s adaptation of the old Arthurian tale, set for release on July 30 in the US, I’m revisiting Valhalla Rising, a violent but meditative Viking tale that features a similar infusion of psychedelia, nature and a medieval setting. The following is as much analysis as review, so — as usual — spoilers abound.

Like many of Nicolas Winding Refn’s films, Valhalla Rising has a reputation as a “love it or hate it” kind of film. For some, its vicious yet matter-of-fact violence is a non-starter. For others, the film’s almost eerie stillness, both sonically and visually, makes for a strange and off-putting experience. But for me, these elements and more make for one of the most original and absorbing depictions of Vikings ever put to film.

Released in 2009, Rising stars Mads Mikkelsen fresh off his claim to superstardom as a Bond villain in Casino Royale. Mikkelsen is a mysterious, one-eyed Norse warrior known only as One-Eye, who is kept as a slave in the Scottish Highlands and forced to fight other slaves to the death. He does so with brutal efficiency. His moniker is given to him by a boy (Maarten Stevenson) — who belongs to the clan but often seems more like a fellow slave — because One-Eye is mute.

“The boy” speaks for One-Eye, but Maarten Stevenson’s greatest contribution to the role is the way he convincingly builds a relationship between the two characters without the help of two-way dialogue.

Despite being the most straightforward part of the film in terms of narrative, the opening is also quite mysterious. Why is One-Eye being forced to fight like some kind of Viking Mandingo? We learn from the opening title card that this is a time of religious persecution, in which Christians have brought the fire and brimstone of the ongoing First Crusade to Scotland and are violently persecuting the “heathen” Scandinavians. It is also implied that the money earned from betting on these Viking brawls is the only defense the tribes of the Highlands have left against the Christians.

Truth be told, this opening setup is never given a satisfactory explanation, and it doesn’t need one. It exists to show us that One-Eye is an odd kind of savage, ruthlessly effective in combat but curiously unmoved by the violence he creates.

From the outset, we know there is something different about One-Eye. Even those not versed in Norse Mythology might recognize the missing eye as a reference to Odin, the venerated god who often appeared to humans in the guise of a one-eyed wanderer (the eye having been exchanged for the gift of wisdom). One-Eye also experiences red-tinted visions that turn out to be accurate visions of the future.

Soon enough, One-Eye makes his escape with the boy in tow, and the film becomes something that is less concerned with plot than with an allegorical descent into Hell. But rather than show this descent through hellish imagery, Refn chooses to depict consistently beautiful — if unforgiving — landscapes. Much like One-Eye himself, the land plays host to violence but keeps it at a cold distance, remaining stoic and picturesque regardless of the madness and bloodshed that plays out in its domain. Indeed, one gets the sense over the course of the film that One-Eye shares some kind of connection with the natural world.

Hell on Earth

The descent begins when One-Eye and the boy meet a troupe of Christian Crusaders who intend to make the journey to Jerusalem. Interestingly, the Christians do not reject the obviously heathen One-Eye, instead speculating that he might bring them luck on their journey to the Holy Land. Like the omamori charms of Japanese Buddhism to an American Christian, One-Eye is an exotic curiosity to the crusaders. Though they are aware of his brutally effective reputation as a warrior, they underestimate him. But One-Eye, who appears to have no particular destination of his own, agrees to accompany the crusaders on their journey.

Understandably, this is where the film begins to lose some viewers. The groups embarks in a simple canoe, seemingly ill-prepared for a journey of this magnitude, and we are made to feel their lethargy and desperation as the canoe sits on dead water in the middle of a dense fog for days on end. We already have a silent protagonist and a mostly-silent score. The canoe journey, then, is a kind of visual silence, a stillness that settles over us as viewers much like the fog that drapes over the crusaders.

More time rowing, less time praying?

As filmgoers, we are used to seeing visual cues that let us know when something important is happening. A stagnant image, then, reflects stagnation. But while the ever-present fog around the canoe blocks out any evidence of a transition, there is a transformation happening under our noses all the while. The crew begin to regard One-Eye with distrust, suspecting that he has cursed them to be stranded for all eternity or, worse, is leading them to Hell (Hel in Norse terms), where the boy says One-Eye is from.

Eventually, after a few ill-fated outbreaks of violence against One-Eye, the group arrives in a new land, though the not the one they had set out for. Refn’s direction pays such exquisite attention to the details of the landscape that we need no obvious cues to tell us they have arrived in North America, even as feathered arrows begin to fly from the treeline.

All of a sudden, we recognize the toll the journey has taken on the crusaders. One of them wanders off, only to return covered in reddish brown clay and with the apparent ability to hear One-Eye speaking. Others seem to regress into something like a vegetative state, their heads lolling to the side, their eyes staring into the distance. The leader of the crusaders is convinced that they must conquer this land in the name of the Lord, and he is almost comically persistent in this belief no matter what misfortunes befall the crew. Only One-Eye seems relatively unaffected, though his visions seem to increase in frequency and intensity.

It’s tempting to assume the group has literally arrived in Hell, especially when a chapter title seems to announce as much, but the truth is that the crusaders have found themselves far outside their element. They are in a land they neither know nor are capable of conquering, a land filled with unfamiliar artifacts and funeral pyres that seem satanic to their eyes. To make matters worse, arrows sometimes zip through the air from out of nowhere, striking them down without a moment’s notice. Now more than ever, the film’s carefully considered cinematography emphasizes that the land is so much bigger than these characters, so full of secrets they can never hope to penetrate.

A crusader ponders his future in this strange new land.

This segment of the film feels heavily inspired by Dead Man, Jim Jarmusch’s so-called “acid western” that also features disembodied arrows appearing from nowhere like divine karmic forces. Even the soundtrack, which begins to rise in intensity as madness overtakes the group, seems to echo Neil Young’s dark, improvised score to that film. Dead Man is a fitting influence, given that both films set their protagonists marching toward an inevitable destiny of sacrifice and death. In this case, One-Eye’s visions tell him he will soon meet his end at the hands of the local natives. Rather than attempt to avoid his fate, he stays the course with all the calm certainty of a man who knows more than he will ever let on.

By now, it’s obvious that One-Eye is more than a man, especially when it’s revealed that he has been speaking to the boy the whole time without actually speaking. One-Eye is clearly some kind of god or higher spirit; as one character says quite early in film, “the Christians have but one god. We have many.”

It seems a bit too on the nose to assume that he is Odin, though his act of sacrifice in the film’s final moments echoes Odin’s sacrificial hanging from the sacred tree Yggdrasil. The boy’s claim that he comes from Hell (which now has some authority, given that we can assume he heard this from One-Eye himself) also complicates his origins.

Regardless, it’s his purpose, not his name, that is important. The film’s finale finds him and the boy surrounded by natives — the same natives that appeared in the vision of his death. He touches the boy’s arm tenderly, perhaps the first genuine display of emotion he has shown in the film, and then he offers himself to the natives unarmed. The message is clear: take me, leave the boy. One-Eye’s purpose, it turns out, is to protect the boy.

Only now, as One-Eye is beaten to death and his spirit walks peacefully into a lake, do we fully understand the arc of the film. The crusaders, who are mostly converted Vikings that drop their faith the moment things begin to get dicey, are bereft of purpose. Promised riches by their devout leader, they had been more than willing to set out for Jerusalem, but North America has nothing to plunder, nothing to ravage. There are only trees, grass, and the hot sun. Robbed of their thin motivations, the minds of the crusaders rot.

Good luck with that.

The boy, on the other hand, finds purpose in One-Eye, who he comes to regard with the respect and deprecating humor one reserves for a father. Even in death, we sense the boy will be protected; One-Eye’s face appears in the clouds as the film ends, his spirit having been taken back into nature.

Most of this is communicated to the audience through quiet glances and near-silent images, adding up to a film that ultimately feels profoundly peaceful. That’s a novelty, sure, but it’s more than that: to watch Valhalla Rising is to regard humanity — in all its violence, pride, greed, fear, and love — through the serene eye of that ever-present, silent witness: the landscape.

The Ladykillers and the glory days of Tom Hanks

Will we ever see another character as brilliant as Goldthwaite Higginson Dorr, PhD?

In recent years, Tom Hanks has taken a well-deserved rest from demanding roles that showcase his acting range. With a few exceptions sprinkled in (A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Captain Phillips) he has largely become one of those actors who appears to play himself rather than disappearing into his roles, though we can be thankful he is still suitably picky about his roles. By no means has he sunken to the depths of the “I Give Up” club, currently populated by the likes of Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino and Bruce Willis.

Al Pacino flexing his acting chops.

But look back a decade or two, and it can be shocking to recall just how vibrant and masterful Hanks’ performances once were. Today, I want to focus on one performance in particular: his turn as a criminal mastermind in the 2004 Coen brothers film The Ladykillers.

Bewilderingly, this hilarious black comedy received a lukewarm reception from critics and audiences alike upon its release, despite being far more memorable than the brothers’ prior effort, Intolerable Cruelty. But even the critics who denounced the film for not being a carbon copy of the 1955 original had to admit that Hanks had delivered a special performance. He had taken a role that, on the page, was essentially a more refined, cynical version of Ulysses Everett McGill from O Brother, Where Art Thou? and transformed it into a delightfully surreal depiction of a man who is at once learned, stupid, and more than a little insane.

Waffles, forthwith

The film’s plot revolves around Goldthwaite Higginson Dorr, PhD (Hanks) and his bizarre crew as they endeavor to rob the underground vault of a nearby riverboat casino, which they intend to accomplish by tunneling through a root cellar in the home of Marva Munson, a devout and feisty old widow. They gain access to the widow’s home by pretending to be a troupe of classical musicians in need of a practice space, and as is usually the case in a Coen brothers film, it’s all downhill from there.

Goldthwaite and his not-so-carefully chosen team of criminals.

Hanks does not carry the film by himself, of course. J.K. Simmons has never been more perfectly cast as an explosives “expert” whose authoritative demeanor and disarming self-confidence mask his utter ineptitude, and Irma Hall’s incredible range of facial expressions in her role as the god-fearing widow makes for a comedy gold mine. But Hanks is the glue that makes them stick. His performance flaunts a syrupy deep-south accent, which is paired with the linguistic acrobatics of William Faulkner and Edgar Allen Poe—if the two had a love child who grew up to be a circus freak performing spoken word poetry at Mississippi renaissance fairs.

Hanks’ performance has been described as over the top, but Hanks does not receive enough credit for his expertly controlled execution. Whereas “over the top” implies a degree of randomness or unrestrained goofiness, the consistency and internal logic of the character’s behavior elevates the performance into the realm of genius. Goldthwaite — or “the professor,” as he is also known — is an accomplished liar, but we believe him when he says he is a student of classical literature and philosophy. He quotes Poe at will and speaks like a funhouse reflection of a character from a Faulkner novel, all the while spouting references that no one around him understands.

In fact, we come to suspect that he prefers to surround himself with people who are a few rungs short of a ladder. As we learn around the midpoint of the film, Goldthwaite’s father spent much of his life in the “state nervous hospital,” and it seems likely that the professor has taken to projecting his intelligence in order to mask the streak of derangement that runs in his family. The result is a man who wields his expansive vocabulary with all the precision of a sledgehammer, resulting in unforgettable lines such as, “Madam, we must have waffles. We must all have waffles forthwith!”

We must all think, and we must all have waffles, and think each and every one of us to the very best of his ability.

But to his team of prospective vault robbers — which consists of Simmons’ Garth Pancake (and his partner, Mountain Girl), “inside man” Gawain (Marlon Wayans), a former Vietcong general (Tzi Ma), and the brainless but strong Lump (Ryan Hurst) — he is a genius who will make them rich.

Only the widow Munson is wise to the absurdity that is Goldthwaite, and the scenes in which the two characters interact (Goldthwaite trying to thump her into submission with a barrage of classical references and Poe poetry, while she hits back with the naiveté and brutal honesty of a woman who has nothing to prove to anyone but her god) are some of the funniest in the film.

Some will disagree, but for me, The Ladykillers is a highlight of Hanks’ career. Though it lacks the narrative weight of Forrest Gump or the poignancy of Apollo 13, the film is a showcase for what he is capable of when given the right role.

Don’t get me wrong; I’ll readily admit that if anyone deserves to rest on autopilot at this stage in their career, it’s Tom Hanks. Nevertheless, whenever I watch yet another film in which Hanks plays Hanks, I can’t help but wish I was back in a theater in 2004, watching The Ladykillers for the first time. You’re a national treasure, Tom. Do what you like. But in these strange and difficult times, would it hurt to give us a Goldthwaite Higginson Dorr, PhD now and again?