Mike Flanagan, a true master of modern horror (and one of my favourite directors of all time) returns to Netflix to astound audiences with his newest horror series, The Midnight Club, based on the works of Christopher Pine. His latest work of art follows a group of terminally ill patients at Brightcliffe Hospice, who all gather at midnight to take turns sharing scary stories.
One reason I love anything and everything Mike Flanagan has created is because he pours all his love and attention into his projects. He clearly goes into his creations with a clear vision and what he wants audiences to get out of it. Nothing is half-assed and every project is unique in terms of its themes. In the case of The Midnight Club, this is a horror series unlike anything he has created in the past. Rather than the focus being on ghosts, ghouls and supernatural elements, of which there are some, the horrors explored are much more real and grounded. Death. Sickness. Loss. These are all horrors that most audiences can personally relate to, which makes it all the more frightening. The acceptance of death, and that one day we won’t be here, is a major theme in this series and it’s explored extensively through every single episode. Much like how Flanagan explores grief in The Haunting of Bly Manor, and extensively delves into religion in Midnight Mass, he explores death with a heightened level of care and attention to detail.
Someone looking for a horror series akin to The Haunting of Hill House, one where the ghosts are the focus and every episode is littered with intense supernatural scares won’t get that here. This is first and foremost a character study and exploration of death and sickness, enveloped in the shell of an anthology-esque horror. All that is set to the tune of Mike Flanagan’s signature slow burn. A lot happens, but nothing happens fast. That’s not to say this isn’t a scary series -there’s moments within every episode that are utterly terrifying. Flanagan’s ability to bend the horror genre to his will, incorporating a variety of sub-genres while still maintaining a consistent tone, is exceptional.
So what is the story and structure of the series? As someone who didn’t know anything about the source material, or the approach this series was taking, the structure and anthology-like vibe definitely caught me off-guard. As each member of The Midnight Club steps to the podium to tell their spooky story, we get to see their narrative play out in its entirety. Approximately half the runtime of each episode is dedicated to visualising these stories that each sit within a different sub-genre and inject a dose of terror. These are not entirely isolated stories, thematically speaking. They’re used quite brilliantly as a way of gaining more insight into the backstory or current mindset of our characters. This idea clearly stems from the fact that, generally speaking, we draw from our lives in the stories that we tell – and that’s what happens here. Each narrative has a unique identity and a purpose, some that aren’t entirely clear until the very end. They can be scary, fun, tense, emotional or all of the above… but at the end of the day, they’re all great.
My only gripe with this structure is it means we spend a lot less time with the characters outside of their ‘story time’. The mysteries surrounding “present-day” Brightcliffe Hospice take a while to unfold since there’s less than half of each episode available for that side of the narrative to flourish. This isn’t a huge issue since I’ve mentioned the stories themselves are entertaining and crucial to the development of the characters, but it definitely took some getting used to.
Pacing-wise, the slow burn approach extends right through to the finale. However the tension ramps up drastically going into the latter half of the season where there’s more huge strides made in the central narrative. Many of the season’s biggest moments are reserved for this latter half as the front end is focused on getting you invested in the lives of the characters. This valuable time spent fleshing out The Midnight Club results in an emotion-packed final few episodes that will hit you harder than you ever thought a horror series could. This is what’s so refreshing about Mike Flanagan’s projects. They’re never one-dimensional. Why be ‘just’ scary when you can pack tonnes of impactful emotion and still terrify audience? He’s a master of his craft and this is even more evidence of that.
Mike Flanagan isn’t the only shining light. The series is jam-packed with gripping performances both inside and outside of The Midnight Club members. Iman Benson is riveting in the lead role of Ilonka. Much of the central narrative is driven by her character’s desires, which puts her at the forefront of almost every scene. On top of her individual performance, her chemistry with every other member of the crew is top notch, ensuring she gels beautifully into every scene. When it comes to scene stealers, Ruth Codd is absolutely mesmerising. She kicks off the season as the loud and potentially annoying member of the club, but grows into so much more than that. She’s given more and more to do as time goes on, and stands up to every task. Considering this is her acting debut, I can’t wait to see what she brings to Mike Flanagan’s next project. To mention everyone else in the club individually would take forever, but I’ll say that Igby Rigney, Annarah Cymone, Zach Gilford and Samantha Sloyan (all of Midnight Mass fame) are awesome in their respective scenes.
In the end, The Midnight Club continues Mike Flanagan’s seemingly never-ending hot streak of horror spectacles. Real-world horrors take centre stage over supernatural elements, culminating in an end result that’s as emotionally heavy as it is frightening. The storytelling style might be initially jarring, but it’s well worth sticking through as every creative decision Flanagan makes is there for a reason, rewarding audiences in the long run. A fantastic ensemble of performances seal the deal on what is another absolute must-watch for any slow-burn horror fan.