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Mike Flanagan unpacks the harrowing ending of Netflix's 'Midnight Mass'
Over the weekend, horror fans everywhere finally partook of Midnight Mass, the much-anticipated new Netflix miniseries from writer/director Mike Flanagan. Billed as the most personal project in Flanagan's career thus far, the show combined an all-star cast with an instantly memorable location and a sense of dread that crept through every trailer, even if we didn't fully understand the show's plot. For all its atmosphere, it seemed that massive chunks of the show's premise were being kept in the dark until the last possible moment.
Now, Midnight Mass has crept into the light, which means viewers have finally absorbed all of its secrets, all of its twists, and all of its terror. For Flanagan, that means an opportunity to break down some of the key moments that led to the full experience, including the most complex and harrowing sequence of filming in his career thus far.
**Warning: There are spoilers for the ending of Midnight Mass ahead.**
For the first few episodes of Midnight Mass, it's not exactly clear what's happening with Father Paul (Hamish Linklater), the new priest on Crockett Island who showed up and promptly ushered in a new age of miracles. It's clear that he has some kind of power, but it's also clear that he's suffering in some way, and it's even more clear that he has secrets to keep, and they're not all locked in that big trunk he pulled in off the ship on his way into town.
By the end of Episode 3, though, things are a bit clearer: Father Paul is not actually Father Paul, but rather a de-aged Monsignor Pruitt, who's returned to Crockett Island after an encounter in the Holy Land with a figure he's dubbed an "angel" but who is, in fact, a vampire. Through this "angel," who he's brought with him to Crockett, Pruitt is slowly dosing the members of his congregation with vampiric blood through the Sacrament, which is granting each of them various restorative gifts from renewed eyesight to regressing dementia and, in one very memorable case, the ability to walk again.
But, Pruitt and the Angel are not content to simply slowly give this healing blood to the congregation. The priest's endgame, which he comes to believe will usher in a new era of worship, is to gather his flock for midnight mass on Easter and ask them to drink poison, with the understanding that in a matter of minutes they will be reborn. This decision culminates in the episode "Act VI: Acts of the Apostles," with the most harrowing sequence in the entire series, a descent into terror and tragedy that grew out of Flanagan's fascination with things like the 1978 Jonestown massacre.
"[Producer Trevor Macy] and I share a fascination with Jonestown, and when we first met, that was something that organically came up in conversation," Flanagan told a group of journalists, including SYFY WIRE, at a press roundtable the week before the show's release. "Along with the opening car accident scene, the midnight mass sequence has always been baked into the show. I think the reason why is because that's a perfect example of the most grotesque expression of this kind of perversion of faith, right?"
Pulling the midnight mass sequence off required a massive coordinated effort from every creative department on the series, from production design to lighting (the church was lit entirely by hundreds of candles that had to be re-lit each day) to the cast, who all had to know their place in the controlled chaos. Shooting dozens of actors across several days to create the 20-minute sequence was, for Flanagan, even more complex than "Two Storms," the now legendary long-take episode of The Haunting of Hill House.
Then, to make matters more complicated, there was the issue of shooting it all in December of 2020, before vaccines made the COVID-19 pandemic more navigable. Each day of shooting required dozens of rapid tests for safety, and the crowded nature of the sequence meant an extra layer of fear on top of the terror in the fictional world.
"Before every shot, we'd block it all up. We had to light 200 candles, because the whole scene is lit by candles. We didn't build lights, we'd light all these candles, hot wax is dripping on people from the overheads," Flanagan said. "And then we have to get to the scariest part of every day, which is 'All right, we're ready to go, everyone take your masks off.' And you've got a hundred people who take their mask off, put it in their pocket, do the scene, and then put it back on and hope they didn't just get COVID. And knowing we've got, you know, another week of this, and then you get through these amazing [shots] and realize that of the hundred people, one of them forgot. And now you've got this take with someone in a mask and you've got to go back to the beginning. So, that sequence is harrowing, I think, on every level, because it represents something so unfathomably terrifying and emotional, but logistically it was also a beast to do."
After the midnight mass sequence, Flanagan and company launched into one last episode of mayhem, as Crockett Island burned down around its residents and the remaining human survivors led by Erin Greene (Kate Siegel) found a way to stop the vampires from spreading to the mainland.
Or did they? Even as Crockett burns and Warren (Igby Rigney) and Leeza (Annarah Cymone) sit in their rowboat safe from harm, we see the Angel itself struggling to fly on clipped wings away from the island. Warren seems certain it'll never reach the mainland by sunrise, and Leeza's declaration that she can no longer feel her legs suggests its power is dimmed, but Flanagan felt it was important to leave the Angel's fate somewhat open-ended all the same.
"If this is a parable, and it is, the angel doesn't represent vampirism or horror, but it represents a corruption in any belief system, it represents fundamentalism and fanaticism," Flanagan said. "That's never going to go away, and you might chase it away from your community for a minute, you might send it off into the dark and hope the sun will rise, and that corrupting ideology will disappear, but it won't, and the show could never show the Angel dies for that reason. And that last moment of the next generation of two kids looking out at the ashes of what the grownups made, you know, I feel like that's what my kids are going to get no matter what. That's what all of our kids are going to get. And I wish it wasn't as on fire as it is right now, but it really is. And we're never going to be able to explain that to them. We're never going to be able to explain adequately to our children what happened to the planet that they inherited, why their parents' generation treated each other the way that it did. We're never gonna have words to articulate that. And this for me is my best guess. It's my best answer for them."
Midnight Mass is now streaming in full on Netflix.