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Midnight Mass

"What a monstrous idea, Father."

WOW. I'm almost speechless after watching Mike Flanagan's brilliant seven-episode series MIDNIGHT MASS.

Beautifully written and acted, the episodes are steeped in some of the best dialogue in memory, pulling you into the characters living on a dying, isolated island.

These are flawed people finding their way and Flanagan has some true horrors in store for them, but those terrors come gradually. First we have to get to know the citizens of the tiny town on it's last legs.

Zach Gilford (Friday Night Lights) is excellent as Riley Flynn, a successful businessman on the mainland whose drunk driving kills a teenage girl. As the series opens, he's bound for prison, where he's haunted every night by his victim, who stands silently before him, the reflection of police car strobes still bouncing off the windshield shards buried in her body.

When Riley is released, he returns to the desolate Catholic community of Crockett Island.

While his hyper-religious mother Annie (Kristin Lehman) welcomes him with open arms and biblical encouragement, his father Ed (Henry Thomas of "ET) is more cautious, angry at Riley and the embarrassment he's brought the family.. The rest of the townspeople eye him warily too, especially Church Deacon Bev Keane, a pious, self-righteous woman who rules the local church with an iron fist. Samantha Sloyan is off the charts excellent as Bev, creating a character that epitomizes every self-centered, uber religious person who can quote every scripture without understanding any of them. Sloyan almost steals the series, but she's got plenty of competition.

When the church's very old monsignor leaves on a trek to the motherland, a young priest, Father Paul, shows up to fill in for him. Father Paul seems to know a lot about every citizen in town and brings kindness and new blood to the community.

Hamish Linklater is absolutely brilliant as Father Paul.

Riley is extremely reluctant to go to church, having spent most of his prison time diving into every religion on the planet and coming up empty. Father Paul sets up a weekly AA meeting for the two of them to connect. Those meetings are so well written by Flanagan that you can watch the moments of truth and deception unfold "real time" within them. Linklater and Gilford are flawless in these scenes, creating a core of the episodes that feed all the madness around them.

Kate Siegel, so great as Theodora in Flanagan's series adaption of "The Haunting of Hill House" equals that performance as Erin Greene, a former actress and mainland escapee who's come back to the island to teach school after the passing of her mother.

Erin and Riley have a past and they find solace in each other.

Father Paul's sermons bode of a surprise, or tangible evidence of God's power coming to Crockett Island.

When the events begin to happen, they are startling, inspiring and sometimes horrifying. I'll describe none of them here.

The Newton Brothers (Doctor Sleep) compose a haunting score loaded with traditional hymns that are just slightly askew. Disturbing.

Flanagan's hand as Writer/Director is sure through every minute of every hour-long episode, creating deeply woven characters that you'll love or hate. I expected them to square off and generate fireworks. But I genuinely wasn't prepared for the final two episodes as all the elements of the story collide.

There were moments here that filled me with more dread than any film in memory.

Which made what followed that all the more horrifying. This is the first time in years that I've caught myself holding my breath in a moment of "oh no....oh no....." terror.

Flanagan has plenty to say about pretenders who wrap themselves in goodness and prey on the weakest and most desperate among us.

But he also carefully unveils moments of true redemption, of good over evil and the core heart in each of us (okay, most of us) triumphing when faced with tragedy.

The cast is flawless.

Rahul Kohli (Flanagan's "The Haunting of Bly Manor") is heart wrenching as Sheriff Hassan. Committed to the island's citizens in the face of (mostly) unspoken bigotry, he and his son are the only Muslim citizens in the town. The decisions he's forced to make here are terrifying. Rahul Abburi is also very good as his son, Ali.

Annabeth Gish (The Haunting of Hill House) is a standout as the town's doctor, Sarah, caring for her Alzheimer's ridden mother Mildred (Alex Essoe). Her medical training hasn't prepared her for what's happening on "The Crock Pot", as the inhabitants refer to the island.

And of course there's the town drunk Joe, so perfectly played by Robert Longstreet (Doctor Sleep). Joe is hiding in the bottle and is a pariah in town due to a drunken accidental shooting that's left a teenager paralyzed.

Like the rest of Flanagan's characters, Joe could have been Otis on The Andy Griffith Show. Hell, Sheriff Hassan doesn't carry a gun, just like Andy. But there are a lot of layers to Joe. His life changes when that teenager he wounded is part of the first miracle that Father Paul delivers. The road that Joe then takes is fascinating to watch.

I loved this series. It's the one I'll now recommend when someone says "What should I watch next?". My bride hates horror movies. Despises them, but this she loved, cheered for and wept over. This isn't a rote horror flick.

It's a beautifully written drama about people in need, false prophets, the truly devoted and the truly evil. It's a jarring take on the gullibility of the desperate and those hateful souls dying to take advantage of them.

It's about redemption and love, faith and destruction. It's intelligent, philosophical and deeply moving.

The last two episodes sustain some of the most terrifying suspense I've ever seen.

The last line of dialogue is absolutely brilliant.

An all-time favorite that will challenge you, regardless of your religious stance, it may be Mike Flanagan's masterpiece. And that's astonishing in the face of his consistently intelligent horror output of the last decade.

Midnight Mass earns a very appreciative, breathless A+.

"That's What It Means To Have Faith. That In The Darkness, In The Worst Of It, In The Absence Of Light And Hope, We Sing...."

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