Mike Flanagan doesn’t miss when it comes to balancing human emotions like fear, sadness, and joy. You can argue that his feature film ventures – “Absentia,” “Oculus,” “Hush,” “Before I Wake,” “Ouija: Origin of Evil,” “Gerald’s Game” and “Doctor Sleep” – have been hit-or-miss. But every single one of his Netflix miniseries – “The Haunting of Hill House,” “The Haunting of Bly Manor,” and “Midnight Mass” – has been absolutely riveting. They have kept people up at night not just because of the haunting visuals and scores conjured by Flanagan and his team but also due to the riveting philosophical musings peppered throughout those narratives. He has made us fall in love with his characters and then reminded us that they are a part of the horror genre by giving them the most gut-wrenching conclusions of all time. And I’m glad to report that “The Midnight Club” is no different.
Created by Mike Flanagan and Leah Fong, the Netflix series, “The Midnight Club,” follows Ilonka (Iman Benson), who is preparing to go to Stanford and begin her college life. But her terminal diagnosis brings her plans to a screeching halt and diverts her future towards an endless series of tests and chemotherapy sessions. When she learns that none of it is making her better, she goes down a rabbit hole of stories of cancer survivors and lands on a hospice called Brightcliffe. The institute is largely known for being the last resting place for terminally ill teens, and it’s also rumored to be one of the only places from which a patient named Julia Jayne (Larsen Thompson) has walked away fully cured.
By setting a horror series in a hospice for the terminally ill, the writers of “The Midnight Club” tackle so many interesting questions. The most obvious one is whether a group of children, who have accepted the fact that they are dying, will be scared of anything supernatural that’s attempting to haunt them. Or will it be the opposite, and they’ll be more inclined to believe in the supernatural because everything that exists naturally is working against them? Or will they completely detach themselves from everything that is natural and supernatural and work towards coming to peace with who they are and what they have done before they go past the veil? Well, just like Flanagan’s previous works, this series takes an agnostic approach by rooting the characters in the mortal process of dying while also making them promise each other that all of them are duty-bound to reach out to those who are alive if they find anything synonymous with an afterlife.
Talking about the diverse group of characters, apart from Ilonka, Brightcliffe is home to Kevin (Igby Rigney), Spence (Chris Sumpter), Sandra (Annarah Cymone), Cheri (Adia), Anya (Ruth Codd), Sandra (Annarah Cymone), (Sauriyan Sapkota) and Natsuki (Aya Furukawa). And together, they form the titular club. What’s the club all about? Well, during the daytime, these kids take their meds from Mark (Zach Gilford), go for therapy sessions with Dr. Georgina Stanton (Heather Langenkamp), and meet their family-on-family day. But during the dark cover of the night, they shed their fear, their insecurities, and their masks (that they put on to comfort their loved ones) and gather in the hospice’s library to tell ghost stories. And these stories are inspired by their real-life traumas, their innermost feelings about how they are coping with cancer, or to keep themselves engaged long enough so that they feel transported into these fictional stories that are far, far away from reality. In addition to that, yes, there’s a cult involved.
Although the history of Brightcliffe and the involvement of a cult sound very interesting, I’m sure you’ll be more invested in the stories of the Midnight Club. That’s not just because those stories are so twisted, grotesque, and scary. Or because they are brimming with the technical competence of the directors, DOPs James Kniest, Fimognari, Corey Robson, and Lindsay George, production designer Laurin Kelsey, costume designer Terry Mark Anderson and Gabrielle de Barry, hair and make-up designers Lilia Afsahi and Krista Young, respectively, and the VFX artists, as they accurately recreate the filmmaking and storytelling styles of various eras. It’s because, deep down, you know that as soon as each of the kids begins to wind down their stories or tries to conclude it on a haphazard note, they are getting weak, either physically or mentally or both. And you aren’t just ready to bid goodbye to them or watch the rest of the members deal with the same despite knowing the inevitability of it all.
Much like Flanagan’s previous works, the horror of “The Midnight Club” doesn’t only come from jump scares and nightmare-inducing images. It comes from the fear of losing the characters you are rooting for. It comes from the fear of death. And it comes from the fear of what certain humans are willing to do to defy death, thereby causing more damage than good (that particular aspect is evidently a critique of naturopathy and homeopathy). However, that doesn’t mean that the show is all doom and gloom because the aforementioned members of the Midnight Club aren’t afraid to laugh at their predicament. They are not afraid to express their love (or hatred) for each other and hug it out when things get too morbid because they don’t have enough time on their hands to hold grudges. Most importantly, they are hopeful. But not in the pitiful way that otherwise healthy people are. They are hopeful in the purest sense, as they know it’s the only thing that’s going to help them navigate through these dark times.
Coming to the actors who inhabit these brilliantly written characters, the entire cast of “The Midnight Club” deserves a massive round of applause for their work here. Saying that it’s stellar is an understatement because these guys made me weep from episode 1 to episode 10 nonstop, sometimes out of sadness, sometimes out of happiness, and sometimes just because of their sheer awesomeness. Iman Benson is the protagonist here, and she kills it as Ilonka and the various other characters she plays in her friends’ stories. Technically, the showstopper is Ruth Codd, who can only be described as a force of nature. But to be honest, everyone from Igby Rigney to Chris Sumpter, Aya Furukawa, Annarah Cymone, and Sauriyan Sapkota is a showstopper in their own right. And just when you think that Adia isn’t getting to do much as Cheri, she simply blows you away. The same can be said about Flanagan’s long-term collaborators: Zach Gilford, Samantha Sloyan, Matt Biedel, Robert Longstreet, Rahul Kohli, Katie Parker, Michael Trucco, Henry Thomas, Alex Essoe, and horror icon Heather Langenkamp.
That’s how vague I want to be about “The Midnight Club.” Because if I go into specifics, then it’s going to spoil the show for anyone who hasn’t watched it and is reading this review. I want everyone to go into Mike Flanagan and Leah Fong’s horror-drama masterpiece with the least amount of knowledge about its plot, twists, and character outlines. But I do want you all to calibrate your expectations appropriately. So, even though there are a lot of traditionally scary moments, don’t look forward to ghosts and poltergeists poking out of the shadows every other minute. Instead, keep your tissues ready in order to deal with heartbreaking character-centric moments and your mind open for all the conversations about faith, religion, life, and death. And don’t shy away from reciting with the kids, “To those before and those after. To us now and to those beyond. Seen or unseen, here but not here. “