The Midnight Club
Mike Flanagan’s latest “The Midnight Club” is an anthology of sinister stories narrated by a bunch of youngsters to each other every midnight. Flanagan who has churned out some interesting horror series for Netflix, namely “The Haunting of Hill House”, “The Haunting of Bly Manor” and “Midnight Mass” returns this time to adapt Christopher Pike’s novels to offer another dramatic take on the lives of individuals connected to each other with the backdrop of a horror set up. While Pike’s works were quite famous in the 80s and early 90s, not many have attempted to adapt his works into feature films or shows, with the exception being “Fall into Darkness”. Mike Flanagan has adapted multiple works of the author (including the titular book) namely “Gimme a kiss”, “Road to Nowhere”, “See you later” amongst other tales to offer a horror anthology that uses its characters to deliver these stories to each other at a midnight gathering.
Set in the 90s, “The Midnight Club” is essentially about a Hospice that shelters teens with terminal illnesses where they come to live out the rest of their days amongst people with similar concerns and fate. The whole idea of setting up a Hospice is to be able to help connect these unfortunate teens and help them ease out the suffering they have been exposed to at such a tender age. When Ilonka (Iman Benson) gets diagnosed with terminal cancer, she does her research and lands up at Brightcliffe, the hospice that is run by Doctor Georgina Stanton (Heather Langenkamp). Ilonka finds herself amongst other teens who are battling for their lives by finding strength in the companionship of each other. This is where she discovers an unofficial club that goes by the name of “The Midnight Club” where all the teens get together at the library table by the fireside every midnight to indulge in sinister stories. Eventually, when Ilonka discovers a lot of unknown facts about the Hospice, she is determined to win over her illness and save her friends, but at what cost?! This is precisely the rest of the story.
“The Midnight Club” is characterized by Flanagan’s familiar touch- fleshing out some heart touching dramas in the backdrop of horror. While the horror quotient in “The Midnight Club” is debatable, the drama bit definitely holds the audience together much like Flanagan’s previous works. While “The Haunting of Hill House” dealt with the issues of a family struggling to survive and “The Haunting of Bly Manor” narrated an intriguing and mysterious love story, “Midnight Mass” that released last year was more of a tale of belief and faith that spoke of the church and its abuses when in wrong hands. All of Flanagan’s previous works have managed to carve out terror from the deepest of fears that resides inside us and “The Midnight Club” is no different. While the teens are narrating stories to each other, every story they come up with has a personal touch to it and helps them depict their state of mind to each other. This also helps the audience understand what these characters think of their own lives and why they want to be heard so badly. Some of the stories are so brilliantly penned that it all makes a lot of sense in retrospect once you realize why a story unfolds the way it does. The tale of two identities, the tale of good versus bad or a story of a helpless serial killer narrated by an individual who feels the same level of helplessness in his own life all make up for some crafty stories that are bound to keep you interested.
Over the course of ten episodes, the characters get to know each other and so does the audience. Everything happens in due course of time and the story never seems rushed into except for the final act maybe. The setting is simple- every episode more or less signifies the beginning of a new day with new secrets being unraveled by the smart protagonist, Ilonka and ends with a midnight story that connects the narrator with the audience- the ones in it as well as the ones watching it. These are not all spooky stories and most of them are basically tales that signify the narrator’s sensibilities, but behind all this there is also something wrong about Brightcliffe that has a scary history behind it. While a perfect anthology works when the individual stories eventually build up to give the audience a feel of the “actual story” that is happening all along, the latter is clearly a weak point in “The Midnight Club”. Most of the secrets around the cult group Paragon are never fully explored and comes to a frustrating end (the cliffhanger didn’t work for me). It is sad that the ghostly apparitions that some of the characters encounter are basically loose ends that are completely abandoned towards the end. It is quite disturbing because we know for a fact that Mike Flanagan is an expert at handling complex stories in his comfort zone, but this might be one of his weakest works in recent times. Although elevating the horror genre to emotional heights is still Flanagan’s strongest suit and it is pretty evident here as well, but some of the discontinued story lines and an undercooked climax reduce the story to a tale of two halves, with the latter half being an absolute contrast to the way it began.
Much of the cast might be relatively new but they are easily the best part about the series. Iman Benson playing “Ilonka” comes across as a reliable actor who carries the story confidently on her shoulders. She gets the maximum screen time and is responsible for some of the most important events as they unfold. Igby Rigney who returns to Flanagan’s world this time playing “Kevin” has a very assured screen presence and his emotional story truly highlights the depth in acting skills that the young man clearly possesses. Chris Sumpter plays “Spence”- the one struggling for the love and attention of his own mother after being discarded for his sexuality and then being diagnosed with a terminal illness that even the Church labels as an abomination. Chris comes up with a heartwarming performance in some of the most difficult scenes. Annarah Cymone who plays “Sandra”, the God loving teenager is perhaps the most grounded of the lot and holds her own against the rest of the cast, especially during the time of a conflict with Chris. “Cheri” is an easy-going character whose lies are more fascinating than the truest of all truths and Adia plays the part with sheer honesty and grace. “Amish” who is clearly relieved with the tag of newbie moving from him to Ilonka is someone who hides his pain behind a smile and actor Sauriyan Sapkota plays the part with an innocent charm. Aya Furukawa is brilliant as “Natsuki”- an individual suffering from depression but still the most empathetic of the lot. But my heart truly went out to Ruth Codd who plays “Anya”- the most complicated character of the lot. Playing a mean and tough character who can “be quite a bitch” is perhaps the most difficult of all the characters and Ruth does a great job while at it, so much so that an entire episode is named after her. This episode is filled with some of the most emotional moments in the entire series. Rest of the cast namely Flanagan’s regulars like Rahul Kohli, Zach Gilford, Henry Thomas, Robert Longstreet and Samantha Sloyan are perfect additions to the cast and a special mention for Heather Langenkamp who plays the caring doctor holding the Hospice together.
It’s a pity that a series that delves into the emotional state of minds of teenagers diagnosed with terminal diseases through midnight tales falters right when it shouldn’t. It kicks off brilliantly with the first couple of episodes setting the tone, but seemingly the rest of the plot seems to be lost in the dark. It’s definitely a case of a lost opportunity for Flanagan who struggles to hold onto his previous strengths. I had read once that Mike Flanagan’s ability to create films and shows that are both terrifying and heart shattering at the same time will stand the test of time, but this time he might have hit a roadblock. While “The Midnight Club” might not be the best of his recent works, it is still a decent watch, nevertheless. I would love to ignore the spooky thumbnails, or the genre labels that Netflix throws at me and watch the show for what it truly is- a mesmerizing tale of love, friendship and togetherness with the power of healing every broken heart, every untouched soul and perhaps even a terminal disease. I am going with 3 stars out of 5.