Mike Flanagan’s Horror Coming-Of-Ager Anthology Gets Too Sentimental About The Nature Of Storytelling

Jan 5, 2023

Mike Flanagan is as sentimental about storytelling as he is about horror, for better and for worse. Sometimes that has led to a unique heartbeat in his work—the aching pain in his landmark Shirley Jackson adaptation “The Haunting of Hill House,” or his dedication to making us see the demons of “The Shining” in a different light with his unfairly maligned feature “Doctor Sleep.” But his latest project, co-created with Leah Fong, shows that affinity getting the better of him. “The Midnight Club” is so focused on hosting storytelling that it neglects to tell a good one overall, mixing the main storyline of ghosts and cults with an anthology of overlong short stories. The two big chunks don’t complement each other well enough, and what starts out as emotionally ambitious more or less becomes numbing. 
The storytellers here are a group of terminally ill teenagers who gather at the Brightcliffe hospice in Washington state, hoping to live out their remaining time in peace with others. Ilonka (Iman Benson) comes to this place after a thyroid cancer diagnosis cancels her plans of getting into Stanford, but she’s not alone in having her path altered while desiring to have a certain autonomy. She quickly bonds with the other residents, though she has the hardest time connecting with her unamused, harsh roommate Anya (Ruth Codd). 
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Ilonka learns, too, after following her roommate Anya one night, about the secret club they host in the library, where they comfort each other with stories. Sometimes the stories are scary, like Kevin and his tale of a hammer-wielding killer high schooler named Dusty, or they ache with a sense of regret, like a neo-noir that the religious Sandy (Annarah Symone) tells after she deeply offends Spence (William Chris Sumpter). Amesh (Sauiryan Sapkota) tells a story inspired by his love of video games that plays with time; Natsuki (Aya Furukawa) shares her story for a more private audience, but it hits incredibly close to home. Cheri (Adia) listens and keeps to her shy self, but everyone is already uncertain as to what she is telling the truth about, and what she isn’t. 
These stories come in between very on-brand Flanagan dialogue notes about how we are the authors of our own stories and stories are like ghosts. The Midnight Club is creating ghosts. 
There’s a secondary pact they share with each other, about when one of them dies. The first one to do so is to send a message, some type of sign of the afterlife. This provides a heaviness to their camaraderie, another point of their touching loyalty that makes them a compelling bunch of characters. Even Anya, with her bitter tongue and countless glares, knows its importance. This element does not drive the story, but it lingers in wait with just the right sentimentality.
“The Midnight Club” has a lot of space to play with—each of its ten episodes runs approximately 50 minutes, and it takes advantage of this mostly when it has the Brightcliffe students share a story midway through an episode. Most of them tell a tale that’s reflective of their lives, of where they came from, or their hopes for a future they are fighting for every day. Like with any anthology, some of these stories are better than others, like when Anya tells of “The Two Danas,” a series highlight that also brings a lot of depth from an already noteworthy performance by Codd. That almost becomes part of the deal with the series, that while these narrative tangents can take away from the series’ energy instead of feeding it, it at least gives numerous showcases for the show’s resoundingly strong ensemble and the style of its directors (which counts Flanagan, Axelle Carolyn, Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour Jr., and Viet Nguyen among them). 
Still, “The Midnight Club” is reminiscent of how the most common complaint about Flanagan’s previous series, “Midnight Mass,” is that it had too many damn monologues. “The Midnight Club” can be illustrative with these shorts, but they feel like taking the long, winding road to desired emotional poignancy and insight, with a couple of twists or funny in-jokes (the Brightcliffe teenagers appear in each other’s stories) along the way not being enough. As the stories pile on, their presence becomes more and more tedious; worse, the grip that “The Midnight Club” could have as an ensemble epic about everyone sharing the deepest parts of themselves gets looser and looser. 
Brightcliffe is a place with its own history, as many of Flanagan’s past homes have shown. This one carries a production’s similar love for setting and vivid architecture, here with arched hallways and a long front staircase. Its backstory is richer, involving something about a 1940s cult called the Paragon, and a young woman named Julia Jayne who left Brightcliffe “cured,” making headline news. These are intriguing mysteries for this story that can lead it down some interesting paths, but the overall handling is too touch-and-go. 
This all causes the story to lose momentum when it does get back to the main plot, to facing the strange parts of Brightcliffe’s history that can be sensed in the moving shadows and in its secret basement that has a bed in the center. The last two episodes, in particular, don’t have nearly enough poignancy, and the meaningful peek-a-boo ghosts they put center stage don’t create the cumulative spookiness that it hopes. Which is a shame, as there are a few good jump scare moments scattered within “The Midnight Club,” despite bangs that feel more and more overzealous each time (and even after Spence’s story leads to a joke about abusing the adrenaline that comes from them). And there’s an inspired visual choice in presenting a hallucinating Ilonka walking through an older version of Brightcliffe, with its colors zapped out and an extra scratchy texture, as if she were walking through establishing shots of a hallway, filmed many decades ago. 
Any hope of getting caught up in “The Midnight Club” requires the same soft spot that Flanagan and his team have for this overall concept; it’s easy to imagine some viewers taking to how much time it gives to the whimsy of these characters, and without the series abusing the heartstrings usually laid bare when presenting warming, curious fictional beings who are terminally ill. But as it unfolds so erratically, the series leaves more to be desired, despite giving so much—at the least, it needs some special organization. I’ve never wished more for a special feature section from Netflix in which these stories could have the allure and autonomy of additional reading. [C] 

Disclaimer: This story is auto-aggregated by a computer program and has not been created or edited by filmibee.
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