Mike Flanagan returns to Netflix in his most creative and empathetic shot at serial horror. This time it’s with his vivid adaptation of The Midnight Club. Based on the book by Christopher Pike, the premise follows a hospice where teenagers with terminal illnesses go to die. But this is not only a temporary home for the dying youth, this is also a meeting place for the titular Midnight Club. A group of five patients who meet in the library during the depths of the night to tell ghost stories. They form a pact that the first of them to die would make every effort to contact the others from beyond the grave.
The series is led by the resourcefully diligent Ilonka (Iman Benson, #BlackAF). Diagnosed with thyroid cancer, Ilonka is preparing for college. She refuses to dim her light. She’s not giving up on survival of this terminal disease as she searches through an archaic search engine. A box-backed computer and bulky-clicking mouse attached – when she finds her miracle. A young patient who attended Brightcliffe Hospice during the 1960s, diagnosed with thyroid cancer just like her, was mysteriously cured. She left the home alive where everyone goes to die. Ilonka is so inspired by this story, determined to replicate this, she immediately enrolls into Brightcliffe Hospice.
Ilonka’s hope is met with a mixed reaction by the patients at Brightcliffe – Kevin (Igby Rigney, Midnight Mass) encourages Ilonka’s hope and sparks are kindled between them; Spence (William Chris Sumpter, Power) welcomes this otherwise impossible pursuit; Natsuki (Aya Furukawa, The Baby-Sitter’s Club) timidly accepts the hope of something to look forward to besides the end they were all fated with; Amesh (Sauriyan Sapkota, in an outstanding debut performance) distracts himself with jokes when he knows he is nowhere near the potential of recovery; Cheri (Adia) helps in any way she can with Ilonka’s plans.
Sandra (Annarah Cymone, Midnight Mass) clashes her faith with Ilonka’s unorthodox methods of wellness; and Anya (Ruth Codd, amputee activist-turned-actress) shoots Ilonka’s ambition down with her abruptness and vulgarity. Anya’s words are sharpened knives. Her insults aim to hurt them all with the reality of why they’re there. The energy of the ensemble cast is brilliant. Some familiar faces from Flanagan’s past works and some incredible debuts, teeming on the pity of their illnesses and the power of their personalities.
It’s their stories that really capture the audience’s attention. The goal is to really scare the group. People who have already faced the medically worst news. Who’ve dealt with a slew of unsuccessful treatments at a very young age. This is where Flanagan delights. Creating horror stories from a vast range of dramas – 90s slashers, 70s detective horror, 2000s surrealism self- torture, sci-fi time-travel terror, dark deals with the devil and an innocent reboot of The Craft (1996).
Such diversity in cast and talent allows the group to play multiple roles, even the staunch Doctor Stanton (Heather Langenkamp, the horror icon from the original Nightmare on Elm Street movies) shines in enigmatic roles from her patients’ ghost stories. What makes these stories more magnificent are their detail to vulnerability. The storyteller of the night bares their fears and hopes, their perspective on death and what makes life worth living. Their real-life counterparts do not have the strength to beat death. They have already given in to the idea that they will not get to complete their own story.
And unfortunately, so much time is spent crafting the patients’ ghost stories that this leaves an unsatisfactory amount of time to delve into the secondary plot of the series. Brightcliffe Hospice’s occult past. What draws, and ultimately traps, Ilonka at Bightcliffe is her quest for recovery. That includes pagan rituals that took place in the forbidden basement. As Ilonka searches for a cure, along with the help of forest herbalist Shasta (Samantha Sloyan, Midnight Mass), she stumbles across the ghosts that haunt the hallways of Brightcliffe.
These are not fictional depictions that were told at midnight but ghouls that haunt the hospice, eating the souls of the many young patients that pass. And that’s all we get. Between the tease of the ghouls and the occult sacrifices, the secondary plot promises something far scarier and doesn’t deliver. It’s an under-developed plot and it leaves a bitter taste in the mouth after they push it so far, only to lead to nowhere. The abruptness is, I believe, due to a suspected second season renewal. I hope it’s not the loss of interest from Mike Flanagan’s production team.
Midnight Club is a delightful and vulnerable venture into the manifestation of fear and death. As the series drips in 90s references, and allows for insightful takes on the AIDS crisis and the early-capitalist development of the pharmacy industry, the cast treads on the sensitivity of these topics. In modern context, The Midnight Club is a farewell letter to the sickness and death we faced during the pandemic.
Fear is part of the sickness, and Flanagan’s team delicately heals these post-pandemic regrets. This is a prolonged period of grief. Of who the young patients were and could have been before their illness stole their lives. The ghost stories they share are a way for them to mourn while they’re still alive. To make sure that they’re a memory rather than a statistic. And this creates the depth needed for the very nuanced conversations on death and mortality. This should have been another jewel on Flanagan’s crown of horror cinema. Unfortunately the stagnant secondary plot and lagging reveals that did not come overshadowed his effort.
For more from Ammaarah, check out her review of Cobra Kai’s latest season here!
Midnight Club is streaming now on Netflix.