By Peg Aloi
The Midnight Club contains all the ingredients necessary for a perfect spooky season binge: a Gothic mansion, extremely disaffected yet self-aware young people (horny behavior and topical humor guaranteed), moody cinematography, and gorgeous interiors, including the coolest library you’ve ever seen.
From horror wunderkind Mike Flanagan, the creative mind behind several recent horror series, comes this youth-focused tale set in a mysterious retreat center for teenagers who are dying. His popular work includes The Haunting of Hill House, adapted from Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Bly Manor, adapted from Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, and Midnight Mass, a clever, terrifying, and moving original script. As a Netflix series, The Midnight Club contains all the ingredients necessary for a perfect spooky season binge: a Gothic mansion, extremely disaffected yet self-aware young people (horny behavior and topical humor guaranteed), moody cinematography, and gorgeous interiors, including the coolest library you’ve ever seen.
Iman Benson stars as Ilonka, a young salutatorian who receives a terminal diagnosis and is brought to the retreat by her loving foster dad. The series gradually allows a number of young characters to become the eyes and ears of the narrative, drawing on a storytelling device that manages to be both fresh yet beholden to the great ghost story tradition of the Victorians. The residents of Brightcliffe Hospice are all American but one; their backgrounds are fairly diverse as are their personalities. There’s Kevin (Igby Rigney), a genuinely nice guy who becomes fast friends with Ilonka soon after her arrival. There’s Anya (Ruth Codd), Ilonka’s roommate at the retreat, an Irish girl with a traumatic, chaotic past whose surface hostility hides a kind and sensitive nature. There’s Spencer (William Chris Sumpter), a passionate gay activist with a sarcastic streak; Cheri (Adia), who apparently comes from wealth but whose glamorous stories seem too good to be true; Amesh (Sauriyan Sapkota), a socially awkward young man obsessed with games and technology; Natsuki (Aya Furukawa), a whip-smart girl who suffers from depression, and Sandra (Annarah Cymone), whose fervent Christian beliefs sometimes become too much for the others. The young people all have their flaws but, given that they’re all terminally ill, the dominant vibe among them hovers between urgency and wistful curiosity.
Adapted by writers Flanagan and Leah Fong from the novel by Christopher Pike, The Midnight Club has a strong aesthetic style and even stronger ensemble cast. The additional actors include Heather Landgencamp as Dr. Stanton, the sympathetic but pragmatic director of the retreat center, and Samantha Sloyan (also wonderful in Midnight Mass) as a local healer and landowner who keeps running into Ilonka in the woods. The title refers to a sort of secret society that existed during a previous incarnation of the retreat center, when residents would gather at midnight in the enormous library and tell each other scary stories. The current residents start spinning yarns spontaneously one night, but they soon discover that there were predecessors who may have been involved in a strange religious cult as well. The stories, using the young actors, are given their own scenes: the story-within-a story structure can be rather beguiling as the tales grow wilder, darker, and increasingly more personal.
The story is set in 1994, with suitable music and other cultural accoutrements. But I noticed some occasionally awkward writing in the script. The dialogue lapses into oddly anachronistic phrases (like “it’s all good” or “on brand”). But that’s a minor complaint given that the writing is generally compelling. Still, I did sometimes feel that, given the suspension of disbelief required to accept that this beautiful Gothic retreat for dying teens even exists, the shared chemistry among the suffering kids was almost too intense and mercurial to feel plausible. All of the young people at Brightcliffe are in various stages of illness, although their health is not really the point here. Their residency together forges a psychic link among them; they are motivated to join together (late at night because they are reluctant to sleep) to share whatever they can, especially stories. The tales seem to come spontaneously, increasing their collective sense that time is running out.
That Decameron tradition of tale-telling in the face of fatality, coupled with the complexity of the individual characters and the chemistry of the cast, makes for powerful TV drama. I particularly enjoyed Ruth Codd’s Anya, whose laconic wit and nasty sense of humor never disappointed. Anya often puts on an extremely defensive affect among the others; she is openly hostile towards Ilonka when the two are forced to be roommates. Like the other characters, her history is slowly revealed and, like the story she spins for the club, her life has been rather grim and heartbreaking. Each of the dying teens in turn shares a horror yarn night after night while, at the same time, a terrifying situation slowly gathers around them. The fictional horror tales told by the club members are quintessential Flanagan: they are not particularly violent or gruesome, though there are elements of both. Themes of ghosts, hauntings, obsession, and untried psychic and occult abilities permeate the midnight sessions along with moments of adolescent soul baring and wish fulfillment. It is a potent conceit — the notion of telling horror stories to stave off thoughts of death. But the proliferation of excellent examples of the genre over the last two years testify to horror’s power to soothe, to distract, and to inspire.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for the Boston Phoenix and member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes on film, TV, and culture for web publications like Time, Vice, Polygon, Bustle, Mic, Orlando Weekly, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found on substack.