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The YA horror drama continues Flanagan’s streak as one of TV’s most consistent producers
Iman Benson, Igby Rigney, Annarah Cymone, Ruth Codd, Adia, Chris Sumpter, Aya Furukawa, Sauriyan Sapkota, The Midnight Club
No one does heavy like Mike Flanagan. The prolific creator of several of Netflix’s high-quality horror series take a dramatically serious approach to topics like grief and family trauma (The Haunting of Hill House), sexual identity and shame (The Haunting of Bly Manor), and faith and addiction (Midnight Mass). But his latest, The Midnight Club, breaks the gloomy streak. It’s a cheerful romp that’s as comforting as a cup of chamomile tea. Just kidding, it’s about kids with cancer. Mike Flanagan productions make you cry as much as they scare you.
That being said, The Midnight Club is much more of a piece with the lighter, not-as-scary Bly Manor than the terrifying and emotionally devastating Hill House and Midnight Mass. It’s warm-hearted drama about people facing the unimaginable with courage and dignity thanks to the help of their chosen family. It’s empathetic, fun, and even a little bit funny, a word never used to describe any previous Flanagan joint.
The Midnight Club tells the story of a group of terminally ill teenagers living in a youth hospice called Brightcliffe in 1994. Every night at midnight, they sneak out of their rooms and meet in the spooky old Victorian mansion’s library, where they tell each other scary stories and toast the memories of those who came before and are no longer around. Being part of the club bonds them, and gives them a reason to stay alive another night — they all want to hear how the next story ends. Membership in the club also requires making a pact that after they die, they will try to communicate from the other side with those who still live. Along the way, they fall in love, navigate complicated relationships with family and each other, and confront personal demons literal and figurative. And they also investigate mysterious, possibly supernatural occurrences connected to the house’s occult (and cult) history.
The kid we spend the most time with is Ilonka (Iman Benson), a super-smart girl who got into Stanford before thyroid cancer derailed her plans. She’s determined to live, and comes to Brightcliffe after reading an old news story about a resident who miraculously recovered. She believes that the house — or the land the house is on — has some sort of special healing power, an idea that’s encouraged by Shasta (Samantha Sloyan), a New Age-y entrepreneur neighbor who knows even more about Brightcliffe than she lets on. Other members of the eight-member Midnight Club include Anya (Ruth Codd), Ilonka’s Irish roommate, who uses a prickly attitude to protect her tender heart; Spence (William Chris Sumpter), an angry young man with AIDS whose mother won’t speak to him because he’s gay; and Sandra (Annarah Cymone), a deeply religious girl whose faith helps her cope with her illness.
The Midnight Club is based on the young adult novels of Christopher Pike, which had a major impact on Flanagan as a teenager in the ’90s. It’s co-created by Leah Fong, who previously wrote on The Haunting of Bly Manor. Like Bly Manor, which drew from a number of Henry James’ ghost stories in addition to The Turn of the Screw, its primary source material, The Midnight Club pulls from a number of Pike’s novels. While the titular novel provides the frame story and plot, other novels get adapted into the stories the members tell each other. Every episode basically has a 20-minute short film inside of it. The stories add depth to the main overarching story and allow for the show to touch on different genres, like psychological slasher thriller ("The Wicked Heart") and tongue-in-cheek noir mystery ("Gimme a Kiss"). It’s a clever, inventive structure that gives the show a sense of unpredictable fun.
Flanagan likes to work with the same collaborators on different projects, and there are many familiar faces on the screen and names in the credits. The writing staff includes Elan Gale, the former The Bachelor executive producer and FBoy Island creator who also wrote for Midnight Mass, and his sibling Jamie Flanagan, who wrote for Bly Manor. His longtime cinematographer Michael Fimognari directs two episodes. And many of his go-to actors are in the main cast, including Midnight Mass‘ Annarah Cymone, Zach Gilford, and Samantha Sloyan, the latter of whom he has worked with since the movie Hush. And there are other appearances by Flanagan regulars I won’t spoil. But the two most notable performances in The Midnight Club are from newcomers to his extended universe.
As Ilonka, Iman Benson (#blackAF) nails a challenging role. In less capable hands, Ilonka could be a self-important Sabrina Spellman-type know-it-all — a main character with main character syndrome — but Benson is so charismatic and empathetic that Ilonka remains likable even when she’s being selfish. And as Anya, Ruth Codd seems destined to be The Midnight Club‘s breakout performer. After rising to prominence by being funny on her now-deleted TikTok account, Codd is making her acting debut on the show. You would have no idea it’s her first time acting professionally. She’s so funny, delivering withering put-downs the way only someone from Ireland can, and so vulnerable as Anya confronts her fear of her impending death. Not every actor in the ensemble is as good as Benson and Codd, but they don’t have to carry as much as Benson and Codd. They’re forgivable.
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Less forgivable is The Midnight Club‘s indifference to its setting. It’s set in 1994, but it might as well be set now. The show only has a period setting because that’s when the book The Midnight Club came out, not because it’s integral to the story. And the dialogue actively works to undermine the setting. It’s peppered with distinctly contemporary expressions like "don’t yuck my yum" and "what the actual f—" that take the viewer out of the moment. Search engines and other computer-based plot devices are used too much for something set in 1994. And the alternative rock soundtrack is all over the place, heavily leaning on songs that came out after 1994. There’s a verbal reference to Radiohead’s "Exit Music (For a Film)," which didn’t come out until 1996. I know I’m being pedantic, and perhaps the producers made a conscious decision assuming most viewers wouldn’t notice or care, but the lack of attention to detail comes off as lazy. Google didn’t exist in 1994, but it does now. Anyone can watch an episode of My So-Called Life and listen to how TV teenagers actually talked back then. If writers aren’t going to bother doing research for a period piece, they shouldn’t make it a period piece, especially when it doesn’t need to be. Teenagers in 2022 dress almost exclusively in ’90s fashions, so they could have set it in the present and kept the same costumes.
But that’s a relatively minor complaint on a show that does the big things right. Flanagan and his collaborators have once again delivered an emotionally potent horror drama, this time adding in a YA element to keep things fresh. Flanagan might make a bad Netflix show eventually, but it hasn’t happened yet. He’s on a truly remarkable winning streak. And unlike his other shows, which have been limited or anthology series, The Midnight Club sets up a second season. Here’s hoping it happens.
Premieres: Friday, Oct. 7 on Netflix
Who’s in it: Iman Benson, Igby Rigney, Annarah Cymone, Ruth Codd, Adia, Chris Sumpter, Aya Furukawa, Sauriyan Sapkota, Samantha Sloyan, Heather Langenkamp
Who’s behind it: Co-creators Mike Flanagan and Leah Fong (The Haunting of Bly Manor)
For fans of: Mike Flanagan’s Netflix shows, YA horror
How many episodes we watched: 10
The Midnight Club Review: Mike Flanagan's Latest Netflix Series Is Another Spooky, Heavy Winner – TV Guide
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