“Love never dies; people always do.” The ten-episode adaptation of Christopher Pike’s work by Mike Flanagan and Leah Fong, which Ilonka references in “The Midnight Club” on Netflix, is essentially built around that Merrit Malloy line since it emphasizes the importance of utilizing poetry and prose to understand death. This is a show more about the things that surround death and what cannot be taken away: memories, stories, and love. Its messaging can occasionally be awkward, but it is excused given that this is a program about youth and is intended mostly for young adults (despite some wickedly intense imagery and the occasional f-bomb).
Teenagers are expected to be unruly, unsure, and unguarded. And so, more than being unhappy about any aesthetic shortcomings, every time “The Midnight Club” felt a touch rough around the edges, I was reminded of the swirl of adolescent emotion that rises around situations as severe as mortality. However, viewers hoping for a show as sophisticated as “Midnight Mass” or “The Haunting of Hill House” might be a little taken aback by how frequently this program lags in contrast to those films or simply stumbles over some of the show’s most significant emotional beats. Consider this a gateway drug for potential new horror lovers, young individuals who may be thinking differently about death for the first time.
When a terminal cancer diagnosis causes everything to fall apart, Ilonka appears to have it all. She eventually finds herself at Brightcliffe, a fictitious Hill House by the sea that serves as a hospice facility for children. She discovers a strange group of teenagers there who give the program its name. Every night they meet at the library to share spooky tales as a way of processing what would eventually happen to them. Ilonka, in the meantime, finds evidence that the hospice and its enigmatic manager (Heather Langenkamp of “A Nightmare on Elm Street” fame) is concealing a secret that might save her life. Ilonka’s discoveries at the center are thus intercut with a story related by one of her acquaintances in each episode. Foundationally, the show becomes about how and why we tell stories to process the real world. And how these stories specifically say more about the person telling them than anything else.
The Midnight Club consists of eight characters, and thanks to the season’s excessively long 10 episodes, we get to know each of them to vary degrees. The show’s most notable characters are Anya (Ruth Codd), Ilonka’s resentful but tenacious roommate, and Kevin (Igby Rigney), a prospective love interest who tells a multi-episode yarn about a serial murderer that provides the show with some of its most arresting imagery.
According to reports, Kevin’s story is based on The Wicked Heart,
another Pike novel, while Road to Nowhere is the source of another tale.
It may be shrewd to include elements from past Pike works into this one, but there were times when I preferred stories that seemed to be more naturally emerging from the lives of characters like Kevin and Anya. Although Kevin’s story is well-done, it’s clear that the author/creator was trying to be smart rather than telling Kevin’s experience exactly.
It’s also intriguing to learn that Flanagan and Fong invented most of
Ilonka’s exploits at Brightcliffe rather than having them occur naturally.
The material about a former patient who might still be alive and
members of a cult in the woods is the least interesting in this
adaptation, though it must have been difficult to conceive adapting a
book about children recounting stories without adding all kinds of other
material. Ilonka is frequently sent away from the patients in this
episode about a group of patients as the Brightcliffe secrets urge her to
go for her own program.
This leads us to the reason why the show still functions largely as
intended—this bunch of teenage actors and their eagerness to participate in Flanagan, Fong, and Pike’s antics. Rigney is incredibly endearing, Codd is a mesmerizing performer, and Benson makes for an interesting lead. The best parts of “The Midnight Club” occur when they
are given the freedom to interact with each other as their very distinct characters. The way these young actors compete with and support one another provides “The Midnight Club” with its best material. It also serves as a reminder to Flanagan fans that he has always been a creator
more interested in the “why” of a ghost than the jump fright that comes with it. More than they should have to at their age, these children are made to comprehend death. They are compelled to accept the impossibility that all of their dreams will come true too soon. Additionally, Flanagan and Fong treat their teenage protagonists and
viewers with commendable emotional regard, tackling subjects like homophobia and suicide with empathy rather than exploitation.
The Flanagan/Netflix machine shows no signs of slowing production. His promising
adaptation of “The Fall of the House of Usher” is up next, and there will certainly be something after that. Where will “The Midnight Club” stand in this legacy? It’s unlikely to be anyone’s favorite of the Flanagan projects. However, it could be a new horror fan’s first. And, perhaps more importantly, it could be something that really
speaks to a young person who has been forced to deal with death in an unfair way,
looking for a story to help them figure out how to write their own.