- Courtesy Of Netflix
- An impressive young cast gives energy to Flanagan's sometimes-wandering series about a hospice for teens.
Decades ago, a best-selling writer named Christopher Pike heard from a young fan who was in a cancer ward. She and her fellow patients met regularly at midnight to discuss his teen horror novels, and she asked the author to write a book about their group. Pike was more than game, he recalled in a recent Netflix press release. But before he could finish The Midnight Club (published in 1994), the young woman who inspired it was dead.
Does it seem odd that a group of gravely ill kids would gather to discuss Pike's tales of murder, mayhem and doom? Perhaps it shouldn't. For many people — young people in particular — fictional horror is one way to face the specter of real death.
Director Mike Flanagan ("The Haunting of Hill House") often blends scares and sentiment. He and cocreator Leah Fong adapted Pike's novel (and several of his other works) into the new Netflix series "The Midnight Club," set in a hospice for teens. I watched it to see if Flanagan could capture the qualities that made '90s kids swear by Pike's out-there oeuvre.
Seventeen-year-old Ilonka (Iman Benson) is headed for college glory when she receives a diagnosis of terminal thyroid cancer. After a year of treatment, she asks to enter Brightcliffe Hospice, located in a seaside Victorian mansion. Far from being resigned to death, Ilonka has seen online rumors suggesting the place might hold miraculous healing properties.
At Brightcliffe, Ilonka meets seven other teens, including Kevin (Igby Rigney), who tries to maintain an optimistic façade for the girlfriend he left at home; Sandra (Annarah Cymone), who finds strength in Christianity; and Anya (Ruth Codd), who insists on voicing the brutal truths that everyone else does their best to ignore.
Every midnight, the eight kids meet to spin stories by the fireside. They've made a pact: Whoever dies first will send a signal to reassure the others that there is life beyond the grave.
Will you like it?
If you know Pike only from the lurid covers of his paperbacks, you might be startled to learn that The Midnight Club is a sensitive treatment of dying informed by its author's interest in Buddhism. The stories that the club members swap range from spooky tall tales to earnest reflections on mortality. The book version of Ilonka has dreams set in ancient Egypt and India that turn out to be instructive scenes from her past lives. Pike delivers lessons about mindfulness and acceptance in his trademark pulpy prose, and it's all over in about 200 pages — not without tears, in this adult reader's case.
As is his wont, Flanagan has made the story a lot longer and more complicated. Gone are Ilonka's past-life dreams, replaced by creepy visions that seem to be connected to the shady backstory of the hospice. Decades before Dr. Stanton (Heather Langenkamp from A Nightmare on Elm Street) took charge there, the place hosted a cult fixated on ancient Greek notions of healing.
Obsessed with the possibility of curing herself and others, Ilonka dives into the cult's lore. This puts her at loggerheads with Anya, a long-timer at the hospice who has watched so many people die that she feels safe only in a near-nihilistic fatalism. Codd, a first-time actor and real-life as well as on-screen amputee, gives a blistering breakout performance. The series' most powerful episode is one that pivots around Anya's search for peace.
All the skilled young actors who play the Midnight Club members have additional roles in the stories that their characters tell, which we watch play out on-screen. One of those stories is from the source novel; the others are compressed adaptations of different Pike books. Most of these embedded tales are good fun, and they convey the diversity of the author's output, from the self-parodic noir of "Gimme a Kiss" to the brain-twisting sci-fi of "See You Later" to the Sartrean bleakness of "Road to Nowhere."
With its personable cast, picturesque setting and rambling, metafictional structure, "The Midnight Club" makes a good comfort watch, especially for viewers who are in the mood for something on the milder end of the spooky spectrum. One wonders, though, whether Flanagan will have the courage to do what Pike did: let his protagonists die. We don't find out, because the 10th and last episode ends on a frustrating cliffhanger that suggests the showrunner is confident of renewal for a second season.
Today's streaming creators could learn something from the brevity of teen pulp novels. While "The Midnight Club" has a wobbly structure and overstays its welcome, it does capture the combination of macabre thrills and dark truths that may have inspired the real "midnight club" to pay homage to Pike's works so many years ago.
If you like this, try...
"The Haunting of Bly Manor" (nine episodes, 2020; Netflix): I have mixed feelings about the "Flanaverse," as Netflix has begun calling Flanagan's various limited series. But his extended riff on Henry James' The Turn of the Screw features some good scares, heart-wrenching meditations on death — and an epilogue set in Vermont!
"End Game" (2018; Netflix): For a less fanciful view of the end of life, watch this Oscar-nominated short documentary about palliative care physicians helping terminal patients weigh their choices at a San Francisco hospital.
Dick Johnson Is Dead (2020; Netflix): Kirsten Johnson's oddball documentary is a unique act of mourning for a man who isn't actually dead yet — her father.