Mike Flanagan’s Midnight Club of Mixed Messages

Teenagers stand around holding flashlights and looking at a book in The Midnight Club
Photo by EIKE SCHROTER/NETFLIX - © 2022 Netflix, Inc.

The following contains some spoilers for The Midnight Club Season 1

Based on Christopher Pike’s novel of the same name, Mike Flanagan and Leah Fong’s The Midnight Club tugs at three major tropes: nested stories; “Teenage Cancerland”; and the Horror genre’s classic Haunted House.

Midnight Club in the elevator
Photo by EIKE SCHROTER/NETFLIX – © 2022 Netflix, Inc.

Christopher Pike has an extensive portfolio of works, mainly in the YA horror/thriller genre; some might describe his writing as a more grown-up version of R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series. Mike Flanagan is a renowned horror/thriller writer and director; his more popular works are Netflix’s Haunting of Hill House, Haunting of Bly Manor, and his highly anticipated The Fall of the House of Usher. Flanagan’s partner for The Midnight Club adaptation, Leah Fong, has worked with Flanagan before on Haunting of Bly Manor and has written for Once Upon A Time and The Magicians.

Set in the ’90s, The Midnight Club is another teen horror series clinging to millennial nostalgia. Yet, the content feels much more aligned with a younger age bracket. Like most of Pike’s work, Flanagan and Fong’s adaptation is for YA audiences. The storytelling doesn’t feel nearly as rich as Flanagan’s other works; not to say The Midnight Club is shallow, but it feels juvenile.

Teenagers stand in front of a house
Photo by EIKE SCHROTER/NETFLIX – © 2022 Netflix, Inc.

Netflix’s The Midnight Club takes a step back narratively and starts with Ilonka (Iman Benson) before Pike’s novel does. We begin watching Ilonka’s life unfold with all of her excitement, having graduated high school and almost ready to leave for college. However, fate has something else waiting for her.

Just after meeting a cute boy, she has her first jump scare; the vision of an old man appears in the mirror before she faints. We later find out in a doctor’s office that Ilonka has thyroid cancer. She goes through chemo, but they’ve done all they can; the cancer is terminal.

Ilonka dives into research, like the overachiever we know she is and finds an archived news article about Julia Jayne, whose same cancer she claims was cured at Brightcliffe, a hospice for young terminal cancer patients. The setting for the rest of the series.

Three youths stand in a hallway looking concerned
Photo by EIKE SCHROTER/NETFLIX – © 2022 Netflix, Inc.

Flanagan and Fong add the extra background of our main character and her motivation to be at this hospice compared to Pike’s novel, which jumps into the story when Ilonka’s been there for some time. Given the extra exposition, we, the audience, are shown her struggles and motivation in the outside world rather than told those things once on the inside of Brightcliffe. This a clever device more writers should use.

Though this underlying motivation to cure Ilonka’s cancer is present throughout the series, plenty of offshoots, tangents, and unanswered questions are tied into the ensemble’s story together and apart.

The first other patient we meet at Brightcliffe is Kevin (Igby Rigney); he’s quiet, brooding, listening to music while staring at the magnificent view over a cliff—obviously the love interest. Their love story and Brightcliffe patients Amesh (Sauriyan Sapkota) and Natsuki (Aya Furukawa) are classic examples of Teenage Cancerland. Though they’re surrounded by horrors exterior to their disease, through their pain, they connect.

A young man on a telephone with others behind him, mouths open
Photo by EIKE SCHROTER/NETFLIX – © 2022 Netflix, Inc.

Without the horror aspects exterior to the patients’ disease, the teenage cancer love cliché would play out extremely bland and trivial like others of its nature, i.e. Five Feet Apart. If anything, the clever combination of the two by first Pike and now Flanagan and Fong’s adaptation perfectly avoids a lot of the obvious melancholy of cancer by replacing a grounded fear with a supernatural fear. In that sense, the conversations of death have different connotations and feel like a refreshing perspective rather than a tired trope of tragic cancer romantic coming-of-age story.

The exciting phenomenon with this kind of genre combo is that, at points, you feel like you’re watching two or three different shows. When Ilonka follows her new roommate Anya (Ruth Codd) out of their room on her first night only to discover every Brightcliffe patient—Spence (Chris Sumpter), Sandra (Annarah Cymone), Cheri (Adia), Natsuki, Amesh, Kevin—sitting together in the library at midnight, a new kind of show emerges, an anthology.

Teenagers stand around holding flashlights and looking at a book in The Midnight Club
Photo by EIKE SCHROTER/NETFLIX – © 2022 Netflix, Inc.

Cleverly, The Midnight Club is a teenage cancer drama, a horror anthology, and a cult/paranormal thriller.

Natsuki tells our first story at The Midnight Club; it contains some of the most jump scares on TV. How do I know that? Because the first episode of The Midnight Club just made the new Guinness World Record for Most Jump Scares. This particular story doesn’t show much insight into Natsuki’s character. Still, the rest of the stories told at The Midnight Club are unique tales that peek into each character’s inner trauma or motivations.

The rest of the cast acts out each story for the audience to watch, giving the show an anthology feel. Most of the stories are taken from other works of Christopher Pike; the only story taken directly from The Midnight Club novel is Anya’s “Two Danas”.

Of all the characters, Anya feels the most fleshed out by the end of her reign at Brightcliffe, and her emotional arch feels complete. The story of “Two Danas” explains Anya’s roughness; she carries many regrets. By the end of the season, when Ilonka discovers the once-broken ballerina statue repaired, it feels like the perfect send-off for Anya. She did what she said she would; she sent Ilonka the biggest, boldest sign from the other side to say there was life after death.

A young woman screaming
Photo by EIKE SCHROTER/NETFLIX – © 2022 Netflix, Inc.

This message is also funny because it directly contradicts the core message Dr. Stanton (Heather Langenkamp), Brightlcliffe Hospice’s owner, tries to get these young adults to grapple with throughout the show. Dr. Stanton is all about coming to peace with death, enjoying your last moments, and finding agency in these menial things when so much of the hand you’re dealt is out of your control. It’s a valuable message for the patients, but with their midnight soiree every night, they seem to make peace with death because, from their perspective, it doesn’t necessarily mean you stop living.

Each character has their own philosophy connected to this. Combined with Dr. Stanton’s messaging, the arcs of each character and the stories in the middle of episodes opening us up to more possibilities, the subliminal messaging about death gets a little muddled. Clearly, we’re intended to view death and disease differently after watching, but to what end?

The Midnight Club is a fun watch that takes you down road after road of intrigue, but still, there feels to be no vital takeaway. Perhaps we learn about forgiveness, acceptance, and such, but what about death itself?

Lots of questions are left unanswered at the end of the ten episodes. Who are the old couple haunting Ilonka and Kevin, and what do they want? Is Dr. Stanton the daughter who ran away from the cult all those years ago? Or, at least, what is the explanation for the bald head and hourglass tattoo? Was the sign Anya sent just a sign on her way out, or is she still around? How did Sandra go into remission? Was it luck, misdiagnosis, or something else?

There are so many emotional tolls left unsolved. Will Cheri’s parents come to her side? Will Kevin’s mother stop trying to turn her younger son into her dying son? Will Natsuki and her mother connect and come to an understanding of Natsuki’s mental health? Will Amesh’s parents get back to the US before he goes?

I will enjoy the watch if The Midnight Club gets renewed for another season. However, suppose it doesn’t get renewed for another season. In that case, it will sadly become one of the many shows Netflix gave up on and could never be watched or appreciated simply as a limited series. There are still too many loose ends for it to be viewed as anything other than the first season of an unsuccessful YA drama should it be cancelled.

Written by Isobel Grieve

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