A show about dying kids is always going to be a tough sell, and sure, Netflix’s “The Midnight Club” has most of the usual tropes. There are doomed romances and devastating deaths mixed in with the harsh side effects of cancer and all five stages of grief. And as an anthology of ghost stories, “The Midnight Club” is also not too revolutionary. It’s like a YA “Black Mirror” mixed with executive producer Mike Flanagan’s usual fare (he directs the first two episodes and wrote or co-wrote most of the season), with twists that most savvy viewers will see coming. But when you put those two things together — dying kids telling ghost stories — that’s when a show becomes something magical. And there is definitely a magic to “The Midnight Club.”
The series is based on the 1994 book by Christopher Pike and tells the story of a group of teens who live in an old house converted to a hospice home. They’re all dying of various cancers and other ailments, and most kids aren’t there for more than six months or so. To keep themselves entertained and distracted, a small faction of them meet every night at midnight to tell each other scary stories. The stories play out on screen, and the kids in the Midnight Club play all the characters, allowing for a new short film from a different genre to play out in the context of each episode.
The show starts with the arrival of Ilonka (Iman Benson), a newly diagnosed teen who has come to this place with a mission after hearing of a former patient who was cured of her terminal illness. Ilonka is not here to die. She’s here to live, by any means necessary. Sometimes those means involve defying the well-meaning but slightly mysterious owner of the house, played by horror movie legend Heather Langenkamp (“Nightmare on Elm Street”), and sometimes they involve cutting her hand to draw blood for a ritual in the creepy basement, as instructed by a mysterious lady in the woods (“Midnight Mass” actress Samantha Sloyan).
Naturally, all of these kids learn that just because you’re dying, that doesn’t mean you have to stop living. Multiple characters point out that we’re all actually dying all the time. People may die, but love doesn’t, etc etc. All of that is expected, but what’s less expected and a lot more moving is how the ghost stories are used to express the very understandable emotions these kids are feeling, whether they’re regretting the life they lived or grieving the life they won’t get to live. One story is about a girl who makes a deal with the devil to be split in two, so she can live two different lives. Another is about a time-traveling video game creator trying to figure out how to save the world, and there’s also a tale about a teen witch who can see the future and heal people. There’s a story inspired by Japanese horror movies and a slasher tale whose teller never wants to finish. The teens hang on each other’s every word as the stories are told, like the Midnight Club is the last thing keeping them alive, even as almost all the stories end in death.
What results is a gorgeous, entertaining YA series that does a great job of balancing what could be a cloyingly sentimental tearjerker of a tale with the sort of beautiful horror that Flanagan has become known for with “The Haunting of Hill House,” “The Haunting of Bly Manor” and “Midnight Mass.” Flanagan has even brought along a few of his favorite actors, like Sloyan and Rahul Kohli, who fit right in with the relative newcomers who play the teens. But this time around, Flanagan has toned down the ghosts for a younger and/or more horror-averse audience. These ghosts are more like metaphors for the kids’ attempts to wrestle with their own mortalities and what happens — if anything — after death. There’s a question of whether or not they’re real, and whether or not that matters.
There are some moments where a Midnight Club story is less exciting than the mystery taking place in the house, so it feels like it drags just a little. It also doesn’t help that some of the kids are bad at telling stories, so a few of them purposely land with a thud. But by the end, there’s an opportunity to feel like you’ve gone on an unexpected spiritual journey. Most questions have been answered, but the magic still remains, along with some new questions created by the final moments.
There could conceivably be a second season, because the point of the Midnight Club is that it can go on forever as new kids arrive at the home, but there’s also enough closure that the show doesn’t necessarily need one. If this story is indeed over, Flanagan has proven that he’s equally as good at YA as he is at grown-up horror, and there are many more tales he could and should tell.
“The Midnight Club” is now streaming on Netflix.