In the post-apocalyptic horror sweepstakes, many will enter, but few will win. For every Dawn of the Dead or Last Man on Earth there are a dozen Night of the Comets or Rats: Nights of Terrors, but the challenge of recreating the world on paper or film is one that writers and filmmakers have been drawn to since the real world has gone to shit. Richard Matheson led the charge with I am Legend, a short novel that served as the basis for The Last Man on Earth (as well as Charlton Heston's gloriously campy Omega Man) and presented us with a world overrun by vampires. Matheson's book served as the inspiration for writer F. Paul Wilson's Midnight Mass, a sequel of sorts to Legend in which survivors of the vampire plague go about the task of living their lives while the threat of extinction hovers over them with the grim assuredness of the night sky itself.
Midnight Mass opens with a montage of newscasts and interviews that inform us that the world is quickly being overrun by a virus that has turned much of the world's population into vampires. Apparently, this plague had begun in the Saudi desert and worked its way around the globe, pushing mankind to the brink of extinction and forcing survivors to band together into groups of scavengers who live by day and prepare for the worst by night. When we meet Gwen (Karp), she narrowly escapes a group of "watchdogs" (a bunch of annoying Goth kids who snatch up victims during the daytime for their vampire masters) and then follows them to their lair. She's shocked to discover that the vampire clan's newest haunt is none other than the local church, but what's more shocking is that it's resident priest, Father Palmeri (Schwartz), has not only joined the undead army but has become one of its leaders. Gwen makes a trek to seek out her friend Father Joe (Gibson), a priest whose parish turned against him pre-apocalypse when he was accused of molesting a young boy. Joe is now an alcoholic loner who has no interest in saving anyone but himself, but the plucky anarchist/atheist Gwen convinces the priest that his people need him more than ever.
Midnight Mass is a film with a great concept but poor execution. While the film has a great look (thanks to cinematographer Thomas Agnello) and a solid premise, Midnight Mass is bogged down by a somewhat plodding pace and wretched performances by virtually every member of the cast save Gibson. Pamela Karp has to be one of the most annoying screen presences I've ever seen. She emotes through shrill and unconvincing fits that are supposed to be symptomatic of "manic-depression" but come off as ridiculous and ultimately pointless seeing as Gwen's psychological issues are never an issue at all - They don't add depth to the character, nor do they effect the storyline. In her interactions with Gibson (a somewhat established theatre actor) it becomes glaringly obvious that Karp is well out of her league, but, then again, so is the rest of the cast. I can't for the life of me understand why Mandile and co. chose to cast so many first timers and/or friends in this otherwise professional production. If you're going to spend the money on a solid cinematographer, decent special effects, and optioning an existing story, it only makes sense to round up some decent actors to fill out the bill. Now, before anyone questions budgetary restraints, I've seen films that cost less than this one's catering bill with better performances.
The pacing of the film is also a big issue. While I'm all for an intelligent spin on the vampire genre, the script is just too wordy and the heavy dialogue sequences sound like a bitch-and-moan session at the headquarters of the Kevin Smith Fanclub. I have an issue with dialogue heavy films that try and make their characters explain the story to us rather than do so visually. The dialogue may have worked wonderfully on the written page, but film is a visual medium in which "show, don't tell" is the most basic of its rules. You would think that the action sequences would somehow balance out all of the talking heads, but they are so few and far between that when they do come it's impossible not to notice how sorely missed they are. The film is also completely devoid of any sense of suspense, with nary a scare in sight, and this effects our overall investment in the characters we're forced to glean so much insight into. While the vampire menace is the apparent threat, no one ever seems to be in any sort of danger, nor are the actors able to emote any semblance of dread regarding their situation.
On the bright side, Midnight Mass LOOKS damned good, and features some pretty solid special effects. I liked how the vampires were handled (for the most part) in that they were presented as savage and disfigured abominations as opposed to the usual smartly attired and debonair variety we've all come to expect. The film's few thrilling moments hinge on this aspect of the production, and it's done well, if not enough. Mandile shows a lot of promise as a director, but sabotages himself a bit here, partly out of commitment to the author (of whom he is a huge fan) and to his friends and investors (who seem to have wriggled their way into the film). I'd love to see what he could do with a different script and a more seasoned group of performers, and I'm pretty confident we will.
The DVD from Lion's Gate features some very funny outtakes, an in-depth making of documentary, and cast and crew commentary. After watching the supplemental stuff and hearing Mandile on the commentary, I lightened up a bit on my overall opinion of the film. That's one of the wonders of DVD; the extra materials can actually make the viewer appreciate a film a bit more, even if they can't wholeheartedly endorse it.