In the mid 1990s, America’s children were gripped by Goosebumps fever. These entry-level horror novels by R.L. Stine, never more than about 150 pages in length, were notorious for their textual jump-scares, their cliffhanger chapter endings that suggested the horrific only to be punctured by mundanity on the following page, and their overall promise of formulaic scares with just enough variation between books to allow for a feeling of discovery each time.
Two years after the publication of the first Goosebumps book (1992’s Welcome to Dead House) and roughly concurrently with such Stine titles as Phantom of the Auditorium, Attack of the Mutant, and A Night in Terror Tower, Christopher Pike published his own YA novel, The Midnight Club, which marks a sharp contrast to Stine’s intentionally cheap thrills. Pike’s book, which concerns the late-night storytelling rituals of a clique of adolescent hospice patients, is low on incident, high on rumination over the meaning of life and death, and crushingly sad. The book paints a vivid and emotionally ruthless portrait of the stages of grief spread across its small ensemble of terminally ill young people. And, crucially, it can be comfortably read in about half the time afforded to the new 10-hour Netflix adaptation helmed by house stylist Mike Flanagan and his Haunting of Bly Manor co-producer, Leah Fong. Perhaps surprisingly to fans of the book, however, despite frequent narrative fidelity, the tone of Flanagan and Fong’s Midnight Club is far closer to R.L. Stine than to its ostensible source.
The Midnight Club centers on Ilonka (Iman Benson), a cancer patient recently arrived at Brightcliffe, a youth hospice housed in a creaking seaside manor. Before long, Ilonka has been welcomed into the titular pseudo-secret society of nocturnal storytellers made up of a handful of other patients — Flanagan and Fong expand Pike’s five-person ensemble with an additional three club members — including Kevin (Igby Rigney), with whom she immediately falls into the sort of tragic love on which YA weepies thrive.
The group’s habit of gathering at midnight in the hospice library to sit by the fire exchanging spooky stories is granted tacit approval by staff members, including nurse practitioner Mark (Zach Gilford, returning to the Flanagan repertory after starring in 2021 Netflix hit Midnight Mass) and head honcho Dr. Stanton (Nightmare on Elm Street alum Heather Langenkamp). Ilonka, though, is far from content to accept her prognosis and begins a frantic search for anything that might promise to extend her life, a quest that will lead herself and her friends into the dangerous and potentially supernatural web that is Brightcliffe’s past.
As detailed in a recent Vanity Fair profile on the show’s production, Flanagan has long hoped to adapt Pike’s novel, even flirting with attempting to shoot it as his debut feature. However, in expanding the story to fit the demands of a streaming series (and there is every indication that this is intended to be an ongoing narrative rather than the miniseries that Flanagan has previously provided the streamer), the creators seem to have felt obliged to add in heaps of additional narrative grist. Thus, the series is simultaneously highly faithful to, and wildly at odds with, the book. To comprehensively detail the creators’ additions would require more words than this review is allotted, but suffice it to say viewers of The Midnight Club will be treated to ghostly visions suggesting a haunted Brightcliffe, portentous nightmares foretelling a grisly fate for the club’s members, a buried backstory involving a mysterious former patient, and frequent intimations of another even-more-secret society complete with a signature symbol found on various meaningful objects/characters’ bodies.
Only one of these invented narrative threads leads anywhere in particular during this first season, with the others being largely teased right up to the time of final cliffhanging reveals. The relevant storyline concerns a prior generation’s Brightcliffe patient who, like Ilonka, refused to accept the inevitability of her demise. To say too much about this plot line, which consists of fairly brazen breadcrumbs all leading to a series of reveals that are unlikely to shock any savvy viewer, would risk spoiling the show’s true narrative spine. But the fact that the only spoilable element of the show should be one invented whole-cloth for the screen testifies to how awkwardly these new threads are woven into the series. The story of Ilonka’s investigation into Brightcliffe’s most notable former patient takes place largely away from the purview of the other characters, meaning she is able to essentially step from one story into a separate, entirely original TV show, one that only reintegrates in time for a climax of spectacular hysteria that makes the core setup of a bunch of sick kids supporting one another through storytelling seem abruptly quaint.
It’s a thick and heady bouillabaisse, and that’s before even considering the series’ framework: As the Midnight Club gathers to tell their stories, we see those stories brought to life in episodes-within-episodes that also happen to star members of the main ensemble. Thus, The Midnight Club is effectively an anthology series, as the characters ostensibly use their imaginations to process their fears and sorrows. Rather than adapt the stories Pike created for the novel, though, Flanagan and Fong have chosen to turn the series into a Christopher Pike showcase, adapting additional novels (including 1993 slasher The Wicked Heart and the same year’s spectral Road to Nowhere) ostensibly as the work of these young storytellers.
During one meeting, club member Spence (Chris Sumpter) holds forth on the difference between startling and scary: “Anyone can bang pots and pans behind someone’s head. That’s not scary, it’s just startling, and it’s lazy as fuck.” It’s a bold pronouncement, clearly meant to be taken as a statement of purpose from the show’s creators, but Flanagan and Fong can’t quite manage to stick to their own stated values. The club’s stories are suffused with cheap jolts, more reminiscent of haunted house rides than genuine get-under-your-skin horror. Only one, Kevin’s serialized telling of The Wicked Heart, which stretches the surprisingly grisly tale of a teenage thrill killer across several episodes, lingers for long after the credits have rolled, while others (notably Spence’s sci-fi yarn about a time-bending VHS tape) seem designed to evaporate as soon as they’ve unspooled. In one case, a story — the adaptation of Road to Nowhere, which features a particularly welcome guest appearance from a longtime Flanagan collaborator — overtakes the majority of the episode, and it represents the writers’ most robust effort to externalize a character’s inner turmoil through storytelling. But it leads only to a maudlin climax that’s quickly swept aside in favor of returning to the pressing business of finding more mysterious symbols where they should not be.
There seems to be some essential gulf in verisimilitude in Flanagan and Fong’s approach to The Midnight Club. The series’ world is lush and immersive, which will come as no surprise to the many fans of the prolific Flanagan, but the characters inhabiting it can’t seem to sink into their environs. These young actors can be caked with as much pallid makeup as the producers please, but they nevertheless come across as too hale and hearty to sell their dire circumstances. The emotional underpinnings are similarly undercut by a reliance on platitude — staff members are frequently found reminding their patients that, really, we’re all dying (it’s never fully acknowledged quite what cold comfort this would likely provide), while one climactic emotional peak is accompanied by the slogan-worthy “Dying is a really shitty reason not to live.” It may be that a mercilessly realistic vision of terminal illness in young people would prove too alienating a prospect for a Netflix YA audience, but the softened edges constitute a breach in the show’s realism, offering creature comforts at the expense of a feeling of truthfulness.
By no means do all of Flanagan and Fong’s additions work to the show’s detriment. As with Flanagan’s previous Netflix projects, each member of the ensemble is granted ample shading of character, which comes to most powerful effect in the stories of the two gay characters (double the number featured in Pike’s novel), whose lifestyles are far richer and more nuanced than their equivalents were afforded in the story’s original iteration. The invented characters are drawn with appealing wit and personality, each of them fitting comfortably into the margins of Ilonka and Kevin’s doomed love story. Flanagan is an unquestionably gifted craftsman who seems so far incapable of making anything outright bad (though some viewers of the 2019 Shining sequel Doctor Sleep might quibble with that assessment).
This time last year, Midnight Mass proved something of a word-of-mouth sensation for Netflix, and though there was a tendency to gripe over the show’s density of stagey monologue — the absence of which in The Midnight Club proved headline-worthy — it’s a remarkably self-assured and tonally consistent work, telling a taut story with attention evenly spread across a sprawling ensemble, all of it culminating in a shocking yet retrospectively inevitable denouement. It’s perhaps unfair to judge Flanagan’s newest series against the standard of such a wildly different story, one spun for audiences a decade or two older than the ideal Midnight Club viewer. But given how snugly this new project sits, at least on a visual and tonal level, alongside the various hauntings Flanagan has previously conjured for Netflix, The Midnight Club’s fumbled attempts at world-building stick out like the unsuccessful tracks on a familiar band’s new album.
Considering the series may have been designed for an entirely different demographic, a mashup of The Fault in Our Stars and the Nickelodeon mainstay Are You Afraid of the Dark? could prove a winning formula for the target audience of teens (if not preteens), who will be well served by the thoroughly greased aesthetic gears of the Flanagan/Netflix partnership, not to mention the sort of familiar jump scares guaranteed to happily pass an October Friday night. In the best-case scenario, this curious study in literary adaptation could well provide analytical material for a budding media analyst. It doesn’t take much conscious thought to detect that The Midnight Club is a strange object. Investigating how and why Pike’s novel could end up looking like Flanagan and Fong’s series might prove even more enlightening than Ilonka’s plunge into the depths of Brightcliffe’s shadowy past.
The Midnight Club is now streaming on Netflix.