Men of the Cloth and Creatures of the Night: Bad Priests and Good Vampires in ‘Midnight Mass’ and ‘Thirst’

Mike Flanagan and Park Chan-wook take the same idea — what if a priest was doing more than drinking the blood of Christ? — and spin strikingly different meditations on religion, faith, and morality out of it.

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So you’ve finished Midnight Mass, Mike Flanagan’s buzzy new Netflix miniseries. The show’s striking combination of religious, cult, and monster horror captivated you. You appreciated how the show provocatively raised questions about the intersections and disjunctures between religion, faith, and morality. Most of all, you were mesmerized by Father Paul (a magnetic Hamish Linklater), the hubristic and, it turns out, vampiric priest at the heart of the series’ tragedy. You reached the end of the final episode, and Netflix’s algorithm auto-generated a “watch next” recommendation. The app tried to make you watch Squid Game, but that’s not what you’re in the mood for. You want a companion piece to Midnight Mass, something that will scratch the religious vampire horror itch you didn’t know you had before Mike Flanagan showed you how great the combination could be. That’s not Squid Game, but you don’t have to leave South Korea to find just the ticket. Park Chan-wook’s 2009 vampire film, Thirst, has been my go-to recommendation for anyone looking for a chaser to Flanagan’s latest.

Attempting to describe the plot of Thirst sounds like the beginning of a joke, the set up to a punchline. “So, there’s this priest, right? He participates in a medical trial, and he accidentally gets turned into a vampire. Suddenly he can’t resist his urges to do two things priests are forbidden from doing: having sex and committing murder.” In Park Chan-wook’s hands, the whole affair is, indeed, a bit of a pitch-black comedy. As Sang-hyun (Song Kang-ho), the aforementioned priest in the film, feels out the contours of his new, vampiric existence, he repeatedly struggles and fails to abide by the moral and religious codes he followed as a human. The futility of the priest’s endeavors to fit the reality of his new life into the ethical strictures of his old one does become somewhat of a joke after a while. His attempt to be a “good” vampire is co(s)mically ill-fated.

The comparison might strike some as facile, but Midnight Mass and Thirst make an intriguing double feature beyond the obvious similarity. Both works are the creations of contemporary horror auteurs with singular styles and trademark thematic concerns, and each director takes the same idea — what if a priest got turned into a vampire? — and spins something uniquely thought-provoking out of it. Midnight Mass and Thirst, while wildly different in tone and approach, both engage seriously with questions of what it means to be righteous. They make a stimulating double feature because they don’t come to the same conclusion, even as their endings mirror each other in surprisingly exact ways.

As practicing Catholic priests, Sang-hyun and Father Paul are both deeply religious. They have faith in their Christian God, and they believe that the doctrines of the church reflect God’s truth and provide correct moral instruction. Each priest positions his vampirism differently in relation to his religious faith and sense of morality, however. Father Paul becomes convinced that his vampire blood is a gift from God that he is compelled to share, while Sang-hyun sees his vampirism as a curse that drives him further away from God. Both Father Paul and Sang-hyun conceive of their vampirism in ways that fit within their chosen frameworks of faith; Midnight Mass explores the corrupt reasoning of the evangelist, while Thirst tests the doomed logic of the martyr.

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In Midnight Mass, Father Paul experiences his vampiric conversion as a miracle. Monsignor Pruitt, the elderly and dementia-impaired priest from the tiny town of Crockett Island, goes on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. He gets lost in the middle of a sandstorm, and he takes refuge in a cave where he encounters a terrifying “angel.” This angel shares its blood with Monsignor Pruitt, and the priest finds himself suddenly young again, his youthful body and mind restored. Monsignor Pruitt renames himself “Father Paul” and returns to Crockett Island, angel in tow, posing as a newcomer to town in order to avoid questions. 

Father Paul wants so badly to be able to accept the angel’s “gift” as something unequivocally positive that he looks for ways to understand his vampirism as a biblically foretold blessing. He and his eventual acolyte Bev Keane (Samantha Sloyan, giving us a terrifying Church Lady for the ages) cherry-pick passages from the Bible to explain the supernatural power of the angel’s blood and to explain the priest’s extraordinary de-aging. Father Paul conflates his physical rebirth with a spiritual one, and he strongly believes that the other residents of Crockett Island should benefit from the angel’s healing powers as he has. Not only does Father Paul feel he is doing the Lord’s work by curing the residents of Crockett Island of their physical maladies, but he also, somewhat shrewdly, understands that witnessing real-life miracles will bring more worshipers to church and revitalize the island’s community of faith.

Although Sang-hyun doesn’t use his religion to falsely sanctify his vampiric impulses, like Father Paul and Bev Keane do, he does, ultimately, understand the evil of his vampiric state as justification to martyr himself in accordance with his faith. It’s implied that Sang-hyun has wanted to die for a while. He signed up for the medical trial in the first place, to be infected with a deadly virus and take an experimental vaccine, perhaps because of the high probability that he might die doing so. When Sang-hyun first discovers his need to drink blood, he immediately (and ineffectively) throws himself out of a window.

When Sang-hyun gives into his vampiric urges — for sex and for blood — he punishes himself for it. Just as Father Paul cannot make sense of his vampirism as anything other than a blessing, Sang-hyun is not able to make sense of his vampirism as anything other than an affliction. One could argue that Sang-hyun has the right end of the stick here, and that he, ultimately, does the noble thing by distancing himself from the church and exposing himself to the sun at the end of the film. This read aligns Sang-hyun with Riley Flynn (Zach Gilford) in Midnight Mass, an atheist who nevertheless has a strong moral compass and who immediately knows he does not want to be one of Father Paul’s chosen vampires. I’m not so sure that Park Chan-wook invests his priest with such moral authority, however. Sang-hyun, in his quest to die for God, might also be fanatically misguided, albeit in a different way from Father Paul.

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Until Father Paul has actually set off the vampire apocalypse, he seems to have no doubts about the moral rightness of his course of action. The priest excuses away every red flag. He even assigns his vampiric bloodlust, which should be the biggest red flag of all, a sacred purpose; Father Paul concludes that God is equipping him to lead a holy army of sorts, to vanquish nonbelievers. He’s emboldened by the power and possibility of his supernatural power and unable to see how horribly he has miscalculated the consequences of using it. He’s also incapable of facing his own, decidedly worldly motivations for sharing the angel’s blood until it’s too late, and he’s set the island on a course of destruction.

Father Paul finally snaps out of his delusion when he’s confronted with the horrifying reality of the orgy of violence he’s begun. When forced to reckon with the deaths he’s caused, he realizes that there’s no way his plan could have been God’s plan. Midnight Mass proposes, in Mike Flanagan’s typical humanistic fashion, that the most reliable moral code is instinctual. There is an absolute morality in the world of Midnight Mass, and it’s a very human one: do no harm to another person. The most moral characters throughout the series subscribe to different religious beliefs and have varying levels of faith in a higher power, but they all understand that what Father Paul and Bev Keane are doing is wrong because they know that any path that involves killing another human being cannot be good. Father Paul’s gravest error is ignoring that simplest of moral instructions in favor of his baroque religiosity.

It is precisely Sang-hyun’s inability to let go of moral absolutes that sets him on a course to martyrdom, however. Thirst suggests that the animal urges that Sang-hyun can no longer ignore when he becomes a vampire might merely be amplified versions of the human urges that he routinely denied as a priest. Sang-hyun categorizes these base desires as evil because he’s internalized the idea that human nature is sinful. He can’t see the possibility that trying to deny his true nature (human or vampiric) is a losing game, and he never stops fighting himself long enough to find freedom or joy in his new existence. Park offers up some truly ridiculous images that undercut the supposed nobility of Sang-hyun’s reluctance to accept the reality of his vampiric existence; a particular shot of Sang-hyun sheepishly drinking blood from a coma victim, using an IV line as a straw to take the patient’s blood without killing him, comes to mind here.

Tae-ju (a film-stealing Kim Ok-bin), Sang-hyun’s eventual lover, works as a foil for the priest and asks the viewer to flirt with moral relativism. Tae-ju is godless, faithless, and amoral; she’s been mistreated all of her life, and she’s out for revenge. She sees in Sang-hyun an opportunity for freedom from her miserable existence. She manipulates her new lover into killing her husband and, eventually, turning her into a vampire. Tae-ju, in stark contrast to Sang-hyun, fully enjoys her new vampiric powers and feels no qualms about murdering humans to satisfy her bloodlust. She effortlessly embraces her vampiric nature, and Tae-ju, as out of control as she may be, makes being a vampire look like at least a little bit of fun. When she’s lived her whole life subservient to others, it’s no wonder that she takes advantage of the power she’s given.

Tae-ju is, ultimately, Sang-hyun’s downfall. All of the truly unforgivable acts that Sang-hyun commits over the course of the film, he does for or because of Tae-ju. When Sang-hyun decides that he cannot live a moral life as a vampire and that his religious beliefs require him to kill himself, he drags Tae-ju with him. When he realizes that he cannot save her the way he imagined he could, he imposes his absolute, religious morality onto her in the most dramatic way possible. Tae-ju, who has never claimed to live by the same morals or hold the same beliefs as her lover, fights to save them both from the ending that Sang-hyun has decided is inevitable. As Sang-hyun and Tae-ju burn in the light of the rising sun, the priest stays stoically silent while his lover screams. Park doesn’t quite let Sang-hyun’s decision feel righteous. 

The ending of Midnight Mass, while profoundly tragic, arrives on a different note. Every member of Father Paul’s church who took the priest’s invitation to be reborn as a vampire realizes the terrible mistake they have made. They all recognize their part in the awful bloodbath unleashed on their island by Father Paul. The vampires of Crockett Island face the sunrise, singing “Nearer My God to Thee,” communally accepting the earthly judgment they know they deserve.

Through their respective tales of vampiric priests, both Midnight Mass and Thirst thoughtfully explore the question of what it means to live morally and how religious belief can aid or hinder that basic pursuit in equal measure. Oh, and there’s blood. So much blood.

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