Mike Flanagan’s long-awaited adaptation of The Midnight Club has finally made its way to Netflix. Geared at a slightly younger audience, the series is an adaptation of Christopher Pike‘s novel about five teenagers living out their final days at Brightcliffe Manor, a hospice for terminal youth. Each night they gather in the ornate library to tell scary stories, creating ghosts as they wait to become them. At just over 200 pages, the slim novel is a moving story of love, friendship, and death; perfect for Flanagan’s patented blend of sentimental horror.
True to form, the writer and director, along with co-creator Leah Fong, injected the original story with new characters, amplified plotlines, and extra moments of terror, expanding the narrative to deepen Pike’s original themes.
Pike’s version of Brightcliffe Manor is filled with many teenagers spending their final days in relative peace, but we only get to know five of them. In addition to Dr. Stanton (Heather Langenkamp), the hospice’s chief doctor, we meet Ilonka (Iman Benson), Kevin (Igby Rigney), Spencer (William Chris Sumpter), Anya (Ruth Codd), and Sandra (Annarah Cymone). Flanagan has dispensed with patients on the periphery, but added several new faces to the core cast. Natsuki (Aya Furukawa) represents our entry into the Midnight Club. Hers is the first story we’re treated to, a ridiculous jump scare factory that is both endearingly funny and allows us to get to know the other patients. She is also the first person to lose a roommate, patiently reading a story she’s working on outside the recovery room to her dying friend.
Aside from Ilonka, the newest resident is Amesh (Sauriyan Sapkota), a video game-obsessed kid with a good sense of humor determined to see his parents one more time before he dies. He helps Natsuki out of a major depression and she comforts him when his illness begins to progress. These two new characters demonstrate the range of emotions felt by each of the patients as they grieve for everything they’ve lost, but continue to move forward in support of each other.
The most enigmatic new patient at Brightcliffe is Cheri (Adia). The daughter of a famous actress and director, she’s been unceremoniously dropped off at the hospice by parents who never come to see her, only sending lavish gifts to show their love. She is a compulsive liar, embellishing the truth and seizing any opportunity to shock her friends. It’s difficult to know what parts of her story are truthful, but Cheri seems to best understand Midnight Club’s purpose. Determined to leave her mark on the world, she knows that in the end, all we are is the story of our life so we’d better make it a good one.
Ilonka is the newest resident of Brightcliffe manor. In Pike’s original novel, we meet her well into her stay, but Flanagan gives us a glimpse into the life she was leading before her diagnosis. On the night of her graduation she flirts with a cute college boy before noticing a spot of blood in her handkerchief. We then cut to a devastating diagnosis only remembered in the novel. Flashing through a year of treatment, we see Ilonka lose her hair, lose touch with her friends, defer her college plans, and finally overhear a terminal diagnosis from her doctor. It’s a sequence full of sorrow that reveals in painful detail how much the kids of Brightcliffe have left behind.
Despite her diagnosis, Ilonka is determined to live. While researching long-shot cures she stumbles upon the case of Julia Jayne (Larsen Thompson), a girl diagnosed with the same type of cancer who found a mysterious cure on the grounds of the hospice. She enrolls in Brightcliffe hoping for a piece of the magic. Pike’s version of Ilonka clings to hope with a special regimen of diet and herbs. She convinces Dr. Stanton to arrange a special test, hoping to prove her tumors have shrunk. When the results show that her terminal diagnosis is unchanged, Ilonka accepts her fate and decides to enjoy her last days. Flanagan’s Ilonka takes much longer to reach this point of acceptance. Encouraged by a naturopath named Shasta (Samantha Sloyan), she continuously searches the nearby woods for herbs and roots, hoping to find a natural cure on the hospice’s grounds.
Compared to most of Flanagan’s other titles, The Midnight Club is not very scary. Mainly dealing with the heartbreaking nature of death, the story is a tearjerker with many more moments of sorrow than terror. While the same could be said for Pike’s novel, Flanagan does still manage to wring out a few ghosts. While researching Brightcliffe, Ilonka has visions of a hideous woman staring at her with a vacant gaze. On the day she moves in, she sees this woman again, watching her from the hallway shadows. Occasionally she’s accompanied by the ghost of an elderly man and Ilonka sometimes finds herself pulled back in time to an era when the couple occupied the house. They are the original owners, Stanley Oscar Freelon and his wife, Vera, still haunting the home they built near the turn of the century.
Anya is also haunted by the grim specter of death. First appearing as a formless black cloud of smoke, this inky blob gains substance the closer Anya comes to passing away. She first notices it in her bathroom late one night. Hearing a noise in the room she knows is empty, she turns her head to see the silhouette of a human and is then shocked when it opens a pair of glowing black eyes. While sequestered in the recovery room on what will turn out to be her deathbed, Anya sees an inky black spot form on the ceiling. The phantom cries of a baby morph into a shadow of death as the ink transitions through the stages of life concluding with a skeleton that reaches toward out with bony claws. Neither of these specters are present in Pike’s novel, but their inclusion here helps to heighten the terror lurking just below the story’s surface. The members of the Midnight Club live everyday knowing that death is just around the corner and Flanagan’s visual representations help the audience remember as well.
Ilonka is drawn to Brightcliffe Manor by the haunting shadow of a girl who beat the odds, but while researching Julia’s story she also learns about a cult that once used Brightcliffe as a compound. In the 1940’s a woman named Regina Ballard (Katie Parker) formed a group known as the Paragon, dedicated to harnessing the powers of five Greek goddesses to reverse their illnesses and grant them immortality. Taking the name Aceso (the goddess of the healing process), she performed an elaborate healing ritual that required sacrificing the lives of four of her followers. Regina and her mysterious daughter are the only survivors and a flashback reveals that her magic ritual is what actually cured Julia’s cancer. The teenage girl tracked Regina down and convinced her to share her secrets. The two presumably performed the ritual during the week Julia went missing and concocted a story designed to keep questions at bay.
As the story unfolds, we learn that Shasta is in fact Julia, returned to Brightcliffe hoping to once again heal herself. She convinces Ilonka to perform Regina’s ritual under the guise that it will heal Ilonka’s cancer like it once healed Julia, but the frightening reality is that Ilonka has been Shasta’s pawn all along. Rather than the recipient of the ritual’s healing power, Ilonka will be one of the four sacrifices; her death traded for Shasta’s immortality. Dr. Stanton bursts into the basement chamber seconds before Ilonka drinks the poisoned tea, saving her life and revealing Shasta’s deception.
This story is entirely Flanagan and Fong’s creation, not even hinted at in Pike’s novel. While most likely an added plotline to extend the narrative, the Paragon Cult also amplifies the hope Ilonka clings to in refusing to accept her terminal diagnosis. When Ilonka first checks in, Dr. Stanton insists that each day she continues to live is a gift and that there’s nothing hopeless about ceasing to fight the inevitable. Flanagan seems to be arguing that the promise of an impossible cure actually robs Ilonka of peace in her final days. Like the four women who sacrifice their lives for a magical remedy, she is sacrificing what little life she still has fighting a futile battle.
Before the revelations about Shasta, the Midnight Club performs a variation of the ritual hoping to heal Anya. Rather than sacrifice their lives, they each give up a treasured possession, then honor Anya with a bit of their blood. Though Anya passes away shortly after, the power of this ritual is clear. It forever bonds the group together and allows them each to show Anya how much she means to them while she is still alive. They may not enjoy another turn of the hourglass like Regina’s ritual is intended to provide, but the time they spend honoring each other is worth more than an eternity spent wandering the woods for a cure that doesn’t exist.
Episode seven allows us to believe that Ilonka’s ritual to heal Anya has been successful. She awakens to a new life in which she has recovered and moved on from Brightcliffe. In a group therapy session, Anya rages about the fact that the ritual worked, but only for her. All the other characters we’ve grown to love are now dead and Anya is the only one left. While she’s grateful for her life, she can’t help but wonder about the unfairness of it all. As the events of Anya’s day begin to dovetail with stories told around the library table, we realize that this is only a dream. Anya has not been cured and is in fact closer to death than ever. She is actually laying in the recovery room listening to her friends tell stories over the intercom. While this may feel like a cruel bait and switch, it serves to highlight a devastating event only hinted at in Pike’s original story.
As rumors swirl about a false diagnosis, Sandra learns that she is not actually dying. Her test results were misread and her cancer is curable. Both versions of the story see her leave Brightcliffe to seek treatment and both versions mention the guilt she feels leaving her friends behind to die. But with Anya’s dream, Flanagan is able to fully explore the implications of this reversal from Sandra’s point of view. It’s only luck that she has gotten a second chance at life and her survival highlights the cruel twist of fate that will lead to the deaths of her friends. The fictional story we see Anya play out is likely what Sandra will experience on the other side of Brightcliffe.
Another addition to the cast is Mark (Zach Gilford), a nurse practitioner who assists Dr. Stanton with routine procedures. Kind and compassionate, he becomes a supportive ear for Spencer, the only resident not dying from cancer. Spencer is HIV positive. Pike’s novel treats his diagnosis as a shocking revelation in the final pages of the story. His version of Spencer has claimed to have a brain tumor, fearing that the other residents of the hospice would reject him if they knew the truth. Flanagan tells us about Spencer’s condition right away without the pretext of a fake diagnosis.
Everyone at the hospice is accepting and supportive of Spencer, not afraid that he will pass the virus to them. While performing medical procedures, Mark reassures Spencer that he is not in danger and tells him about patients who caught the disease through needles rather through sexual contact. The other members of the Midnight Club are fiercely protective of Spencer and do not even balk when the ritual to save Anya requires his blood. In Pike’s story, Ilonka is the only character who learns about Spencer’s true diagnosis, but she is equally supportive. Flanagan has updated this element of the story to reflect the world we live in today, leaving behind the stigma and hate that dominated the AIDS crisis of the 80s and 90s and limited Pike’s original story.
Flanagan does show the struggle for acceptance many members of the LGBTQIA+ community still face. Spencer has been abandoned by his family, with his religious mother in particular turning her back on him for what she believes is a life full of sin. Bolstered by encouragement from Cheri and Mark, Spencer confronts his mother, insisting that he loves her no matter what and simply asking for the same love in return. As a slightly older member of the queer community, Mark introduces Spencer to some of his friends, providing him with a night of normalcy and letting him know that there are people out there fighting for his rights when he is unable to fight for himself. Mark does not exist in Pike’s version of the story. Written nearly 30 years ago, simply including a character with HIV was considered progressive. Flanagan’s update continues this progressive stance and makes a clear statement about Spencer’s humanity and the vision of acceptance he hopes to see in the world.
By far the most significant change made to Pike’s original novel is the stories told at each meeting of the Midnight Club. Anya’s story of The Two Danas is the only tale faithful to the novel. Aside from Natsuki’s story of the screamer and Ilonka’s story about Julia Jayne, all the other tales are adaptations of other novels written by Pike. Kevin tells a version of The Wicked Heart, a multi-part slasher that explores his guilt over the effect his death will have on those he loves. Ilonka’s second story is Witch, a fitting tale for a girl obsessed with mystical powers. The story’s sacrificial conclusion is an eerie parallel to the Paragon’s ritual. Sandra tells a version of Gimme a Kiss as an apology of sorts to Spencer for her religion’s lack of tolerance. Amesh tells See You Later in an attempt to make peace with everything he will be leaving behind. Natsuki tells Road to Nowhere as a way of explaining her suicidal ideation. She shares this story with Amesh only, hoping to explain her reluctance to get closer to him and to show the power his love has had in her life. Spencer tells The Eternal Enemy, a sci-fi/action story that concludes with a moving reminder to himself that who he is is neither a crime nor a mistake.
Each story is performed by different members of the cast, highlighting their story’s arcs in poignant, but unpredictable ways. Multiple members of what is coming to be known as the Flanagan Family pop up in smaller roles, adding a fun bit of nostalgia, but keeping the story mainly with the teenage characters. With these stories unlikely to see their own adaptations any time soon, Flanagan’s choice to include them in this way feels like a love letter to the YA horror author and his massive body of work.