October 7, 2022 3:01 AM EDT

Some successful horror auteurs spend their entire careers recycling the same tropes, but Mike Flanagan prefers to push himself. The creator of an annual fall miniseries for Netflix, along with an impressive list of big-screen chillers, he’s taken on the difficult tasks of adapting Stephen King in the features Gerald’s Game and Doctor Sleep; Shirley Jackson in his first TV show for the streamer, The Haunting of Hill House; and Henry James in the follow-up, The Haunting of Bly Manor. Last year’s Halloween treat, Midnight Mass, was a jaw-dropping original story of Catholicism gone wild in a tiny island community—and the highlight of Flanagan’s filmography.

His latest project, The Midnight Club, a collaboration with co-creator Leah Fong that hits Netflix on Oct. 7, presents a different kind of challenge. Adapted from the novel by YA-horror eminence Christopher Pike and set in 1994, the same year the book was published, the 10-episode series unfolds at a hospice for teenagers with terminal illnesses. It’s certainly a disturbing setup; what’s more frightening, especially at age 16 or 18, than having to face your own imminent death? But even in the context of fiction, it can be tough to wring spooky thrills out of such realistic tragedy without verging into crass pain porn or emotional manipulation. Which might explain why the show came out so bland and unfocused.

The story opens with the arrival at Brightcliffe—a small, homey hospice with the requisite mysterious backstory—of a young woman who refuses to accept her prognosis. Despite claiming that she just wants to live out her days with peers who understand what she’s going through, the bright, ambitious, desperately optimistic Ilonka (Iman Benson) has actually come to Brightcliffe because she read about a patient, decades ago, who had the same cancer diagnosis as Ilonka and went home cured. Laden with DIY herbal remedies and determined to uncover the source of the hospice’s supposed healing powers, her quest immediately puts her at odds with its concerned but distant founder, Dr. Georgina Stanton (Heather Langenkamp).

From left: Iman Benson as Ilonka, Ruth Codd as Anya, Igby Rigney as Kevin in <i>The Midnight Club. </i> (Eike Schroter—Netflix)
From left: Iman Benson as Ilonka, Ruth Codd as Anya, Igby Rigney as Kevin in The Midnight Club.
Eike Schroter—Netflix

While poking around, Ilonka stumbles upon another Brightcliffe secret: the Midnight Club. At the appointed hour each night, the residents sneak into the hospice’s darkened library, light a fire in the fireplace, sip purloined wine out of mugs (even as they acknowledge that the alcohol might interact with their many medications), and tell scary stories. Each member promises that if they’re the next in the group to die, their spirit will return to Midnight Club with a sign from the hereafter. But so far, the teens have yet to observe any significant paranormal activity.

Lovable as they are, and despite solid performances from the young cast, these characters are mostly one-dimensional. Ilonka’s love interest, Kevin (Igby Rigney), is a dutiful, all-American boy who’s putting on a brave face for his family and a girlfriend with whom he no longer has much in common. Amish (Sauriyan Sapkota) is the sweet video-game geek, Natsuki (Aya Furukawa) the depressive artist, Cheri (the mononymic Adia) the daughter of privilege, whose parents send gifts in lieu of visiting. Spence (Chris Sumpter) is the AIDS patient who’s been rejected by his religious family, and Sandra (Annarah Cymone) is his easily scandalized, super-Christian foil.

The only real standout, thanks largely to an astounding, layered portrayal by newcomer Ruth Codd, is Ilonka’s roommate Anya. A foulmouthed Irish girl living with a leg amputation, Anya greets her new companion’s positive thinking with a flood of pessimism. But she’s fiercely devoted to her fellow Brightcliffe residents; like many of the characters, she feels that they’re the only people in the world who truly care about her. And the stories she tells at Midnight Club hint at the crushed dreams and broken friendships that have turned her into such a bitter person.

From left: Adia, Igby Rigney, Annarah Cymone, Iman Benson, Aya Furukawa, Ruth Codd, Sauriyan Sapkota, Chris Sumpter in <i>The Midnight Club</i> (Eike Schroter—Netflix)
From left: Adia, Igby Rigney, Annarah Cymone, Iman Benson, Aya Furukawa, Ruth Codd, Sauriyan Sapkota, Chris Sumpter in The Midnight Club
Eike Schroter—Netflix

About those stories: They’re mini-adaptations of other Pike novels, in halfheartedly reproduced styles that range from noir to slasher, cast with actors from the show’s main cast in a way that, at least in some cases, seems meant to reflect the teller’s unspoken feelings toward the actor’s primary character. Flanagan and Fong devote an enormous amount of time in each episode, and outsource many scares and much character development, to these vignettes. It’s easy to see why. No one wants to watch terminally ill kids get sliced and diced, or even mildly harassed. So the bloodiest, goriest, most nihilistic violence—the stuff that qualifies The Midnight Club for the horror genre—has to take place outside the central narrative. It throws the show off balance.

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That’s unfortunate, because after a slow start, the script offers frequent glimpses of the more cohesive, thematically profound series I wish we’d gotten. Brightcliffe is a crucible of conflicting attitudes toward mortality, posterity, and the future. It raises the impossible question of how best to spend the months before an untimely death. Do you put on a brave face for the sake of the people who will soon mourn you, or do you live honestly and for yourself? Fight to survive a bit longer or savor the present? Indulge in denial or try to make peace with an uncaring cosmos?

Heightening the emotional realism of horror scenarios is kind of Flanagan’s thing, and this premise could have played to his strengths, if only he hadn’t been too distracted by gimmicky plot elements to refine his story lines and too reverent of his ailing characters to plumb their darkest depths. Instead, these problems magnify the more consistent, often easy-to-overlook shortcomings of Flanagan’s work, from uneven pacing to stilted, speechifying dialogue. The Midnight Club isn’t the worst imaginable adaptation of Pike’s minefield of a book; there’s a version of the show that might’ve been downright offensive. But it’s no page-turner either.

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