In horror circles, Hereditary was a really big deal. A masterpiece to many, which attracted comparisons to The Exorcist, it sparked debates about ‘hype’, set a new bar for pure anxiety-inducing modern horror cinema, and took a healthy $80 million worldwide (off a budget of around $10 mill).
Love it or hate it, it was an undeniably explosive debut that put director Ari Aster instantly on the map.
Now just a year later comes his follow up, a folk horror in the spirit of The Wicker Man, which sees a group of American students visit a rural Swedish commune during the town’s special midsummer celebrations. It’s gorgeous, inventive, shocking and effective with a tremendous central performance from Florence Pugh. Okay, it doesn’t quite reach the heights – or plunge the depths – of Hereditary, but Midsommar cements Aster as one of the most exciting and disturbing voices in horror cinema today.
Midsommar is never more disturbing than in the pre-credit sequence, which begins with an unimaginably horrible tragedy that will shape the life of our protagonist, Pugh’s Dani, forever. It’s a tough, unflinching start that immediately puts the viewer on unsafe ground, so it’s almost with some relief that the action moves to a Swedish idyll.
Dani’s dating Christian (Jack Reynor), an anthropology student who’d been toying with breaking up with her. Instead, she’s roped into a trip to the region of Hårga, with Christian’s friends Josh (The Good Place’s William Jackson Harper), Mark (Will Poulter) and Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), whose home town it is.
In Hårga the smiling locals appear beatific, dressed in handmade ceremonial wear designed for the celebrations that take place over nine days in a time of almost constant daylight. It’s a bold move to set a horror movie in the unrelenting sunlight against a backdrop of extreme natural beauty. But with Hereditary cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski, Aster makes the landscape seductive, terrifying and strange, part of a picturesque but inexorable descent into hell.
At times the effect is almost magical – Dani and the others take some mushrooms early on and her bad trip takes us on a journey that feels like we’re crossing over into another world, a brightly coloured land of dreams, drugs and love potions. Later the camera seems drunk as flowers have their own heartbeat, the trees ooze and swell, and faces distort and pulsate. Whether this is euphoria or the worst kind of drunken nightmare isn’t always clear.
Though Midsommar is deliberately distressing, it is tonally much lighter than Hereditary, swapping that movie’s relentless escalating anguish with a little more softness and shade, albeit always punctuated by something unimaginably horrific at regular intervals. Midsommar is quite funny even when it’s grotesque, and although there are some particularly nasty shock scenes throughout, you almost have to take your hat off to Aster for his grim imagination.
Though the broad trajectory of Midsommar isn’t really surprising, it’s a rewarding journey nonetheless. Themes of town versus country, tradition versus change, faith versus science skirt the peripheries, but this is Dani’s story and it’s a far more personal one than the folk horror trappings might suggest.
Aster is preoccupied with grief and Dani’s weighs heavy throughout, with Pugh’s raw, authentic performance captivating from the outset. It’s a break-up movie, too, and themes of family, shared pain and female solidarity play a part, though there’s so much going on it’s not always easy to unpick.
Midsommar is a rewarding journey, but it’s long at 140 minutes and it sometimes meanders. It’s unfocused perhaps, though it’s never less than engaging even when it’s leading us on a (not entirely) merry dance. So no, Midsommar isn’t the greatest folk horror since The Wicker Man. But it is an impressive and unsettling vision you won’t forget for many summers to come.