Ari Aster’s debut feature Hereditary was celebrated as if one had reinvented slice bread. I was skeptical but he was someone who had something interesting to say. He was able to articulate that interesting thing in Midsommar. The horror genre was being reinvented; a good thing but its not slice bread. The promotion materials made it look like it was a documentary on a trendy music festival. Coachella gone wrong? Indeed, it capitalized on the word of mouth (read: social media posts) of the millenial movie goer whose social etiquette includes not dishing out spoilers. It did not promise to be a scream fest, simply something you have to see for yourself.
The purely positive change from Hereditary to Midsommar, is that the latter has a lot of humor but jibes with the overall effect: young people on a European trip, smoking joints, and chilling. Real life is funny and scary. Its supposed to be like that if horror wants to be more realistic. In Hereditary, humor seems intended. While its natural to laugh when you see something weird, the humor disrupts that momentum of having a good scare.
The humor works better in Midsommar because it sticks to the basics. Nothing we haven’t seen before. Horror is after all, grounded on defamiliarization, either by dressing an ordinary setting in an extraordinary light or physically isolating characters; taking them away from their comfort zones. A group of young adults vacation together in an area away from the (normal) civilization. In this case to Sweden, where they plan to observe the extraordinary rites of an obscure Midsummer festival on the pretense of writing an ethnography. Getting high is part of the agenda. Immediately we see that the backwoods genre is reared differently, because it is not in a dark forest, but on a sunny meadows (rare darkness in interior scenes). No one is threatened by an inbred hillbilly. He is received ordinarily by crunchy bearded shamans and blonde beauties in innocent white dresses. There is nothing out place and yet the environment remains eerie and fragile. Turning the juice-drinking, organic-farming, new age commune that’s a bit like an Amish fellowship into an object of fear is an original achievement. Another one, is the creation of an atmospheric tension despite using the same plot devices. This has been done in several domestic horror movies like Rosemary’s Baby. It immerses you into reality rather than takes you out of it. As in Hereditary, the presence of trauma within the family is explored. The lead character is ambivalent about her need for psychological therapy and her escape from grief only leads her to more traumatizing and threatening circumstances.
The discomfort within the narrative is old hatred (as Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House). It translates well to the viewer who assumes that a threat exists but not everything is what they seem to be on screen. This makes the allegorical quality of the film more powerful and has become a trend in recent years. There is a allegory and there is also something metafictional. Something that has been absent in horror movies since the politically-backed slaughter films of the late 1960s and early 1970s (The Vietnam war was a real thing that needed processing in cinema). Nowadays we have an audience that talks about the history of the genre and demands a reflexive attitude from our filmmakers. Any horror movie created with even just a little ambition will certainly have it.
It is understandable that the the protagonists do not seem to be aware of the imminent danger, because one is not quite sure that this danger exists. But as involvement in the story grows, the danger becomes omnipresent. The characters of the tourists perceive only the obvious dangers and always too late. Their apathy towards each other does not help their pathetic attempts at escaping. It only reinforces what everyone already believes as soon as they step inside the commune: they are doomed. This schadenfreude for the misfortune that the characters go through turn out to be quite entertaining. Will Poulter is most endearing. His snide remarks not only serve as a comic relief but also comment on the cultural ignorance of the white male American tourist. (It feels like he is being punished for his role as a nasty racist cop in Detroit).
The surreality of daylight becomes all the more ironic when more foregrounding is given to us. Everything is known but why do we still fear? Is it the anticipation that something that is bound to happen might be worse in reality than imagined? One instance is the medieval picture stories of the Midsommar Festival which are carried out without deviation throughout a century of yearly rituals. The realization of the picture story happens in a magnificent banquet table. A simple camera angle shows us that the American tourist is given a slightly different liquid. This in your face story-telling is inline with the motif of showing it all but keeping the horror and mystery. But it’s quite demeaning, as if audiences cannot reconcile that something is going to happen even if it was hinted to happen three times in the movie.
In Hereditary it was often about subtle but powerful scenes but in Midsommar, Aster jumps between subtlety and nastiness, which stunts some potential of the film. But as a macabre fun horror with a subliminal wink to a personal break-up story–fair warning to anyone in a relationship with a horror film director–Midsommar becomes a two-hour emotional rollercoaster that reaches into our darkest fears in broad daylight.