Midsommar (2019)

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Pagan cults in Horror filmmaking are one of those specific niches that very few people have nailed, there are only maybe two or three films which have remained staples in the canon whilst body horror or ghost stories have many variations. Pagan horror remains indebted to The Wicker Man (1973, Dir. Robin Hardy) and possibly Witchfinder General (1968, Dir. Michael Reeves). With Midsommar, Ari Aster and his cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski have created a vision of hell on earth bathed in sunshine and psychedelic imagery that will stick in the mind long past its first viewing.

Much like his last film Hereditary, Aster ties all the events of the film to a tragedy that happens in the first act and from there things spiral out into disturbingly strange territory. Dani (Florence Pugh) and her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) are on the rocks following this tragedy, and a trip to Sweden to visit one of Christian’s friends’ mysterious Swedish commune, and witness their Midsummer festival presents a chance for them to get away and possibly start afresh. This is of course a bad idea that we as viewers are intensely aware of as soon as we see the white robes and overly smiley faces of the members of the Hårga. I will let the film reveal the events that happen with the Hårga in Halsingland, as it is important to experience what they do first hand, just as the characters do. It is safe to say though that your initial impressions of these pagan oddballs are correct, and things go downhill quite drastically by the end of their trip.

Midsommar is an ambitiously long film running at over two and a half hours long, but the visuals alone were enough to carry the film to another plane for me. It is not a snappy, fast paced, shock a minute film, but this is clearly a conscious choice by Aster. He is ambitious in his focus on horror storytelling and has obviously set out to create a lethargic rhythm to the film which will draw you in and challenge you. The film is probably closer in tone to Gaspar Noe’s Climax (2018) than a conventional horror narrative. There is more story at play here, but the tone and pacing help mirror the disorientation of the central characters to you, pulling you in whilst not being sure what is happening.

The fact that you can stick with the film as easily as you can is in a large part in testament to the cinematography and vivid colour of the film. The film is beautiful at points, with Halsingland’s green grass and beaming blue sky contrasting with the creeping horror on screen. There has clearly been a concerted effort to make the experience of watching the film as visually pleasing as possible, despite many people in my screening having to look away when the Hårga really let rip in their pagan ceremonies. The natural beauty of the setting and the strangeness of the events which take place within it make the feeling of increasing dread even more palpable. A strange unease comes over you when you see such disturbing things happen in full daylight, Aster gives you nowhere to hide and you see every element of whatever horror he is showing you. There are multiple moments throughout the film where Aster employs the same dead eyed long shots of his characters going through hell that he used in Hereditary, not giving the viewer a chance to escape from the emotions within the scene. The film even harks back to Bergman at points; it’s hard to imagine a character being named Ingmar is unintentional. Think Wicker Man (the original obviously), mixed with Climax and maybe a little bit of the human angst in The Virgin Spring (1960, Dir. Ingmar Bergman) and this is quite close to what you get.

Leaving the film on first viewing I wasn’t quite sure what I made of it, however having sat with it in my head for a while now I can appreciate just how original an experience I felt it was. If you go into this film expecting to be terrified from beginning to end you could be pretty disappointed. The thrill for me came from Midsommar’s slowly unravelling sanity, until Aster finally releases the tension and the Hårga are shown for their true colours. Of course, there is much to be drawn in terms of meaning from the events on screen, especially about the film and its relation to theories about toxic masculinity and relationships in the modern world. However, for me I just really enjoyed the darkness Aster conjured in broad Swedish daylight, and the slowly building power of its images.

-Ed

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Midsommar (2019)

Hereditary (2018)

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‘This generations The Exorcist’. (1973, Dir. William Friedkin) This is the quote that the advertising campaign for Ari Aster’s debut feature Hereditary (2018) have pushed the hardest. Influences in horror films are all-pervasive and in some ways cannot be ignored. The tropes and clichés that the genre holds are always going to remind one of some other totemic example of the genre. However for me it is often the way these touch points are hit which ultimately makes a Horror film work or not. Does the film rely on clichés and tropes to produce an effect or does it create something new and instead stray into homage or use the ingredients of horror in a new or interesting way.

This is what you may have to think of after seeing Hereditary. The film is not completely original but does this not make it effective? Not at all. Having recently lost her mother, Annie (played by Toni Collette) is feeling distant and disconnected from her family. She makes miniature artworks portraying real life experiences in minute detail, however whilst she may be able to control her art her family is less stable. Her son, Peter is a stoner who doesn’t seem to care about much apart from his high school crush and when he’s going to be able to smoke the next bowl. Peter however has minimal issues however compared with Annie’s daughter Charlie played with a creepy level of detachment by Milly Shapiro. Charlie seems to be deeply affected by the loss of her Grandmother and it manifesting in strange ways. She skulks around, seeing things and making bizarre figures out of wires and bits of anything she can come across. Her quirks and disaffected presence on-screen make her unbearably disturbing at times even if she is actually not doing anything. Oh yeah and Gabriel Byrne plays the Dad, Steve who actually seems to be alright. Ultimately though this family is not in the most stable of moods when we meet them, and to say that things only get worse for the family is an understatement.

If you’re a fan of the basic horror stylings of James Wan or Blumhouse productions usual schlock then this may stray a bit too far for your liking. Aster isn’t interested in giving you jump scare after jump scare, instead he wants to develop and make you empathise fully with his characters. No one feels like they are acting in a way which is just set up for a death, which so often happens in modern horror. I have to give credit here to the two main leads with all of them doing stellar jobs, particularly Toni Collette who is given space to experience everything in a true gift of a role. Her full range is on display here and she really holds your attention tightly throughout every scene she is in. She both displays completely in control and recognisably sane to the complete opposite with an unnerving ease. Alex Wolff’s Peter is also excellent here giving his character a goofy charm in the opening scenes with him which only adds to the tragedy of what the plot has in store for him. You believe totally in the family and you can really appreciate the effort Aster puts into character in order to actually give the scares a pathos, especially as things start to spiral out of control in the films last movements.

Aster here is as confident a director in his first feature as I have ever seen, there was a variety and confidence in the cinematography and framing of the film that I never felt the visuals fell flat. A simple cut from day to night or a glance in the wing mirror is imbued with a palpable sense of dread. There is a lot to like in the film visually with bold and shocking moments being held on for just the right amount of time. There are some extremely bleak points in the films narrative and yet it never really strays into the misery porn you sometimes see in horror.

However this being said this is not the most original example of the genre and does take a lot from perhaps the two most totemic chillers of the 70s. Yes both The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby (1968, Dir. Roman Polanski) are written in capital letters on the walls at points in this film, this is not to say of course that it wasn’t done with style and panache but to say this is an original vision for horror like those two were in their day would be a lie. This is kind of what I love about this film though, I felt watching this like audiences surely would have when they watched those films in the cinema first time. Coming out of the film it felt like I had seen something which truly got under my skin and was going to live there for a long time, its little details living in my head every time I hear a particular sound or see something which will remind me of it. Hereditary is a film that genuinely freaked me out at points and made me excited to talk about it in a way that so few horror films give you the chance to, a truly nihilistic but very well made piece of genre filmmaking that leaves you wanting more from Ari Aster.

-Ed

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Hereditary (2018)