Midsommar ★★★★½

Christian: I think I ate her public hair.

“They mostly come at night, mostly.” So says frightened child Newt to Ellen Ripley on LV-426 in the opening act of James Cameron’s Aliens. The “they” to which she refers are the xenomorphic namesakes of the title, whose lone figure in the first Alien film was enough to dissuade a generation of the wonders of space travel and puncture the airlock on the fantastical promise of George Lucas’s space opera. And she’s not wrong is she? They do mostly come at night, and not just the xenomorphs either. Freddy creeps into the dreams of sleeping children whilst Jason prowls the perimeter of Camp Crystal Lake in the dusk; Michael Myers slashes in the sundown hours of Halloween whilst Pazuzu’s demonic powers burst forth in the witching hour. Killers on the loose and the radio tells us not to go out at night, and it’s always who you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley, never who you wouldn’t want to meet in the light of day. Ari Aster’s first film, last year’s divisive demonological nightmare Hereditary, had audiences suspicious and scared of their own homes, the camera lingering in the low light of the Graham family home, inviting us to dread every nook and cranny over which a shadow was cast, literalising the sub-genre of ‘domestic horror’ to the extent where the house itself became its most horrific promise of terror. 

For whatever reason, of which there are surely countless possibilities, we find ourselves innately inclined to fear the darkness and seek the light in cinema, to feel safe under the sun’s warming glow and anxious the moment the UV levels have dropped. For this reason, very few horrors have made a successful name for themselves under the premise of sunshine and rural climes. But also, for this very reason, horror has somewhat stagnated - when the scary stories are all told in the dark for so long, we become acclimatised to how they’re bound to end, and suddenly the spooks don’t spook so hard anymore. The Nun did all its dark deeds in shadow and nighttime visits to the graveyard and the crypt, whilst the whole of The Conjuring universe’s bread and butter is comprised of the quiet-dark-bang jumpscare formula executed to varying levels from outright mediocrity to expected but well executed heartbeat raisers. We find ourselves then at the crossroads between humanity’s primal fear of the dark, and humanity’s even greater fear (especially in the Social Media Age) of repetition. How do you diversify horror when many of its best tales have already been told?

Well, we may look back to Tobe Hooper’s 1974 gory and gloriously sunny opus The Texas Chainsaw Massacre for a foundation. Set on a sunny summer’s day in Texas, Hooper set up one of the most chilling horrors of all time by simply daring to do the unthinkable - he gave viewers the perfect day. The music blaring, sun beaming, friends chatting and the promise of adventure. It all started out so innocuously uneventful, and in the sunkissed glow all was well. Hooper holds onto the light for long enough to make it become a source of anxiety, just long enough so that you wish Sally and her friends would take their glorious midsummer day’s escapade elsewhere, just long enough so that that amber hue passes from sunkissed and picturesque to grimy and sickly. Watching Texas Chainsaw confronted me with the realisation that we could die at any time, even on the most beautiful day, and since then I’ve been convinced that true horror comes from the height of pleasure in convalescence with the inexplicable blunt force trauma of grim coincidence, not from the creepy doll in the corner of the haunted house or the slasher in the woods at night. Horror doesn’t operate on a timescale, it dissolves all sense of time.

Ari Aster’s Midsommar then is the perfect breeding ground for horrors hitherto forgotten by the mainstream cinemagoing masses, as 90% of the film takes place in the unrelenting sunshine of the Swedish rural commune of Harga, where the sun never sets and the festivities never end. Taking cues from the likes of Robin Hardy’s rural horror The Wicker Man and Michael Powell’s Black Narcissus, Midsommar capitalises on a lethal cocktail of xenophobic anxiety and the pursuit of multicultural enrichment to ensure that viewers will think twice before their Scandinavian pals invite them to partake in age-old ritualistic ceremonies.

The film’s thematic complexity is laid bare early on as anxious student Dani (Florence Pugh) tries to reach out to her suicidal bipolar sister whilst dealing with the fact her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) is clearly going to break up with her. In an almost excruciating close-up longtake of a dispassionate phone call in which Dani tries to hold it together whilst Christian just tries to get her off the phone, Aster shows us that at the heart of the film lies a desperate longing on Dani’s part for understanding - she wants Christian to show that he empathises with how she feels, wants him to feel how she feels, and this inculcates a longing that her experiences in Harga will certainly address in one way or another. The nosedive however comes at the moment where tragedy strikes Dani in the most cerebral and brutal of ways - think lamppost scene in Hereditary but twice as heartbreaking and twice as shocking. It is following this moment of abject emotional terror that Aster’s title cards come up, set to the hypnotic score of The Haxan Cloak, who do here for rural horror what Vangelis did for neo-noir dystopias.

Flash forward and Dani and Christian are still together, hanging by the twisted and frayed thread of duty, and bound for Sweden alongside thesis student Josh (William Jackson Harper playing Chidi from The Good Place again), sex-mad clear virgin stoner Mark (a typically brilliant Will Poulter), and Anthropology student Pelle (a disarming, dazzling eyed Vilhelm Blomgren). They’re jetting off to take part in Harga’s Midsommar, an event that only takes place once every ninety years. For Christian and Dani it stands to offer a haven from the storm brewing over their relationship and a place for Dani to either let her wounds open up wholly or heal; for Josh it is an opportunity to gather invaluable thesis research; for Mark it is a chance to get high and sample Sweden’s lovely ladies; and for Pelle, it’s just a great opportunity to show his friends an alternative way of life.

With white garmentation, flower crowns, and blue skies permanently in view, Harga plays the part of a hidden utopia perfectly, with Pawel Pogorzelski behind the camera demonstrating an almost documentarian sensibility in his evincing of sheer wonderment at the rural landscape - maybe heaven really is a place on Earth. But then again, if heaven is then by proxy hell must be too right - after all, was Lucifer not in league with the divine before he was sent to damnation? Whilst Harga is unremittingly beautiful, its arousal of suspicion comes early - whilst Dani is tripping on Shrooms she staggers past a maniacally cackling group of locals, locking herself in a hut only to open the door to the commune’s deformed runescribe, a product of purposeful inbreeding. There’s also the bear inexplicably trapped in a cage in the middle of the field - “What is that?” asks skeptic Connie, a Londoner invited with her fiancée Simon by a Swedish friend of theirs; “a bear in a cage” offers a Harga elder, both in a moment of comic deadpannery (one of mercifully many humorous staccato’s to punctuate and alleviate the dread) and unnerving mystery. And there’s the yellow pyramid temple to which, like Bluebeard’s west wing, nobody is permitted entrance. Throw in some odd runes and grotesque sexual tapestries, and all of a sudden the almighty Välkommen vibes give way to a deep-seated desire to be Välgoing.

What follows over the subsequent two hours is as hard to describe as I am unwilling to describe it. It is a marriage of ritual and resident evil (the phenomena, not the video game), a labyrinthine descent into folkloric tradition and humanity’s primal inclinations, housed under a searing exploration of grief and separation; Harga quickens the heart, but it is Florence Pugh’s Dani who steals it. Pugh’s unearthly caterwauls the catalyse the film create our bond with her, and her continual struggle to confront the loss of shape and feeling of being held guides her journey into the heart of darkness masquerading as light. In a narrative subsumed by notions of rebirth and the cyclical nature of life, Pugh’s performance as Dani represents what may yet become an all-time great, with the film’s final scenes rendering me simply dumbstruck and in awe of Aster’s audacity and Pugh’s characteristic intensity.

Whilst the supporting cast are somewhat recognisable archetypes that prop up the story moreso than propelling it, and whilst at almost 2 and a half hours Aster’s follow-up to the similarly slow-burning Hereditary threatens to outstay it’s welcome, Midsommar is nevertheless a fiercely original and utterly bewitching horror film. Combining quintessential horror iconography and imagery with wildly inventive cinematography and almost academically clinical cinematic precision, all grounded by a shattering central performance, Ari Aster has created a new wave of horror in which nowhere is safe and everywhere represents an opportunity to thrill and chill. 

They may mostly come at night, mostly, but by God you should see what they are capable of in the day.

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