Midsommar ★★

I know I harp on a lot about length and say that a horror film shouldn't be much longer than 90 minutes and yes, there are exceptions and yes, I sometimes say it for comic effect but I do believe there are some real challenges with producing long horror films. They have to be EXCEPTIONAL. However, rather than go over all that again, Midsommar got me thinking that one issue I have with making a 147 MINUTE horror film is that it makes a STATEMENT. It tells you that it believes it has a good reason to keep you watching for nearly twice the length of your average horror film and in Midsommar's case, it really doesn't. Especially given that it's a retread of a film that did it far, far better in just 100 minutes, some 45 years ago...

Dani (Florence Pugh), her fuck-off-you-are-too-aptly-named-and-its-neither-big-nor-clever boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) and his mates get invited to Sweden for a folk festival held in a closed community, thanks to their creepy Swedish buddy from university (Vilhelm Blomgren). Dani, however, has a very Ari Aster style problem in that her sister recently committed not just suicide, but double homicide too by gassing their parents along with herself. Dani, coping as best she can with both this horrific level of grief and the textbook awful boyfriend behaviour of Christian, makes a slew of bad decisions like taking psychedelic mushrooms, and soon realises she's maybe in the worst possible place for her when one of the festival's main attractions is a ritual suicide. Still, her friends are all such assholes, wrapped up in their own petty shit, that no one does anything about this and, what a surprise, the Swedish festival is actually a creepy cult thing. Because, obviously. What I've learned from movies is that Trash Americans can't visit Europe without getting killed by some shady organisation or other.

There's a lot of Ari Aster's favourite things in this, as he goes over similar ground to Hereditary in terms of style, themes and scenes that broadly do the same thing. He has a style and I can't begrudge him that - it feels personal, even if I don't think he's a person I'd ever want to particularly sit down and have a conversation with. He loves people gurning and screaming, ad nauseum. He loves what the BBFC call "strong injury detail". He really wants to tell you that being on drugs at a point where you need to have your wits about you is HORRIBLE. He likes his main characters to be dealing with unimaginable sadnesses... etc, etc, etc.

Where Midsommar is marginally less annoying than Hereditary is, well, firstly it doesn't have Toni Collette hamming it up all over the place. And secondly, it embraces its humour. If Ari Aster's good at anything, it's comedy. The dialogue is frequently funny and putting its characters in situations as absurd as it does sometimes generates laughs although they do become a little strained as the runtime stretches ever longer...

Where the film fails is every time he tries horror. Essentially, it's like watching Wes Anderson or someone try to make a horror film and just having no idea what he's doing. The most intense horror in Aster's films comes from the horror of everyday social anxiety. He brings this to life vividly here with Dani (and gets a wonderfully jittery performance out of Florence Pugh) and her constant apologising and submission to peer pressure is both familiar and stressful to watch. But, as a horror fan, I don't watch horror films to see literal depictions of real life social awkwardness (and there's a LOT of that here). When Aster throws in the gore (and there is some very explicit gore here) and traditional horror sequences, they're awful, clunky, derivative and all over the place. He flagrantly steals one scene from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre with little logic or reason as to why (beyond saying "hey, look kids, I've seen some cool movies from the 70s and I can reference them - also please note how, like TCM, my horror film is mostly set in blazing sunlight - did you see what I did there? Please write a 1000 word essay about my references and what they meaaaaan"). The more 'creative' gore scenes, again, show little real logic as to why anyone would go to such elaborate lengths beyond just "it looks gross and twisted". I'm all for gratuitous gore like that but this felt curiously joyless and REALLY badly sandwiched into a plot that didn't call for it at all and it jarred with the tone of the movie.

That is, unless I'm missing some deep occult signifiance somewhere? Although from the theological elements I *did* pick up, Aster is playing with folkloric symbols and rites in a very loose way, mashing up a whole bunch of disparate pre-Christian religions to create the Harga's sketchy, mostly-because-it-looks-cool belief system. Which is fine if you're watching an exploitation movie about a cult whose focus is on thrills. But if there's one thing I think every viewer of this film could agree with, Midsommar's focus is not on thrills... Yet it's also not on any discernible substance? Which leaves it stuck in the middle of horror and arthouse in a place that just feels aimless.

Stuff like the Runes - which, to anyone with a vague familiarity with the Elder Futhark (and I'm no expert), signpost things that are coming - just felt like a way of saying "look what I did there" and throwing a bone to an audience who, rather than wanting to be shocked, apparently just want to feel clever. Midsommar is full of what irritating film websites call "easter eggs". I dunno. Maybe I'm too old but I find no satisfaction in being shown something blindingly obvious and then later being shown that said obvious thing has indeed turned into the thing you thought it would.

And (some spoilers in this paragraph but honestly if you haven't already worked out what film this is similar to then I'm guessing you won't have seen it or have any idea what I'm talking about anyway?) that's the very worst thing about Midsommar. It kept me interested throughout the first half because I was thinking "where will this go?" but slowly, with the grim inevitability of everything that ever happens in an Ari Aster film, I realised that, oh no. This is literally just The Wicker Man. I mean, there are references GALORE but I guess I thought, since Anthony Schaffer isn't actually credited anywhere, surely they must be going somewhere else with this story? But no. The blindingly obvious references turn into the thing you think they will.

And it's a shame because comparisons to that masterpiece are somewhat unfavourable. For a film about ritual, like I say, Midsommar builds itself largely on cinematic reference whereas The Wicker Man's story itself is so carefully constructed within the framework of its characters' religions to make itself feel genuinely ritualistic. Of course it's not just great in terms of how it cleverly, unpredictably uses magick to build its story but even in a more traditional storytelling sense. Howie as a protagonist makes sense because he is opposed to everything the people of Summerisle stand for. The film becomes an idealogical war between Howie and Lord Summerisle that ends with a shocking but morally ambiguous scene. It makes you examine both of their belief systems and think about faith. Here, the addition of the tremendous sadism makes it difficult to really consider the Harga has anything beyond cartoon bad guys even if the final twist wants you to consider otherwise (and, yes, Christian is obviously the worst because the real monsters are us, yadda yadda yadda)... It feels confused and a little empty.

As a 90 minute black comedy, Midsommar would've been more effective for me because it would've given me less time to take in how preposterous its plot was (a short sharp shock lets you suspend disbelief much easier) and just enjoy it for what it was. At 147 minutes, it gives itself a gravitas that - by taking up so much of your time - forces you to expect better than just a slow, vapid retread of a far, far better film. I love horror because it surprises me, it throws things at me I've never even imagined, let alone seen, before, and Midsommar has no surprises whatsoever.

(Also LOL @ me for complaining about length and then writing this massive fucking post.)

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