Hereditary (2018) turned a lot of heads for a few reasons, the first of which was probably a total sucker punch of a plot point that was tough for even the most jaded horror fans. Another was the way in which director Ari Aster slid back and forth between the visual language of independent drama and the surrealistic peaks of the character’s supernatural visions.
Midsommar is his follow-up to that breakthrough movie, and it is in many ways a thematic sequel. Fans of Aster’s work will cheer it, and those who are decidedly not fans will likely find their opinions unchanged.
Midsommar follows a group of academics whose friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) invites them to visit his very isolated home village in Sweden. Among them are Dani (Florence Pugh) and her estranged boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor); Dani is recovering from a family tragedy and kind of invites herself along on what was to be a dudes’ trip abroad, and Pelle is more than happy to accommodate the situation. Once they all arrive, they spend an idyllic shrooms-fueled evening together before making the hike to Hårga, Pelle’s remote village and the site of the midsummer festival the academics are seeking to experience and document. Under the influence of the drugs, Dani’s thin layer of “okayness” starts to crack just a tiny bit.
he next morning, after several hours in the forest and mountains of Sweden, the group emerges into a valley near a mountain lake and their destination. As you might expect, however, Hårga is not the quaint village lost in time that the tourism board might portray. To say much more would head into spoiler land, as this film gleefully exists to disrupt the assumptions the audience has about the troupe of academics and Hårga. But things get bad, things get worse, and, all throughout, things get very weird and very bloody.
The trailers for Midsommar make comparison to The Wicker Man (1973) obvious and intentional. On the surface, there are many similarities, what with its outsiders visiting a remote Euro-pagan cult—but in lieu of a full compare-and-contrast essay, I’ll just say there are some differences that go to the soul of this movie and make it more current and resonant than The Wicker Man is now. Simply said, while it is clear something is off on Summerisle from the get-go, it is more difficult to figure out what exactly is wrong in Hårga. The group of academics find their cultural appreciation pushed to the breaking point as they are confronted with challenge after challenge to their more modern ideas about community and human life. This tension between appearances and actions, between belief and practice, drives the horror deep and also lifts the tone of the film into the alienated surrealism of filmmakers like Alejandro Jodorowsky or Panos Cosmatos. As the drug influence dissipates, visual madness emerges and makes the unreality even more disturbing. It’s unnerving and effective, all the more so because of the bursts of absurd humor and quips as Christian and Dani’s relationship becomes more and more frayed.
As with Hereditary, fans of more traditional horror may find themselves a little too alienated from Midsommar. While there is plenty of gore and mayhem for those looking for a visceral story, the filmmakers were clearly aiming to shock on a deeper level than physical mutilation and bloodletting. This is a peculiar and welcome kind of psychological horror, an abstract monster that lurks in the shadows of consciousness, never fully understood and never really seen in total. This movie persuades you to dip a couple of toes into the dark lake of the endless and terrifying cosmic weird, suggesting you slide all the way in but never letting you step back onto the cold, twilit shore.