In 2018, Ari Aster made his directorial debut by releasing Hereditary (2018) with A24. In 2019, he returned to A24 with a modern take on the ‘Folk Horror’ genre with Midsommar (2019). In Midsommar, Aster takes a group of privileged Americans and transplants them into the beautiful backdrop of the Swedish mountains. Here they would learn the ways and culture of a small enclave. It’s time for the 90 years Midsommar festival, and these young students have a front row ticket to see what it all really means. Unsurprisingly, this turns out poorly for many of them.
The Return of Folk Horror
Ari Aster chooses a completely new setting for his sophomore horror effort. Whereas Hereditary begins in darkness and becomes increasingly bleak as the movie goes on, it chooses the idyllic hills of the Swedish country side. Aster trades his demons for the cheerful, but eccentric people of the Hårga commune. Ari chooses the backdrop of “Folk Horror” to tell his tale. The style harkens back to the days of rural villagers held in the grip of their customs and their legends. It’s a sub-genre of horror that A24 dabbled in with Robert Eggers The Witch (2015).
Legend has it that film critic Rod Coopper coined the term “Folk Horror” when reviewing Piers Haggard’s The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971). The famous film The Wicker Man (1973), not only shares the Folk Horror moniker, but possesses an awful lot in common with Midsommar itself. The style of horror began to become so popular in fact, that British horror titan Hammer Productions began to adopt it for later films like Captain Kronos: Vampier Hunter (1974) and Vampire Circus (1972).
Finding Horror in Beauty
As Midsommar begins, Dani Ardour finds herself increasingly estranged from her cultural anthropologist boyfriend, Christian Hughes. The unthinkable happens when her sister kills herself and her family in a horrible act of murder-suicide. Here, Aster invokes some of the horrible imagery that made his debut film famous. The picture of Dani’s sister with a carbon monoxide hose duct taped to her face is as haunting as any you will likely see.
Unbeknownst to Dani, Christian had been planning on breaking up with her before he accepted an invitation from his Swedish friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) to study among the Hårga during their 90 year Midsommar festival. Feeling sorry for Dani, he reluctantly invites her to join.
Immediately, the darkness gives way to green mountain pastures and beautiful floral colors in the hills of rural Hälsingland, Sweden. The juxtaposition is both welcoming and jarring. The Hårga live perfect, peaceful lives, isolated from the complexities of modern life. They engages in art, community and ritual. The Hårga welcome the travelers with psychedelic mushrooms and the journey begins.
Enter the Hårga Olympic Diving Team
The Hårga’s culture revolves around the concept of the seasonal cycle of nature. They apply what they see in the world around them to their own humanity. For instance, a human-being is born in the Spring. They’ll live in Springtime carefree until the days of their sexual maturity, where they will advance into the Summer, their time of production and plenty. Soon, their lifecycle crosses into Autum as their virility begins to wane. Inevitably comes Winter, and rather than wither away in the twilight of their lives they participate in a ceremony called ättestupa.
Ari Aster quickly brings the film to a tipping point. As the Hårga gather in their robes for ättestupa, Dani and the world travelers gather at the bottom of a steep stone precipice. An elderly couple make their way to the top of the cliff face. After a few ritualistic words, they dive head first into the rocks below. Dani and her friends are mortified, but the horrors have just begun. Broken and bloody, the man wails in pain as the fall did not kill him. Quick to the scene, villagers arrive with giant wooden mallets to finish the job… gruesomely.
In a single scene, the innocence of the Hårga recedes from the light, leaving something more dark and sinister behind.
From here, things begin to unravel for the students. Slowly strange events and disappearances begin be noticed. In one scene, Mark (Will Poulter) makes the egregious mistake of pissing on the Ancestral Tree. Unknowingly, this also means that Mark urinated on the ashes of loved ones that had been deposited with the ash of the tree. The villagers express their anger, but it’s not until a beautiful maiden lures Mark away from dinner that we learn exactly how pissed off they were.
Breathtaking Cinematography And Set Design
Finding horror in beauty, Ari Aster paints a symphony of color and textured landscapes for Midsommar. Everything from the artwork of the Hårga, to the robes that they wear contribute to the profound beauty of the enclave. Aster further exemplifies the beauty of the culture through the outwardly peaceful nature of the commune, their customs and respect for the cycle of nature. Even in the throes of the cataclysmic ending, something beautiful shines through the darkness. Cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski’s presentation of Aster’s vision leaps off of the screen.
As the film build towards its climax, the Hårga must choose a May Queen in a ceremony that involves psychedelic dance around the maypole. Herein lies some of the most iconic imagery of the film. Shrouded in a technicolor gown of flowers, the May Queen becomes not only the most celebrated person in Hälsingland but also the arbiter of judgement for the final and most important ceremony of Midsommar.
Midsommar – Derivative But Masterful
Viewing both Midsommar and Hereditary within close succession, similarities immediately come to the forefront. Ari Aster’s fascination with symbols and sigils shows prominently in both films. He also reuses a triangle shaped building as a temple to a deity. Both films also confront deeply hidden and esoteric religious beliefs. Aster’s film contains the same pagan revelation as The Wicker Man, and could be considered a derivative work, but Aster’s eye for cinematic visuals easily elevate this film to something else.
Aster does recycle some of his own ideas, as well as the ideas of others. He weaves a thick tapestry of clues into the film. After viewing, the audience realizes that the entire experience provides roadmap to its own finale. In the moment, easily visible clues slip by one by one. Midsommar requires at least two complete viewings to fully appreciate.
Judged on its technical merits alone, Midsommar jumps off the screen. It provides such a stark contrast to the darkness of Hereditary it cleans the palate. Still while darkness dwells just beneath the surface of its beautiful backdrop.
Midsommar is another fantastic film by a burgeoning film director. A24 once again establishes itself a trendsetter in modern horror. With its thick plot, dazzling visuals and unsettling finale, horror fans need to know this film.
Midsommar (2019) - Ari Aster's Ode to Folk Horror - Malevolent Dark
Director: Ari Aster
Date Created: 1970-01-01 00:33
- Strong plot and cohesive developement
- Fantastic settings and backdrops
- Subtle and slow developing horror
- Slow development may turnoff some
- Dark movie with bright trappings