In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it.
Originally posted on Cinema76.
All this month, we are counting down the 31 best horror movies of the decade and taking a closer look at why each one earned a spot on our list!
4. Midsommar (dir. Ari Aster, 2019)
Much like Jordan Peele earlier this year, Ari Aster had his own big shoes to fill with his sophomore feature length film. After Hereditary was correctly regarded as a mini-masterpiece, we horror junkies were excited to see what the young filmmaker had in store for us next. Imagine our surprise/elation when it was announced that Midsommar, Aster’s second film, would be a sun-soaked The Wicker Man riff that doubles as a break-up film. Add to that the fact that, in its leanest state, Midsommar pushes 3 hours, and it’s all but confirmed that Ari Aster is exactly as insane as we all expected. But is his insanity the type that creates masterpieces, or is it the type that is so fueled by ego that his second film would be a sloppy disaster?
It’s no mystery now, months after the film AND its considerably longer director’s cut did well at the box office, that Midsommar is the former – a masterpiece made in record time by a truly inspired, and delightfully insane auteur. Of course my diagnosis is not of the clinical variety. No, it’s not that I believe Aster should be committed, it’s just that I know quite a few filmmakers, and I have seen the madness required to get even the lowest quality film made. So to make a supremely high quality film, one which is so steeped in detail, both in pre-production and post-production, and to do so in a year’s time, well, that’s just mental. Heroically insane, if you will.
Having already reviewed this film, I feel no need to dig in deep to the themes or the meanings behind any of the horrors contained within (although I will say that the director’s cut has cracked it open even wider since my review was published). What I’d like to talk about is the impeccable craft. Readers of this site know about the podcast I host called I Like to Movie Movie. The title of our show began as a goof, but ended up creating a term the illuminates exactly why I love film, and moreover, exactly why I love horror.
A “Movie Movie” as we have come to define it, is any film that uses the full breadth of the medium to tell its story. From the script to the direction to the sound to the lighting, no stone is left unturned in production, and this maximizes the impact of the film. When it comes to Movie Movies, no genre is more chock full of them than horror. Being that it’s a genre that must elicit an involuntary response from the viewer in order to be considered a success (fear), filmmakers must use every tool at their disposal in order to trick the viewer into feeling unsafe. At the same time, horror is classically under-budgeted, which results in filmmakers needing to get doubly crafty in order to pull off this cinematic trick.
Oftentimes, this craftiness opens doors to choices that the filmmaker would never have considered had they more resources to play with. Unfortunately, this also means that some filmmakers opt to make no choices in lieu of making the wrong one. With Midsommar, Ari Aster had more resources than many second time filmmakers, but was still limited by the scope of his story, and the time which he had to make it. The budget was more than most filmmakers can command so early in their careers, but it certainly wasn’t much either. Yet, even with these limitations in play, Midsommar doesn’t feel like a movie defined by them. No, this feels like a film made with every resource in the world, and all of the time to boot, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that Ari Aster is a director aware of his voice, and who is skilled at being a film technician.
The obvious comparison point for Midsommar is the aforementioned The Wicker Man, but beyond the notion that this is a folk-horror entry about outsiders meeting a cruel fate at the hands of a sunny cult, there’s little to go on. I’m more inclined to compare this to The Shining, due entirely to the way that, even if we ignore the story content, the film is designed to unsettle. The illogical architecture of the Overlook Hotel is mirrored here in the periphery of the setting. Sure, the geographic detail is so thorough that anyone who was paying attention could likely draw the entire community compound with considerable accuracy, but these same folks must ask whether or not what they’re seeing on screen is to be trusted. Since our surrogates are high on psilocybin (and an increasing variety of other, uh, folk-psychotropics), the borders of the screen are always breathing, as are many small elements within frame (savvy viewers can even find images hidden in the foliage). Even during sequences where our protagonists are relatively sober, different structures pop into view unexpectedly, a beverage will take a noticeably different color than those around it, or a nondescript group of background players will appear to be doing something just on the edge of suspicious.
The film also works to unsettle aurally. The score, by The Haxan Cloak, hinges upon a single melody, itself designed as an audio perversion of Florence Pugh’s grief stricken moans during the film’s opening horrors (listen to the score–the melody is literally a string version of her screams). Even as the melody grows brighter and more optimistic, it has an undercurrent of melancholy and menace which never fades and is never far from explicitly dropping back in with a vengeance.
Finally, the most compelling choice of all, comes from the lighting. By setting Midsommar during a season where this area of Sweden does not receive more than a few hours of darkness in any 24 hour period, we are witness to an inversion of typical horror imagery. Where most movies use darkness to trigger our inner animal’s survival instinct, preying upon the notion that beyond our field of vision lies something threatening, Midsommar instead leaves it all out in the open. The fear comes not from unknowing, but from doubt. Is it really okay to take a sip of this vaguely described tea? Is it really safe for me to follow your smile into the woods? It’s it really just a matter of culture clash when village elders begin to wantonly throw themselves off a cliff to their death?
Midsommar puts the audience into a situation where the only way out is to have never gone in in the first place. Just like the Overlook Hotel, our fate is sealed almost immediately upon entering, and it’s impossible to recognize this until death is at our doorstep. Where the cult of Midsommar might have the ghosts of the Overlook beat, is in the way they allow their victims to hold onto hope until the very end.
During the closing scene, volunteer martyrs from the cult are given a potion so that they may not feel the flames when burned in sacrifice. Yet as the fire licks their skin, they scream in agony. The potion was a lie. An empty comfort designed to keep the victim docile until it’s too late to run.